Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation Anxiety is an anxiety disorder, and in humans and probably dogs, separation anxiety is closely related to panic disorders. The dog is panicking in the absence of the owner, or the object of attachment (which could be another animal, but usually the owner). The dog displays any or all of the following behaviors only in the absence of the owner:
- Excessive Vocalization: Dog may howl, scream, cry, or bark, either for the half hour after the owner leaves, half an hour before the owner returns, or the entire time the owner is gone.
- House-soiling in an otherwise housetrained dog: Dogs that are well housetrained while the owner is present, and only soils when the owner is absent may have separation anxiety. Typically, these dogs will become so anxious they lose bodily functions while the owner is gone.
- Destructive escape behaviors: These dogs want out! Out of the crate, out of the house, out of the yard- out! Dogs with separation anxiety often display a pattern of destructive chewing and clawing around doors and windows. Objects may be knocked off window sills, blinds may be pulled down, etc. The owners may see a global pattern of extreme destructiveness in a short period in which the dog frantically chews on everything. Behaviors caused by separation anxiety are more extreme than those caused by a dog searching for food or engaging in boredom behaviors in the absence of people, which may result in tipped over garbage cans, jumping on counters, or chewed shoes. The definitive diagnostic tool for separation anxiety is to use a video camera and record the dog’s behavior while the owner is gone.
Other signs of separation anxiety include:
- Excessive drooling: The dog may drool to such an extent that the owner initially identifies wet spots around the house as urine. The chest and legs of dog may also be wet with saliva. Excessive drooling is an indication of extreme anxiety in dogs.
- Anorexia in owner’s absence: The owner quizzically reports a steak could be left on the floor while they were gone and the dog would never touch it, but the instant the owner returns, the dog devours it! Dogs with separation anxiety won’t touch food or treats while the owner is gone. A normal, destructive adolescent dog will happily devour food or treats in their owner’s absence2
- Excessive following behavior: Dogs with separation anxiety often follow the owner everywhere! These dogs usually will follow their owner from room to room, and when the owner is sitting, the dog will often be glued to them, like Velcro.
- Excessive greeting on owner’s arrival: The dog with separation “issues” will seem overly frantic and overactive when reunited with the owner. While most of us like it when our dogs seem to miss us, a dog that is extremely frantic and active on the owner’s return may have a problem.
What causes Separation Anxiety?
Nobody is completely sure, but there is some evidence certain dogs may be genetically predisposed to anxiety-related conditions. There is a strong correlation between thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety, and many of these dogs appear to us as little “puppy paw-wringers”. They may pace or show other signs of stress frequently.
There is some evidence separation anxiety is more likely, or more severe, in dogs that have never successfully learned to be alone, such as in a dog that has always lived with another dog, or is home much of the time with their person. Retired persons, at-home parents, people who office at home, student housing, or homes with someone home most of the time often present with a dog with separation anxiety related symptoms. As a social species, it is not natural for dogs to be completely alone, and it must be learned at a young age. Dogs rarely, if ever, enjoy being separated from their humans, but it is not normal for dogs to be frantic and desperate about it.
What can I do?
Contact a veterinary behaviorist or your own veterinarian about treatments to help reduce anxiety in the dog. You may also contact our behavior helpline for referral information. If you would like to learn more about separation anxiety, read I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell.
For more tips on your pet's behavior and training, contact the Animal Humane Society's training school at 763-489-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.