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Separation anxiety in dogs

by Becky Schultz, CPDT

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Separation Anxiety is an anxiety disorder, and in humans and probably dogs, SA 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 is a human). The dog can have any or all of the following behaviors that occur only in the absence of the owner:

  1. 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.
  2. House-soiling in an otherwise house-trained dog: Dogs that are well-house-trained while the owner is present, and only  soils when the owner is absent may have SA. Typically these dogs will become so anxious that they lose bodily functions while the owner is gone.
  3. Escape behaviors that may be destructive: These dogs want out! Out of the crate, out of the house, out of the yard—they gotta get out! With these dogs you’re going to typically see a pattern of destructive chewing and clawing around doors and windows. Things may be knocked off window sills, blinds may be pulled down, etc. These are not usually the dogs that will be getting into the garbage, rummaging for food, etc., but the dogs that are trying to claw their way out of where they are confined. You may also see a global pattern of extreme destructiveness in a short period, and the dog may be frantically chewing on everything. The definitive diagnostic tool is to use a video camera and tape the dog’s behavior while the owner is gone. The dog that is in a panic is going to clearly be anxious and the tape will show that.

Other signs include:

  1. Excessive drooling: Again, the dog is extremely anxious and may drool. The owners will report that at first they thought the dog was urinating but then realized the dog was soaking the crate with saliva. The dog's chest may be wet also. This is an indication of severe anxiety.
  2. Anorexia in owner’s absence: Owners will quizzically report that they could probably leave a steak on the floor of the kitchen while they were gone and the dog would never touch it, but the instant they return, the dog immediately would eat it! These dogs won’t touch a stuffed Kong while the owners are gone. A normal, destructive adolescent dog will happily devour a stuffed Kong in their owner’s absence, so you can ask about whether the dog will eat food left for it when they are gone.
  3. Excessive following behavior: These dogs typically will follow the owner everywhere! My standard question is, “Does the dog let you go to the bathroom by yourself?” The owners frequently will laugh and ask if I’ve been window peeping! These dogs usually will follow their owners from room to room, and when the owners are sitting, the dog will often be glued to them. We call them “Velcro” dogs!
  4. 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 that some dogs may be genetically predisposed to anxiety-related conditions. There is a strong correlation between thunderstorm phobia and SA, and many of these dogs appear to us as little “puppy paw-wringers”. They may “worry” about a lot of things, may be dogs that pace a lot.

There is some evidence that SA is higher 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 will often present with a dog with SA-related symptoms. As a social species, it is not natural for dogs to be completely alone, and they must learn this at a young age so they can tolerate it. When looking at the history, find out about the make-up of the household. It is normal for puppies to distress call when separated, and when they learn very early to be separated from people, they’re more likely to tolerate it. 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?
You can contact a Veterinary Behaviorist or your own Veterinarian about treatments that may help to reduce anxiety in the dog.  You can check our behavior helpline for referral information.  You may also want to read more about Separation Anxiety.  We recommend I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell.