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Separation Anxiety In Dogs

Every responsible pet owner knows that caring for your dog’s physical health isn’t the only important thing. You should also understand the complexities of canine emotional and mental well-being. One prevalent condition in dogs that is of great concern for pet owners is separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a complex behavioural issue that warrants careful attention and informed management strategies. However, many myths from well-meaning individuals about this topic may mislead owners to carry out exercises that may aggravate the conditions. Advice such as crate training, chewable tablets, food-stuffed toys, etc. has been proven to be ineffective at best and normally worsen the separation anxiety disorder in dogs. We will dive more into the myths in a later section in this article.

This article addresses separation anxiety in dogs and offers strategies for handling it. It aims to give dog owners, such as yourselves, practical and accurate information to identify, manage, and treat separation anxiety. The goal is to prevent suffering in canine companions. Let’s begin!

What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is primarily characterised by signs of distress or anxiety in dogs when left alone. This is a clinical condition which is not within the control of the dog or the dog owner. In most cases, the dog would need to be left alone with no humans before displaying signs of distress. However, in certain cases, the separation anxiety is specific to their owners. This means that the separation anxiety symptoms are expressed when they are separated from their owners regardless of whether there are other humans around. 

Separation anxiety is a serious issue that goes beyond typical behavioural problems and should be recognised as a distinct condition that needs to be resolved. It is a serious psychological condition in dogs characterised by severe anxiety and a strong desire to alleviate the discomfort. This may result in destructive behaviour, such as damaging furniture, excessive barking and howling, and attempting to escape through windows (potentially leading to injury).

Owners should monitor their canine companion closely for signs of separation anxiety due to its debilitating nature. Recognising the symptoms of separation anxiety is the most important step for effectively addressing the issue. Read on to understand the indications of separation anxiety in dogs.

Signs of Anxiety in Dogs (Separation Anxiety)

Understanding dog behaviour is a complex process due to the individual differences in temperament, behaviour, and demeanour among dogs. As a result, there is no set list of universal symptoms for separation anxiety. Instead, we will outline the typical behaviours exhibited by dogs when they are feeling stressed. Consistent expression of these stress-related behaviours upon departure or when the dog is left alone may indicate the presence of separation anxiety in the dog. If you suspect that your dog suffers from separation anxiety, it is advisable to seek a professional assessment for potential diagnosis and treatment.

A dog sitting in a sofa with torn up cushions, showing the aftermath of a dog that has expressed distress behaviour when left alone due to separation anxiety

Source: unionlakeveterinaryhospital

Behavioural and Physiological Signs

Let’s look at some of the behavioural signs of separation anxiety.

  • Excessive barking, loud noises, or howling. Such vocalisations are a common response to being left alone.
  • The inability to settle down due to the distressed behavior leads to pacing or restlessness.
  • Attempting to reduce stress or boredom by destructive chewing or digging.
  • Exuberant greeting with heightened effects of fear and anxiety levels.
  • Drooling and excessive salivation due to high stress levels.
  • Respiratory rate increases as a physiological response to anxiety.
  • Shaking or quivering due to nervousness or fear.
  • Attempts to escape confinement.

What Is Treatment Of Separation Anxiety In Dogs?

Now, we understand the potential symptoms to look out for in dogs that are suffering from canine separation anxiety, and we are clear that this is a condition that needs to be addressed. The next step would be to understand the steps required to treat the separation anxiety in dogs. Although it is highly recommended for dog owners to reach out to professionals to treat separation anxiety, a basic knowledge of what the treatment normally entails would alleviate a lot of questions and also assist the owners in assessing the behaviour modification service that they are planning to engage.

According to a News Report, after COVID-19, pet parents became extremely anxious when work from home ended. The primary concern of pet owners was they don’t want their fur baby to suffer from separation anxiety.

A holistic approach is needed to treat canine separation anxiety. If left untreated over an extended period, it can potentially evolve into a more serious condition or result in physical injuries from trying to escape the home. 

Before treating canine separation anxiety, it is advisable to consult with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT). It will help to confirm whether your dog is truly suffering from separation anxiety, or if there are any other underlying issues. The CSAT that you engage would also work closely with veterinarians if required to rule out any underlying medical issues that may contribute to the dog’s anxiety-related behaviours.

However, suppose that your dog indeed has been confirmed to suffer from separation anxiety, the CSATs that you engage will take you through the fear-based desensitisation protocols that is specific for Separation Anxiety. The general steps are:

  1. Understanding the activities that you perform prior to leaving. This is also known as pre-departure cues.
  2. Assess your dog’s behaviour carefully to understand your dog’s threshold.
  3. Seek your assistance to ensure that the dog does not go past it’s threshold throughout the duration of the program.
  4.  Provide a set of protocols that should be conducted 4 – 5 days per week (desensitisation sessions)
  5. Monitor progress, and revise the protocols accordingly

The above mentioned steps are covered in greater detail in our article on how to treat separation anxiety in dogs!

