Separation-Related Behavior in Dogs

Aug 25 / Jennifer Thornburg
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Separation Anxiety looks like panic. It is.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a behavioral condition characterized by excessive distress or anxiety when a dog is separated from their attachment figure (their person) or left alone. Distress over being left alone is not always Separation Anxiety. A dog may suffer from mild distress to severe anxiety.
“Distress” indicates a lower intensity of stress behaviors when the dog is alone, while “anxiety” is an extreme panic attack. It may make sense to group all of these dogs under the label of having "Separation Anxiety” to make it easier to discuss them, but it’s nearly impossible to make definitive statements as this a continuum of behaviors. 

Separation Anxiety is a clinical term typically diagnosed by a veterinary behaviorist. Dogs suffering from Separation Anxiety experience extreme panic when left alone. They often display anxiety as soon as the owners prepare to leave. Many of these dogs seek a lot of physical contact and attention from their owners. This condition does not resolve on its own. 

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

  • pace and whine
  • pant and salivate 
  • bark or howl excessively
  • eliminate in the home despite being house trained
  • display destructive activity:
    • focused on owner's possessions
    • directed toward escape efforts such as chewing or clawing at or through doorframes, walls and windowsills
  • refuse to eat any food left out
  • self-mutilation such as flank sucking, forepaw licking, and lick granulomas
    escape efforts result in harm - broken teeth, lacerated paws, etc.
These behaviors usually begin either as the owners prepare to leave or shortly after departure. Although typically, the behavior occurs every time the owner leaves, in some cases, it may only happen on selected departures, such as workday departures, or when the owner leaves again after coming home from work. Dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress are typically very excited (usually for over a minute) when their owner returns. They may seem frantic!
  • boredom
  • lack of crate training
  • house-training issues 
  • opportunistic mischief
  • bad manners
  • demand barking
  • understimulation
  • lack of exercise
  • your dog getting back at you

Contributing Factors

We are not entirely sure what causes Separation Anxiety or how it develops. It's important to keep in mind that this is not set in stone. For example, not every puppy who left the litter early and was re-homed multiple times grows up to be a dog with Separation Anxiety.
  • Genetics. Other factors may be key to whether that programming pops up
  • Lack of experience being alone for a formative part of life
  • Lack of experience being alone for an extended period of adult life and THEN left longer than the dog can tolerate. Such as returning to work after a period of unemployment, a global pandemic, or after a summer break. (This causes a dog to sensitize to absences and creates distress.)
  • Poor nutrition and extreme stress on a pregnant dog can trigger hormonal changes that affect the offspring for life
  • Leaving the safety and warmth of littermates at too young of an age
  • Changes in the family’s makeup, such as a death, a birth, or a move
  • Traumatic separation, such as the sudden and extended separation from a family member (human or animal), being returned to a shelter or re-homing

Separation Anxiety FAQ

Will letting my dog "cry it out" cure Separation Related Stress?

Please don't do this. When we are looking at changing the way a dog feels about a scary situation (in this case, being alone), we need to ensure that we are only moving as quickly as they are comfortable. By allowing the dog to go into an increased state of stress, we risk not creating lasting behavior change and risk making matters worse. 

Should I spend less time with my dog to get them accustomed to not having me around?

It sounds logical, I agree. But spending less time with your dog or preventing them from engaging in their normal routine with you is likely to increase, not decrease, their stress. Stick with very slowly increasing your dog's alone time. It sounds logical, I agree. But spending less time with your dog or preventing them from engaging in their normal routine with you is likely to increase, not decrease, their stress. Stick with very slowly increasing your dog's alone time. 

Does my dog need medical intervention?

It's a good idea to gather data about the degree of distress your dog is experiencing during your absences to present to your veterinarian and/or a veterinary behaviorist. They can determine if medication would be helpful during the training protocol and prescribe the right one for your dog to create lasting behavior change.

Can't I just give my dog his favorite treats while I am gone?

A food toy may or may not help. Sometimes it gives false evidence of the dog being “fine,” and once the delicious treat is gone, the dog panics. Many dogs are too worried to eat food while they are alone but instead, start associating it with alone-time (and now the treat has become a predictor of their person leaving).

You can add mental enrichment to your dog's regimen once they have attained a solid level of comfort with absences. 

Can puppies have Separation Anxiety?

Most puppies whine or cry a little when left alone or until they are comfortable in a crate. True separation anxiety is defined as destructive or disruptive behavior by a puppy, including tearing up the room, constant barking and whining, or inappropriate elimination when left alone. Please speak to a professional to rule out other concerns for your puppy.

Can I sneak away when my dog isn't paying attention?

When this tactic fails (it usually does), it breaks down trust and causes the dog to be even more alert to absences. It triggers more anxiety in the dog, which leads to more shadowing. This could potentially create a huge back-step in a training protocol.

Is my dog trying to "get back at me" for leaving?

Your dog is not acting out of spite; they are panicked.
Dogs with Separation Anxiety often express their frustration or anxiety at the barrier between you and them. This is usually the front door, the front windows, the carpeting, and the floor in the front of the house. In their distress, they want to get through these barriers and find you.And when you arrive home, the behaviors you see, such as looking away and lip licking, are related to fear, not guilt. Punishment and Separation Anxiety do not mix.

Would getting another dog help?

In most cases, bringing a second dog into the home will not help with Separation Anxiety because the behavior is explicitly associated with the presence/absence of people. If you want to try it, foster a dog or borrow a friend's calm, stable, compatible dog to see if that helps relieve your dog's stress before making a long-term commitment. 

Should I get the heavy-duty crate my dog can't break out of?

Crate training can be helpful for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone. However, a majority of dogs on this continuum have confinement distress, and feeling trapped in a crate can cause added anxiety. Feeling trapped in a crate generally increases anxiety, making matters worse.

Should I use a bark collar to address Separation Anxiety?

Shock/bark collars are often used to suppress the barking and whining that is a symptoms of anxiety. We risk making matters worse when we focus on suppressing symptoms rather than addressing the underlying emotional state.

If you were afraid of spiders and someone put spiders in your bed and then proceeded to shock you every time you screamed or attempted to escape, would that change the way you felt about spiders? Nope. But it might make you even more afraid of spiders. And you might even avoid getting into your bed!

How do I treat my dog with Separation Anxiety?

The gold-standard for treating Separation Anxiety is slow and gentle desensitization to gradually get your dog used to being alone. This can be tricky training to do on your own so it's best to work with a dog professional who specializes in this very specific behavior concern.

How long will it take before my dog can be ok when left alone?

Predicting how long it will take to reach your goals is impossible. Every dog starts at a different threshold for the duration they can handle being alone and will progress through desensitization at their own pace. 
If you suspect your dog may have separation anxiety, Get in touch for some resources and recommendations for trainers who specialize in treating separation-related behaviors. These behavior professionals can develop a treatment plan tailored to your dog's specific needs, which may involve behavior modification techniques, desensitization exercises, and a vet referral.
They will also provide guidance and support through the journey.
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