eparation anxiety is the term used when a dog displays disruptive or destructive stress-related behaviors when left alone.
A dog who suffers separation anxiety can become extremely anxious, and show distress behaviors such as vocalization, destruction, escape or house soiling. Some of the hardcore cases I have seen as a behaviorist include a dog that chewed his way through drywall, one that destroyed a crate to escape, and another that crashed through a glass window.
Dogs who show signs of separation anxiety can start becoming agitated as soon as their owners prepare to leave, while others may appear anxious or depressed. Some dogs try to prevent their owners from leaving or attempt to escape to follow them. Often, right after the owner leaves, a dog with separation anxiety will begin to bark, whine, howl, and display distress behaviors within a short time after being left alone. When the owner returns, these dogs are over-excited or may display signs of “guilt” for fear of being scolded or punished.
Separation anxiety is far more frequent in dogs that have been adopted from rescue shelters or rescue centers than those kept by a single family since puppyhood.
3 million dogs end up in animal shelters in North America every year, and problems related to separation anxiety are among the most common reasons dogs are relinquished by owners.
The Humane Society (HSUS) estimates that over 3 million dogs end up in animal shelters nationwide in the U.S every year. The reason most often reported for relinquishing a pet is relocating, but many owners admit that their dog showed behavioral problems. More than half mentioned that their dog was hyperactive, 40% reported that their dog was too noisy, a third said that their dog damaged things inside or outside the house, and 26% said that their dog soiled the house. Furthermore, only 6% of the relinquished dogs had attended obedience classes or some kind of behavioral training.
Many owners give up too soon on dogs with behavioral issues because they don’t know how to cope with the consequences and don’t realize the problem is treatable.
What goes on in your dog’s mind?
Dogs are highly social animals. Wolves live in small family-oriented packs, while feral dogs in the wild live in loose social groups and are almost never alone.
At home, stress occurs when pet dogs have been conditioned to become overly attached or dependent on family members, or when a high-energy dog in need of mental and physical stimulation is forced to live in an environment that does not cater to his basic needs. It's unnatural for a dog to be locked up in a house alone for hours with nothing to do.
Most dogs with separation anxiety are clingy. They haven't developed independence and healthy boundaries, and they follow their owners from room to room, rarely spending time alone. They begin to display anxiety as soon as the owners prepare to leave, and seek a great deal of physical contact and attention throughout the day.
Separation anxiety and dog breeds
Dogs of all breeds can develop separation anxiety, but some breeds tend to show these symptoms more frequently. This is the case of high-energy breeds such as shepherds (German Shepherd), herding breeds (Border Collie), hunting breeds (German Shorthair Pointer, Vizsla), and toy or small breeds that were bred to be companion dogs (Cavalier King Charles, Maltese, Havanese, Toy Poodle).
There is however a much higher correlation between separation anxiety and a dog’s history (abandonment or abuse) or living conditions than with the breed he belongs to.
While high energy working dogs and toy companion breeds display stress-related destructive or disruptive behaviors, these behaviors are not always caused by separation anxiety.
Breed characteristics do not make some dogs more anxious than others, but modern domestic living conditions can contribute to making pet dogs overly human-dependent, bored and stressed. More importantly, the nature of the relationship and the compatibility in lifestyle and energy levels between dog and owner are often at the heart of the problem.
In the case of high-energy breeds, we must remember that these dogs were bred to do a job, and are now expected to live in unnatural confined conditions with far less exercise and mental stimulation than they typically need. Owners of a high-energy breed who cannot provide the dog with adequate levels of physical exercise and stimulation and the right living conditions can expect to see stress-related behaviors develop.
The reasons why companion breeds are thought to be prone to separation anxiety can be due to the fact that some owners unintentionally condition their dogs to demand constant affection and attention without letting them develop independence and healthy boundaries. This can result in neurotic breeds with a high level of emotional and physical dependence, and a low threshold of tolerance to stress. With that said, by nature companion breeds are not as active and independent as other breeds, and they bond closely with their owners. You should avoid adopting a companion breed if you work full time and you expect to leave the dog alone for long periods.
What triggers separation anxiety?
As we have seen with high-energy breeds, not all signs of distress are due to separation anxiety, although the symptoms can be very similar. If being alone in the house is the trigger, it may not be the problem.
With adult rescue dogs that were adopted, separation anxiety can be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by a traumatic past experience (abuse, phobias, or abandonment). The memory of these events can make the dog fearful and unable to cope with the stress of being alone. The resulting destructive or disruptive behaviors become a coping mechanism.
Dogs are highly sensitive to their environment, and can pick up quickly on anything abnormal or different in their surroundings, including changes in the owner's emotional states, or events that are out of the ordinary.
The stress can also be linked to a sudden change in the dog's environment. A new addition to the family (pet or human), a move to a new residence, a change in routine that results in the dog being left alone more often than before, a change of owners, a member of the family leaving the household, a divorce, can all result in the dog showing distress behaviors.
What medical problems should be ruled out?
You should be aware that some of the problems typically displayed in stress-related anxiety disorders can be due to medical conditions. It can be the case of adult dogs eliminating in the house, or compulsive behaviors such as excessive whining or scratching.