A calm and smiling dog in a family of four, representing a successful separation anxiety treatment

Source: miznerbioscience

Pre-departure Cues

Prior to leaving the house, there are many activities that you perform that hints to the dog that you are leaving. These are cues of departure that your dog would have associated with you leaving. For example:

  1. Picking your keys
  2. Putting on your jacket
  3. Putting on your shoes
  4. Unbolting your door

These cues of departure have been negatively associated with anxiety by your dog. We will make a list of all these activities, and introduce them into the fear-based desensitisation protocols as the training progresses.

Understanding Your Dog’s Threshold

We will also conduct an initial assessment where we carefully observe your dog and its behaviour to identify signs of stress and anxiety when left alone. These may include pacing, whining, panting, or destructive behaviour.

We also determine the point at which the dog becomes distressed during periods of separation. This point is known as the threshold and varies from dog to dog. Then, we utilise this information to establish a baseline threshold. Throughout the duration of the program, it is critical that you’re not pushing your dog beyond its threshold as this would result in regressions in the fear-based desensitisation protocols.

Systematic Desensitisation Techniques

Armed with the pertinent information, gradually expose your dog to short periods of alone time in a safe environment. Take small steps initially and start with brief separations, such as leaving the room for a few minutes. When the dog becomes comfortable, gradually increase the duration. By changing your departure routine, you can minimise separation-related distress. 

The intensity of the exercises are controlled using duration as well as injecting pre-departure cues. The longer the duration, the higher the intensity. The more pre-departure cues are included, the higher the intensity.

Throughout these fear-based desensitisation protocols, it is crucial that we ensure that the activities are not predictive as it may result in the dog predicting a negative event (owner leaving), and react negatively causing a regression in the protocol. Throughout the duration of the protocol, your assigned CSAT individual will closely monitor the sequence of activities that you are performing and compare it against the reaction of the dog to ensure that you do not accidentally cause a regression in the exercise.

Individualised Training Approach

While looking for a treatment method, pet owners need to understand that every dog is unique. The anxious behaviours for each dog may manifest differently, so the training sessions may vary for each dog. Consider these factors before developing a proper training plan that addresses the dog’s severe separation anxiety.

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Temperament
  • Past experiences

Contacting a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer is recommended for more effective results. Pet parents can also learn more about their pets through this programme and by speaking to a professional.

Anti-Anxiety Medication and Drugs

For serious separation anxiety cases, CSAT professionals may recommend a combination of medication and training. The medication will aim to alleviate the stress from the dog, and the training will focus on fear-based desensitisation.

The combination of these strategies will aim to alleviate anxious behaviours in the long run, and eliminate any destructive behaviours that are expressed when the dog is left alone.

There is a lot of similarity between separation anxiety and mental disorders, where there are stigma against providing medication. Each individual has their own personal sets of values and intrinsic motivations, but at Pet Coach, we believe that you should do whatever it takes to ensure your dog never experience the extreme stress that it undergoes during separation anxiety related events.

Is It Okay To Leave Dogs Alone At Home?

As discussed in previous sections, we will need to ensure that the dog never exceeds it’s threshold, throughout the duration of the fear-based desensitisation program. 

Most separation anxiety cases are generic, which means that the dog will only express separation-related behaviours when they are left completely alone without any humans. For these cases, the aim would be to ensure that the dog is never left alone for periods of time that will result I them breaching their threshold stress-level. The common strategies employed are:

  • Having a family member of friend pet sit the dog whenever you need to head out
  • Placing the dog at a doggy daycare that ensures a human is always present
  • Engage a professional pet sitter whenever you need to head out to ensure the dog is never left alone.

For separation anxiety cases that are specific to the individual, this would require more effort from the owner. In these cases, the owner must ensure that they never leave the dog to the point where they express separation-related behaviours. This is logistically more challenging, and will depend on each individual’s circumstances. Some of the strategies employed are:

  • Negotiating a work from home arrangement with your superiors
  • Monitoring the dog when you are away, to ensure that the dog never reaches the threshold the entire time that you are gone
Monitoring your dog via a remote camera on your phone, to assess their behaviour when you are away. This will help confirm whether the distress behaviour is due to separation anxiety or other causes.

Source: ooma

Enhance safety measures by employing a webcam or pet monitoring system. These systems allow pet owners to monitor their dogs 24/7. This allows for owners to have a more accurate sensing for the periods of time when their dogs can be left alone before they reach their threshold and start display behaviours attributed to separation-related distress. 

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Puppies and Dogs?

Pinpointing the development of separation anxiety in puppies and dogs isn’t a straightforward task. There are existing debate on the cause, and our understanding based on the research points to a combination of genetic pre-disposition and a trigger that results in the expression of the condition.

