Does your dog have separation anxiety?


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

After aggression, the most common serious behavior issue I deal with is separation anxiety. Simply stated, separation anxiety in dogs is anxiety that a dog experiences when he is left alone. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that humans can suffer from separation anxiety too.

Symptoms include:

  • Attempts to escape his crate or the owner’s home. If not crated, the dog will normally try to escape the owner’s residence at the departure point of the owner.
  • Various types and intensities of vocalization including, whining, barking, howling, etc.
  • Defecation and urination inside of crate or at multiple locations in home.
  • Refusal to eat food or treats.
  • Panting, pacing and other stress behaviors.
  • Destructive behaviors not associated with trying to escape.

There are two major variables that I find are important if I suspect separation anxiety:

First, how is the separation anxiety triggered? Some dogs are perfectly okay when their owner leaves as long as another human is present. Still other dogs are not bothered a whit when their owner goes to work all day as long as another dog is present. 

In short, dogs that don’t experience separation anxiety as long as any human or dog is present are suffering from a form of separation anxiety known as isolation distress. They simply need a warm dog or human nearby to feel comfortable. On the other hand, specific separation anxiety dictates that a unique person or dog must be present or the dog will experience separation anxiety (e.g., the owner must be present).

The second important variable that I am concerned with is the intensity of the separation anxiety. The variance can be extraordinary – everything from mild whining to extreme levels of damage to crates, the owner’s home and even to the dog himself. It’s not uncommon for dogs to break their jaws and teeth when trying to break out of crates. The photo that appears at the top of this article is from a client whose dog was experiencing severe separation anxiety.

Virtually all dog owners whose dog has separation anxiety ask me this question, “What caused this?” No one knows for sure exactly what causes separation anxiety, but there are several possibilities:

  • Genetic issues. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to anxiety in general therefore are more susceptible to developing separation anxiety.
  • Neonatal issues. The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life are extremely important in how he learns to deal with the world. If this early period is structured improperly, puppies frequently learn to be anxious about many things, including being alone. 
  • Change of owner. Dogs in rescue have a significantly higher chance of having separation anxiety, and to make things worse, it’s hard to diagnose in shelter environments for a number of reasons.
  • Change in environment. When owners move to a new residence there is an increased chance of separation anxiety.
  • Schedule changes. Dogs love routines. An owner who starts a new work shift is an example of a schedule change that could be a trigger.
  • Single event learning. Whether as puppies or as adults, dogs can have very stressful things happen to them that can have a lifelong negative impact on their ability to handle isolation and other stressors.

The treatment of separation anxiety is accomplished by modifying the dog’s environment and introducing behavior modification to lessen the anxiety. Dogs with this issue lack confidence; part of the treatment also includes exercises to increase dogs' confidence levels. 

For moderate to severe cases, I frequently recommend medication. Typically we use a long-term anti-anxiety medication along with a short-term faster acting medication. The goal is to wean the dog off medication within 6-9 months if possible. Some dogs require medication for their entire life to help manage this issue.

Separation anxiety is a challenging behavior issue to address. However, it frequently can improve if the owner is willing to be patient, consistent and have realistic expectations. 

If you have a dog that you believe might be suffering from separation anxiety, especially if it is moderate to severe, please seek the help of an independently certified dog behavior consultant or animal behaviorist.