Separation anxiety is a complex issue that affects many dogs and their owners. Also called isolation distress, separation anxiety occurs when a dog panics and exhibits concerning behaviors when left alone or separated from his family members. This distress likely stems from the tight social bonding and pack loyalty innate in dogs. Being isolated triggers a perceived abandonment that provokes severe stress in some canines. Patience, training, and customized management plans are needed to address separation concerns. This comprehensive guide covers everything owners should know about this challenging condition.
What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety refers to a dog displaying extreme distress behaviors only when isolated from their owners or attachment figures. It is not merely minor whining or boredom – it is serious panic. Separation distress typically escalates within minutes of the owners departing and ceases soon after they return.
The most common symptoms of separation anxiety include:
- Continuous vocalizing like barking, howling or whining
- Destructive behaviors such as chewing, digging, scratching doors and walls
- House soiling and eliminating inside even if house trained
- Agitated pacing, circling or shaking
- Attempts to escape by squeezing through small spaces or jumping fences
- Self-harming activities like excessive licking, biting, or injury
Separation anxiety is complex and not fully understood, but likely stems from the tight social bonds and pack loyalty bred into dogs. Being left alone appears to provoke a perceived isolation from their family unit, inducing panic. This distress manifests through problematic behaviors in the dog’s frantic attempt to self-soothe, escape, or reunite with their owners.
Separation anxiety can occur in dogs of any age, but often initially develops when a puppy leaves his canine mom and litter mates for the first time. Susceptibility has genetic factors, with herding, sporting, and mixed breed dogs most prone. Risk also increases with poor socialization, sudden environmental changes, adoption, rehoming, and extreme attachment to one person.
Whatever the root causes, separation unease takes patience and customized training to resolve. Left untreated, the condition destroys furniture, houses, and relationships. In severe cases, it forces surrender of dogs. By understanding separation distress and following proper training techniques, owners can help their canine companions learn to accept being alone without panic.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
The exact causes of separation unease are not fully proven, but certain risk factors are commonly seen. Possible contributing reasons include:
- Genetics and Poor Socialization: Some dogs inherit a genetically higher susceptibility to attachment issues and isolation distress. Poor socialization as a pup also heightens separation problems by failing to acclimate dogs to some alone time.
- Abrupt Changes: Sudden changes to a dog’s routine, environment, or family structure can trigger the onset of separation anxiety. Common triggers include schedule changes, switching homes, boarding, being rehomed or adopted, or losing a family member.
- Extreme Attachment: Dogs solely bonded to one person seem more prone to separation woes. The extreme dependence on that individual amplifies distress when apart from them specifically.
- Traumatic Experiences: A traumatic event like getting lost, kenneled, or enduring a storm while alone can spark future separation anxiety by causing lingering distress.
- Adoption/Rehoming: Adopted dogs are high risk, likely because past abandonment causes attachment insecurities. The rehoming process can also break social bonds, heightening isolation panic.
Veterinary behaviorists theorize that pack-bonded dogs with certain genetics and little socialization are most susceptible when environmental shifts disrupt their social hierarchy. The ensuing isolation and panic manifests through problematic conduct. Figuring out the specific sensitivities of an anxious dog allows owners to implement targeted training to address the separation unease.
Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation distress exhibits concerning behaviors only seen when a susceptible dog is left alone. Some of the most common signs and symptoms include:
- Destructive Behavior: Chewing, digging, scratching and destroying doors, walls, furniture, or owner’s possessions frequently occurs, often near exits or windows. The dog panics in the owner’s absence and redirects stress onto objects.
- House Soiling: Urination and defecation inside the home from loss of bladder control or intentional elimination. Even house-trained dogs may soil when extremely anxious.
- Excessive Barking: Loud barking, whining, crying and howling are common reactions to acute distress when isolated. The vocalizing reflects the dog panicking.
- Escape Attempts: Frantic efforts to flee confinement to reunite with owners. Dogs may squeeze through small openings or jump fences.
- Pacing and Circling: Repetitive pacing shows inner turmoil. Some dogs pace so extensively they damage their paws. Circling is also thought to self-soothe.
- Self-Harm: Excessive licking, biting, injury or consumption of non-edibles reflects severe distress. Dogs harm themselves attempting to cope.
- Anorexia and Lethargy: Depression-like symptoms of disinterest in food, treats, or favorite toys immediately after owners return. The dog disengages, reflecting his despair.
- Agitation: Hyperactivity, trembling, salivating, inappropriate urination during greetings, and unwillingness to be touched are signs of emotional overload.
