- The most common signs of separation anxiety are destruction in the home, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate elimination.
- Certain circumstances, like changes in schedules, can trigger anxiety in dogs who are predisposed. This is why some experts are concerned that there may be an uptick in separation anxiety among dogs as their owners return to work post-pandemic.
- A key principle in staving off and managing separation anxiety is establishing a strong relationship with your dog and training them to be independent during the hours you are together.
- Create routines and boundaries so your dog experiences low-intensity separation. Crate training is recommended as a preventative measure.
- In treating, start small in managing separation, like training your dog to stay in another room while you leave, and then work up to leaving the house.
To live with a dog is to know with certainty that there’s someone who never tires of your company. That’s part of the joy of dogs—they’re always happy to see you come in the door whether you’ve been away for an hour or a long workday. But at what point does your dog’s desire to be with you turn into a problem? And at what point do we consider that problem separation anxiety?
While separation anxiety has been widely discussed over the last several decades, it’s become a hotter topic lately. As a global pandemic has changed our daily living and working habits, many experts and dog owners raise the possibility of a spike in rates of separation anxiety when normal schedules are resumed.
Here, we’ll take a look at the complicated issue of separation anxiety and provide some expert advice on how to identify, prevent, and treat this condition.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a common canine affliction–an estimated 13 to 18% of dogs show signs of the condition, and it’s diagnosed in 20 to 40% of dogs referred to behavioral specialists. Quite simply, separation anxiety is severe distress when a dog is separated from their owner or left alone. It’s a problem that causes both people and dogs much suffering as it can manifest in an array of distressing behaviors, it can be difficult to treat, and can provoke stress and guilt on the part of the owner.
According to Alexandra Bassett, lead trainer and behavior specialist at Dog Savvy Los Angeles, canine separation anxiety is a stress response rooted in a dog or puppy’s instincts to “stay with the pack.” The condition is typically triggered when a dog can’t physically see their humans or they’re unable to follow them around. “The resulting frustration and distress activates a feeling of being lost or trapped, despite the fact that the dog or puppy is perfectly safe at home,” Bassett says.
Toni Clarke, a certified separation anxiety trainer and owner of Well Done Charlie Dog Training in Washington, DC, adds that a dog’s symptoms of separation anxiety are not unlike similar panic disorders experienced by humans, such as a fear of snakes or spiders, flying, or heights. It’s just that for your dog, their fear is of being alone. “Pet owners should understand that the behavior they’re seeing is involuntary… your dog is not doing it out of spite, or for any reason other than that he is terrified. So terrified that he can’t eat or hold his bowels or bladder, or in some cases harm himself or destroy things in his panic,” she says. “Imagine if you were afraid of snakes and were put in a snake pit and left there. You, too, might pee and poop and tear your nails trying to escape.”
It’s easy to intuit that dogs aren’t completely happy unless they’re with their family, but canine separation anxiety is still widely misunderstood. Many behavior experts say that it’s often misdiagnosed, and a catch-all for other behavioral or relationship issues. “My experience with the more than 4,000 dogs I’ve worked with that were diagnosed with separation anxiety is that, for 98% of them, it’s got nothing to do with it,” says Nelson Hodges, founder of the Canine Human Relationship Institute. “Instead, it’s become a catchphrase for a behavior that people don’t understand.” The idea that separation anxiety isn’t a diagnosis in itself, but part of a larger set of issues is echoed by other experts, and was the basis of a recent study out of the U.K (read more about it here).
Veterinary behaviorist, author, and founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies Dr. Nicholas Dodman tells us that he breaks separation anxiety into two types. One type is an attachment disorder—dogs who are very attached to one person or just to people in general and react when those people aren’t around. The other type is just fear of being alone. “Sometimes it is almost like claustrophobia—they don’t want to be alone, period, wherever they are,” he says.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Many dogs appear sad, or resigned, as they watch you grab your keys and head out the door. In fact, in a small U.K. study in 2013, researchers measured the levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with the stress response, in dogs left alone and found that over 80% of dogs showed some negative response when left by their owners. Most dogs simply cope when left alone; but a dog that’s truly grappling with separation anxiety will exhibit signs of real, genuine stress. Depending on your dog and the severity of their separation anxiety, their symptoms and behaviors could range from mild to extreme. Becca Wood, owner and trainer at Almost Heaven K9 Training in West Virginia, explains that mild examples of separation anxiety may include panting or whining, pacing, excessive licking, following their owners around, inability to settle in a crate, or barking, while more serious behaviors can include pawing or biting at the crate door (or causing destruction to their crate), chewing at window coverings or blinds, urinating or defecating, excessive drooling, house or furniture destruction, heavy breathing, and actual attempts to break out of the crate or house.
