The term “separation anxiety” is often misunderstood. Genuine clinical separation anxiety is not common. Consult your veterinarian to get a correct diagnosis.
By Laura Pakis, Certified Dog Trainer and Cynologist,
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in dogs is the fear or dislike of isolation, resulting in undesirable behavior. Separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of canine behavioral problems.
If your dog follows you around from room to room, becomes anxious even if a closed-door separates you, dislikes spending time alone outdoors, and acts depressed or anxious when you are ready to leave the house, then your dog may have minor separation problems.
If, however, you are having destruction of property (especially around doors or windows), howling and barking, urination, and defecation, then it is probably severe separation anxiety. Prescribed drugs are sometimes used as a temporary measure along with the behavior modification program. Severe cases require a behavior modification program and desensitization to being alone. This usually takes a very long time.
When left alone, most dogs find a familiar spot and sleep. However, a dog suffering from separation anxiety will become highly anxious.
Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes distressed over the absence of other pack members, humans, or canines—not understanding where you or your family has gone or if you will ever return. Your dog’s way of expressing anxiety over your absence may include chewing, barking, drooling, urinating, defecating, vomiting, self-mutilation, or escape behavior such as chewing through walls, scratching through doors, busting out of cages, or digging under fences (if left outdoors). In some cases, the dog gets sick, perhaps due to depression.
Often it is the exits and entrances to the home that the dog targets for destruction.
The destruction is not an attempt to seek revenge on the owner for leaving but is a panic response. Separation anxiety can compare to humans suffering from panic attacks, so the psychological stress can be severe even if the physical signs are not obvious. To help your dog overcome this normal response, we need to progress and slowly minimize stress gradually. Your goal is to help your dog accept separation without stressing in the first place and to remain calm during prolonged separation.
Separation anxiety can sometimes happen when:
- the dog has never or rarely been left alone
- after going away to a boarding kennel or shelter
- after a change in the family’s routine, such as a new work schedule, moving to a new home, a new person living in the house, or a person leaving the home
- after a long interval such as a vacation with you and your dog constantly together
Giving a dog too much or the wrong type of attention can lead to such stress-related behaviors
In some cases, the constant attention and petting a dog receives when its owners are home can worsen the stress when they are absent. Examples include:
- petting the dog too much for merely existing
- allowing the dog to sleep in a bed before behavior issues are resolved
- petting and playing with the dog when they demand it
- petting to calm the dog down when he is scared, stressed, angry, etc.
- excitable greeting of the dog upon awakening or arriving home
These actions can make the dog too dependent and create neediness. This neediness cannot be fulfilled when the dog is alone. If the dog is experiencing stress when left alone, he will do things that he should not do. It is vital to keep a balance so that the dog does not feel alone when you are gone.