However, the most important thing to note is that it is not the owner’s fault. There is a lot of misconception from very well-meaning individuals surrounding this topic but the truth is that the data from the research is not sufficient to support the claims of those root cause.

Many dog owners feel a lot of guilt as they feel that they are partly to blame for the condition of their dog when the dog undergo separation-related distress. It is important to clarify that this is untrue, and we will highlight a few common myths at the end of this article.

To Sum Up

It is important to reiterate that separation anxiety arises due to a genetic predisposition to the condition and it is not the owners fault. There are strict protocols that have been tried and tested that will alleviate the separation anxiety related stress but these take time and effort. 

The best thing you can do if you suspect the your dog suffers from separation anxiety is to engage a professional and confirm that the behaviours expressed are indeed separation-related behaviours.

Common Misconceptions for Separation Anxiety

The common myths regarding development of separation anxiety and how to treat is can be found below.

Clinginess of a dog results in separation anxiety

There is no proven correlation between a dog’s clinginess and separation anxiety. A dog that becomes attached to its owner can behave normally when left alone. An independent dog may experience anxiety when its owner leaves. There are behaviour modification techniques that can be used to address issues with clingy or ‘velcro’ behaviour. Addressing clingy behaviour does not guarantee the resolution of separation-related behaviour problem.

Pampering your dog too much results in separation anxiety

There is no proven link between pampering your dog and separation anxiety. A dog that is well taken care of can be perfectly fine when left alone. Dogs that are not pampered may experience anxiety when left alone. Addressing pampering behaviour will not necessarily alleviate separation anxiety. There are behaviour modification techniques available to decrease the level of pampering in a dog if desired. Decreasing pampering will not necessarily resolve separation-related behaviour problem.

Give your dog a treat, puzzle toys or food reward when you leave

The misconception stems from the belief that increasing positive associations contributes to a more favourable perception of the owner leaving, from the dog’s perspective. With consistent daily returns, the dog will learn to associate your absence with positive experiences, reducing their stress levels.

However, what actually happens is as follows. The dog’s comfort level increases when the owner returns, while its anxiety level remains constant when the owner is away. This results in a wider gap between feelings of anxiety during absence and feelings of comfort upon return. Heightened relative difference increases separation anxiety in dogs by amplifying their perception of anxiety-when-away. Effective treatment for separation anxiety involves utilising controlled desensitization techniques to address the fear and anxiety experienced when apart.

Getting another dog will cure separation anxiety

While getting another dog may provide companionship for your current dog, it will not necessarily cure their separation anxiety. Each dog is an individual and may still struggle with anxiety, and display distress behaviors even with a companion present.

Ignoring the behavior will make it go away

Ignoring a dog’s anxious behaviors when you leave or come home will not make the separation anxiety disappear. In fact, it may exacerbate the problem if not addressed through proper training and management.

Separation anxiety only occurs in rescue dogs or those with a traumatic past

While dogs that have experienced trauma or have been rescued may be more prone to separation anxiety, the condition can develop in any dog regardless of their background. It is important to address the root cause of the anxiety, rather than assuming it is linked to past experiences.

Establishing A Consistent Routine

Stick to a regular schedule to provide structure and predictability for your dog. Consistency is a major factor in reducing anxiety and providing security. Sudden changes in the routine must be avoided, as they can increase anxiety levels. If changes are necessary, introduce them gradually with plenty of positive reinforcement.

Although the above concepts are generally true to manage stress, it is important to understand that separation anxiety is different from the normal stress. Separation anxiety is not a rationale behaviour and it’s explicitly related to being left alone, when the owner leaves. It is equivalent to panic attacks and panic disorders in human beings, where extreme anxiety is experienced. Ensuring that the stress level of the dog remains manageable by having a consistent routine will not alleviate the anxiety experienced by the dog when left alone.

Regular Exercise

Incorporating daily exercise into your dog’s routine should be non-negotiable. Physical activity, such as walks, runs, or playtime, can help burn off excess energy and promote relaxation. Engage in games and activities that stimulate your dog mentally and physically. This includes skills training and scent games that provide mental enrichment.

Although the above concepts are accurate for ensuring your dogs have sufficient stimulation and do not have boredom manifest into behaviours such as barking or destroying furniture, separation anxiety has a completely different root cause. The dogs are not destroying furniture or vocalising (barking) out of boredom or frustration. They are expressing unwanted behaviors due to feelings of immense anxiousness. Resolving boredom, or frustration does not resolve the feeling of anxiousness and will not resolve any unwanted behaviours that is caused by separation anxiety

References:

lannigan, G. and Dodman, N.H. (2001) ‘Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs’, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219(4), pp. 460–466. doi:10.2460/javma.2001.219.460.

Ogata, N. (2016) ‘Separation anxiety in dogs: What progress has been made in our understanding of the most common behavioral problems in dogs?’, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 16, pp. 28–35. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2016.02.005.

Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

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