In a well-known study he co-authored with Dr. Gerrard Flannagan, Dr. Dodman found that the most common behaviors related to separation anxiety were found to be destruction in the home (shown by 71% of dogs), excessive vocalization (in 61% of dogs), and inappropriate elimination (reported in 28% of subjects).
Causes of separation anxiety
While it’s not definitively known what causes separation anxiety in dogs, some factors have been anecdotally identified as potential triggers. Clarke notes that causes might include multiple rehoming episodes, the death or departure of a family member or other a traumatic event, or even a genetic predisposition. Dr. Dodman also cites a disruption in attached relationships and multiple attachment figures as potential factors in the development of separation anxiety. Puppies have a close biological bond with their mothers and siblings and often that bond transitions seamlessly to a bond with their new owners, he says. But sometimes “that seamlessness of transition isn’t there,” he says. “So it’s almost like a PTSD-type thing—I never want to be in this situation again. It’s a total avoidance of separation from an attachment figure, or never wanting to be in an enclosed space with nothing going on.”
Dr. Dodman also notes that circumstances can trigger anxiety in dogs that are predisposed. “We know there are triggers for separation anxiety,” he says. “For more nervous dogs one trigger would be, for example, an owner becomes sick and is home for a few months. Then they go back to work.” The prolonged at-home period that’s been a feature of the COVID-19 pandemic could be another, he says.
This is why some experts are concerned that there may be an uptick in symptoms of separation anxiety among dogs as their owners return to work after the current pandemic.
How to Address Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety
First and foremost, Clarke says that if you suspect your dog may be developing signs of separation anxiety, it’s important to discuss your concerns with your veterinarian. “He or she will rule out any other potential reasons for the behaviors you’re witnessing and determine whether medical intervention is warranted,” she says. “Vets and trainers often work as a team to help mitigate fear in dogs with separation anxiety.”
If separation anxiety is diagnosed, Wood says that to break the cycle and create new patterns of behavior, owners must adapt the way they’re interacting with their dogs. “The dog will not wake up and just decide to be calm and relax,” she says. “This is a skill that must be taught and then practiced daily.”
Manage your overall relationship with your dog
Wood says that separation anxiety can be a manifestation of a bigger issue going on in the dog-human relationship, and, unfortunately, pet owners can unknowingly cause some of these issues.
A key principle in managing separation anxiety, and the general foundation of a healthy relationship is to train your dog to be independent during the hours you are together.
“When a dog is given unlimited, free access to affection, attention, cuddles, furniture time, belly rubs, and baby talk, it can become dependent on those types of rewards from its owner,” Wood says. Then when those things are suddenly removed because the human has left the room or house—especially for long periods of time—the dog doesn’t have the skills needed to remain calm and trust that it’s safe to just relax until their owner returns. Be sure you’re setting boundaries in your everyday life with your dog, and creating moments when you’re separated when you’re still home.
Wood also advises owners to be careful they’re not rewarding the behavior they’re trying to discourage. “Dogs learn behaviors in simple patterns, so as owners, we have to be very careful about what patterns we are instilling in our dogs,” she adds. For example, dog owners should be mindful of when and how they’re offering their dog rewards and positive reinforcement; if your dog is pacing, whining, or barking and you then pet, cuddle, or start using cutesy baby talk (or dramatically prolong your good-byes before leaving the house), you’re rewarding those behaviors. And you should never punish your dog for being destructive or eliminating in the house as a result of their anxiety, as that will only succeed at making them more fearful.
Start small with separation
If your dog is already reacting strongly to your departure, start small by going through one of the actions that signals departure—like putting on shoes—and then hang out at home. Do this repeatedly to try and remove that initial negative association.
You can then move on to training your dog to sit and stay while moving progressively farther away; train them to lie down when you’re out of sight and reward them when you come back.
“Dogs and puppies with this condition need to learn to self-soothe when separated from their guardians. Training will generally start out with low-intensity separation scenarios using gates, pens, and tethers, while the guardian remains at home, with the goal of gradually increasing the intensity over time as a dog or puppy shows that they can handle it,” Bassett adds.
She recommends not leaving your dog alone as you’re working to address their separation anxiety; instead, enlist the help of friends, family members, neighbors, or reputable pet sitters and daycares until the dog has been rehabilitated, otherwise, it can be difficult to make progress in resolving the condition.
Low key departures
When you do leave, don’t make a big deal out of it. The same goes for returning home. It might be tough to pretend you’re not overjoyed to see your pup, but it’s a good idea to avoid an over-the-top reunion.