The severity of symptoms varies based on contributing factors. Newly adopted dogs tend to initially show more severe behaviors from the abrupt environmental change and broken social bonds. Dogs adopted from abusive situations also often struggle more.
Symptoms typically escalate within minutes of the guardian leaving and cease soon after they return. The behaviors stem from perceived abandonment, not revenge or anger at being left. Understanding this helps owners respond appropriately with patience and training rather than anger or punishment.
How is Separation Anxiety Diagnosed in Dogs?
Many behavior problems can mimic separation unease, so veterinary guidance confirms the diagnosis through:
- Evaluating Symptoms: Questionnaires help identify symptoms are specific to isolation versus other times. Dogs with true separation anxiety only show behavior when alone.
- Medical Exams: Physical exams and lab tests rule out illnesses prompting instrumental behaviors that benefit the dog, like inappropriate elimination during incontinence.
- Monitoring Behavior: Owners monitor the dog’s activities in the home when separated and reunited. Videos ensure behavior happens in isolation, not just owner departures.
- Assessing History: Vets examine risk factors like new environments, unknown histories, poor socialization, or trauma that may contribute to attachment issues.
Certified applied animal behaviorists can also design systematic behavior plans to diagnose separation distress versus other disorders like anxiety from storms or boredom barking. Treatment involves both training and management strategies tailored to the dog’s sensitivities.
Mild Separation Anxiety Treatment Techniques
In mild cases where the distress behaviors are limited, the following interventions may curb separation unease:
- More Exercise and Playtime: Ensuring the dog gets adequate physical and mental stimulation helps reduce boredom and pent up energy when alone. Interactive toys and food puzzles also occupy mild chewers.
- Natural Calming Aids: Products like calming chews with L-theanine, aromatherapy, and hemp oils help relieve mild stress. Pheromone plugins like Adaptil release soothing pheromones.
- Low-Key Departures: Avoid overly excited greetings and prolonged goodbyes which can heighten separation reactions. Make comings and goings low-key events instead.
- Provide a Worn Shirt: Leaving something with the guardian’s scent, like a worn shirt, comforts mild chewers, especially if rescued.
- Teach Relaxation Commands: Obedience commands like “settle” “mat” or “kennel” teach dogs to relax on cue, giving them a purpose when alone.
- Confinement: Confining mildly distressed dogs limits damage until additional training occurs. Crates should be positively introduced, never punishment.
With consistency, these interventions can improve mild separation behaviors. For moderate to severe cases, more extensive management and customized training is needed.
Treatments for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety
For dogs with more significant isolation distress, the following techniques are often needed in combination:
- Systematic Desensitization: This gradually exposes dogs to departure cues like leash grabs, key noises, and leaving rituals. Starting with very short durations, dogs acclimate to triggers that signal being left alone. The aim is to detach cues from anxiety.
- Counterconditioning: This transforms a dog’s negative emotional response by associating a pleasant stimulus with the trigger. For example, giving high-value treats each time the owner grabs keys signals something good happens at isolation times.
- Simulated Departures: Owners conduct repeated mock departures where they exit briefly then return before the dog shows distress. Durations are slowly increased from seconds to hours as the dog builds confidence.
- Creating a Safe Space: A dim, insulated space muffles outdoor sounds that may trigger barking. It also satisfies nesting instincts. Crates with favored toys feel like dens.
- Interactive Puzzles and Toys: Giving dogs mental and physical activities before being left alone helps prevent boredom. Kongs, treat balls, and puzzles engage dogs and lessen interest in destructive chewing.
- Medications: In extreme cases, anti-anxiety medications like fluoxetine and clomipramine reduce panic while owners implement behavior training. Sedatives like trazodone calm spikes.
- Alternative Animal Caregivers: If owners travel extensively, utilizing trusted pet sitters, dog walkers, or doggie daycare provides companionship during long absences.
With these intensive training interventions, dogs can gradually learn to tolerate time alone without distress. Some cases do require lifelong management strategies to keep separation anxiety at bay.
Mistakes to Avoid in Treating Separation Anxiety
Some well-meaning approaches can inadvertently worsen separation unease. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
- Punishing Distress Behaviors: Punishment for destruction or house soiling increases a dog’s panic when left alone. It also fails to address the root cause behind the behaviors.
- Exuberant Greetings: Too much stimulation from prolonged greetings and farewells heightens separation reactions when exiting. Low-key hellos and goodbyes are preferable.