Dr. Dodman also recommends “tons of exercise,” which generates serotonin, which has a mood-stabilizing, calming effect.
Ultimately, dogs are a lot like humans in that they are complicated and uniquely individual—so there really is no one-size-fits-all approach to separation anxiety. Treating separation anxiety also depends on the severity of the problem. Many experts admit that dealing with extreme separation anxiety can be challenging. “Real separation anxiety is a severe case behavior, and it’s a long-term process,” says Hodges, who, along with Dr. Dodman, and many other experts, notes that, in some severe cases, veterinary drugs can be necessary.
Can Separation Anxiety Be Prevented?
While experts say that it may not always be possible to fully prevent your dog from feeling anxious when you leave the house, there are some ways to help your dog feel safe and calm when you do have to head out.
Create boundaries while you’re home
Much like human children, dogs thrive on structure and predictability in their day-to-day routines, so Wood advises organizing your dog’s entire day into two categories: interaction and non-interaction. “That means you choose when your dog has a walk, playtime, potty time, cuddle time, training time, or outings…and in all of those moments when you’re not deliberately interacting with your dog, they should be crated or relaxing calmly,” she says. “This keeps their minds from racing or worrying, and cultivates trust in you.”
Bassett agrees that it’s important for puppies to experience low-intensity separation from their guardians safely and early on in their lives—in fact, separation from their owner should become part of a puppy’s daily routine. “Otherwise, they may be shocked and distressed the first time they are left at home alone, which can activate these behaviors,” she says. And, of course, since dogs require a great deal of time and attention, anyone who truly doesn’t have the time to properly care for a dog probably shouldn’t get one.
Crate training creates space and safety
To avoid encouraging feelings of anxiety in your dog in the first place, many experts tout the importance of crate training for dogs. “When done properly, the crate taps into their natural den-like instincts and provides them a safe, cozy place to relax when you’re busy or away,” Wood says.
Ideally, crate training is introduced when your dog is a puppy or when they first come home with you. The crate should be used as a haven, and not a punishment. “The reason I’m going to get a crate is that I want a dog to get comfortable in a space that is away from me so that they’re not on me 24-7,” says Blake Rodriguez, trainer and founder of Dream Come True K9. “Because when a dog only knows a life where, when you are around I am on top of you and with you, you run a very high risk of creating separation anxiety.”
A crate, however, should never become a substitute for spending time with a dog or puppy, and become a place where they’re kept because someone doesn’t have the time, energy, or commitment to properly care for them,” Woods says. “Isolation is not healthy for a dog,” she says.
When you do leave
When you’re away, provide some benefits— leave your dog with a safe distraction, like a treat-filled puzzle toy, play music, and make sure there’s a comfortable place to rest. When you come home, put away the toys and treats, so they’re associated with your being away.
Again, practice low-key goodbyes as a preventative measure. Don’t introduce the concept that leaving is a big deal in the first place.
Preventing post-pandemic separation anxiety
It’s easy to see the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 era as a bonanza for dogs. As working from home became the norm, more people adopted dogs who then enjoyed round-the-clock companionship and more walks than even they knew what to do with. It was a win-win for two social species looking for companionship in troubled times. But, if dogs crave routine, what happens when the routine shifts and owners are no longer around 24/7? As Dr. Dodman notes, these shifts are classic triggers for separation anxiety.
Rodriguez told us, “What is likely to happen is a lot of households creating a breeding ground for anxiety. When you have a dog who is with you 24/ 7, it might seem fine now. But if you’re not setting up your dog where there is playtime, there’s engagement time, and then…there is also a bit of separation time, it can create problems.”
To give yourself, and your dog, the best chance of avoiding problems down the line, do what you can to maintain that separation time. That doesn’t have to mean confining your dog physically with a crate or a separate room. But it does mean, says Rodriguez, setting rules “that say, OK. I want you over here when I’m cooking or watching TV.”
Try to maintain some semblance of a normal routine when it comes to leaving your house without your dog. And when you’re home, maintain that degree of separation, with the limits set by you.
Now is a better time than ever to practice time and place, says Rodriguez. “Where there’s time to engage and allow your dog into your personal space and also to practice separation, that’s a really good thing.”
“Since the cause of separation anxiety is still not fully understood, it’s not possible to identify specific measures that will prevent it…but there are ways to maximize your dog’s alone-time success,” Clarke concludes. Consult a vet and a certified trainer as soon as you notice signs of separation anxiety in your dog. And remember that whether or not your dog suffers from separation anxiety, training, and sustaining a strong relationship should be an ongoing activity for the life of your dog.