- Getting Another Dog for Companionship: Bringing in a second dog often fails to resolve anxiety. The existing dog bonds to the new dog, worsening reactions to isolation from the owner.
- Confinement as Punishment: Using crates or barriers to punish distress reactions associates that space negatively. Confinement should only provide safe, positive dens.
- Expecting Quick Fixes: Separation anxiety develops over months or years. Completely resolving entrenched reactions takes consistent, gradual training over weeks or months. There are no quick fixes.
- Lack of Supervision: Inconsistency between family members in training approaches or allowing access to problem areas leads to continuous rehearsal of anxieties.
With patience, persistence, and positive approaches, the distress of being alone can be reduced. But punishment, scolding, or losing patience will only intensify a dog’s separation struggles.
Long Term Management of Separation Anxiety
While intensive training can resolve separation distress in many dogs, some cases require vigilant lifelong management to prevent anxious episodes. Strategies include:
- Continued Training Refreshers: Periodic remedial sessions reinforce previous training, especially if the dog’s routine changes or they display mild backsliding.
- Mental and Physical Exercise: Preventing boredom with stimulation like food puzzles, chew toys stuffed with treats, playing fetch, and providing access to outside spaces for existing dogs reduces reliance on the owner’s presence.
- Alertness to Triggers: Staying attuned to situations that trigger renewal of separation behaviors allows for quick intervention. Scheduling dog walkers on high-risk days can prevent backslides.
- Routine and Consistency: Adhering to a routine of scheduled feedings, walks, playtime and affection helps avoid surprises and changes that provoke anxiety. Keep greetings low-key.
- Confinement When Alone: Even after training, confinement in dog-proofed spaces protects dogs that regress occasionally. Limiting access prevents rehearsal of anxious behaviors.
- Rehoming in Severe Cases: In rare cases where separation anxiety remains dangerously severe despite all management efforts, rehoming to a home with a stay at home guardian may be a last, loving option. This decision should have veterinary guidance.
While not every case can be fully “cured”, compassionate lifelong management enables dogs with persistent separation distress to provide good quality of life in a forever home. Patience and empathy ease the journey.
Dealing With Severe Separation Anxiety Long Term
For the small subset of dogs with intractable separation anxiety unresolved by training, the following strategies make long term management possible:
- Veterinary Behaviorist Guidance: These specialized experts create systematic treatment plans and prescribe medications to reduce panic. Their oversight improves quality of life.
- In-Home Pet Sitters or Doggy Daycare: For guardians who need to leave dogs for work, providing companion caregivers, daycare or dog walkers throughout the day prevents long solitary stretches. This can be costly but worthwhile if it keeps the dog living happily in the home. Some dogs do fine at daycare then regress at home, so personalized care works best.
- Work Schedule Flexibility: If possible, guardians maximizing work from home days and shifting schedules to allow midday visits helps. Even a brief greeting relieves stress for the day.
- Creating Very Limited Dog-Proofed Spaces: For dogs that injure themselves when anxious, using crates, secure interior rooms or partitioned areas limits damage and risk of harm. This protects the dog but doesn’t resolve the underlying distress.
- Medications for Anxiety: Prescribed anti-anxiety medications like fluoxetine, clomipramine and benzodiazepines manage panic and reduce dangerous behaviors. Long term use may be needed in extreme cases under veterinary supervision.
- Rehoming as a Last Resort: If symptoms continue to be dangerously severe despite all management attempts, rehoming to a home with a stay at home guardian can provide a loving option after all others fail. This difficult decision should have veterinary behaviorist guidance.
With compassion and creativity, even dogs with very severe separation anxiety can have good welfare and remain with committed owners for life through personalized care strategies.
Summary of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
In summary, separation unease is a complex and challenging behavior resulting from dogs being pack oriented yet domesticated for solitary human lifestyles. The resulting isolation can induce panic. Symptoms like destruction, inappropriate elimination, and self-harm reflect a dog’s extreme stress when alone.
Patience, training, and customized management plans are needed to treat separation concerns. Leaving dogs with stimulation like puzzles and chews prevents boredom in mild cases. More severe distress requires desensitization and medications potentially. Some cases do require lifelong management strategies.
The key is understanding separation anxiety has biological roots. It is not revenge or spite. With knowledge and empathy, guardians can implement positive training to gradually teach dogs healthy separation behaviors. Most dogs can learn to enjoy time solo. Others need adaptations to have good welfare despite ongoing separation challenges. With compassion and consistency, dogs and owners find peace.