Some adult dogs may suffer from a form of incontinence. A number of medical issues—including a urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, neurological problems, and abnormalities of the genitalia—can cause urinary incontinence in dogs.
If a house-trained dog regularly soils the house or shows obsessive behaviors—even when you’re in—you should consult your vet to rule out any medical condition before attempting behavior modification or consulting a trainer. You should also be aware that if your dog is receiving medical treatment, there are a number of medications that can cause frequent involuntary urination. In doubt, ask your veterinarian.
Effective training strategies
The first thing a behaviorist will do in case of distress behaviors is to evaluate the dog’s history and observe the environmental factors, such as the dog's living conditions, his routine and the amount of exercise and mental stimulation he gets. The nature of the relationship between dog and owner must also be evaluated.
While it’s beneficial to start training puppies to be independent from a young age, adult shelter dogs can also be trained successfully, providing training is gradual and consistent, and preferably happens early in the adoption phase.
The following techniques are known to work to counter-condition the problems and desensitize the dog. The key is to gradually teach the dog to be independent, and to get used to being alone.
- Do something rewarding, stimulating, and energy-demanding with your dog before leaving the house (walk, games, sport). Physical exercise, especially 1 hour before the dog is left alone, is perhaps the most important and easiest training step to take. This is fundamental for working breeds, but it’s also needed—and often underestimated— for companion breeds.
- Gradually desensitize the dog to departures by withholding any display of affection or interaction 30 minutes before you leave. The key is to avoid cueing the dog about departure by creating unnecessary excitement. Make the actual departure as discreet as you can. Upon return, only a calm behavior from your dog should be rewarded with affection, and excited greetings must be discouraged.
- You can desensitize the dog to departures by gradually increasing the time you leave from 2 minutes to 15-30 minutes. This is particularly important when training puppies.
- Because dogs are very good at picking up cues about what is about to happen (getting your keys or putting your coat on), you can change the routine to desensitize the dog to departure triggers. You can either change pre-departure routines or pretend to leave. Expose your dog to as many of these cues as possible so that they no longer are predictive of departure. An alternative is to prepare for leaving out of the dog’s sight. The trick is to avoid as many departure cues as possible so that your dog’s anxiety doesn’t build-up before you leave.
- Use crate training to teach puppies and adult dogs to have a secure and cosy place of their own, and train independence. Read our comprehensive article on crate training.
- A climb bed is a useful tool to prevent a dog from following you compulsively around the house at all times. It is a place where your dog can be taught to rest, play with his toys or sleep, and provides an area to settle. You can begin by training your dog to go to the bed, and gradually shape longer stays with rewards. You can initially put the bed in the same room, then practice the dog to stay on the bed in different rooms for increased periods of time. In time, a daily routine should be established where the dog learns to lie on the bed after exercise, play, and training sessions. The trick is to get the dog used to be alone, even when you’re in the house.
- Some people get a dog sitter or another dog for company. If you really cannot take the dog with you for long periods, a dog sitter service is a good solution, but be aware that it's no substitute for training, and the dog might misbehave while in the presence of a stranger who has no leadership or authority. Adopting a second dog without training the first one could end up creating two problem dogs instead of one.
- Soft ambient music can sometimes help with a mild case of separation anxiety. You can also leave in a crate a piece of clothing with your scent to help relax the dog. It can also be useful to leave safe chew treats and large toys such as kongs filled with frozen peanut butter that can keep the dog busy and happy while you are away.
Mistakes to avoid
- Don’t put your dog into a crate during your absence unless crate training has already been done successfully and the crate is perceived by the dog as rewarding and safe. Don’t start crate training when the dog already displays signs of anxiety. If you try to crate a dog that is already stressed, and constrain him to the crate, this can throw the dog into a panic, and promote escape attempts that may result in injuries.
- Avoid excessive display of affection or excitement before leaving or when coming back. A dog mirrors your emotional state, the calmer you are, the calmer the dog.
- Avoid using anti-bark devices. They may be useful in the short term but will not solve the underlying problem, and might make your dog even more distressed.
- Do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses and are the only way your dog knows how to cope. If you punish him you will only exacerbate the problem.
- Do not reinforce attention-seeking behaviors by fussing or yielding to attention or affection demands. This is particularly important for companion breeds that are used to get their way by demanding attention, and can become little despotic bullies.
Can medication help with separation anxiety?
As a trainer, I’m not a huge fan of medication for stress-related issues. Sedating a dog alleviates symptoms but does not solve the real problem and can only be temporary.
With that said, in severe cases of anxiety disorders, medication can help moderate the manifestations and lower stress levels while the issues are addressed with training and behavior modification. To be fair, training takes time, and if a dog is highly stressed, the anxiety can impair progress or even prevent it.
I cannot emphasize enough that if a dog is disruptive or destructive because of chronic boredom or restlessness, sedating him won’t solve the issue. Although drugs may reduce the anxiety and help the dog to cope, the underlying cause of distress must be addressed, otherwise, you will end up with a depressed and apathetic dog instead of an anxious one.
Tranquilizers alone do not reduce a dog's anxiety and are only helpful to sedate a dog so that he is less likely to be destructive. Most dogs do best with either fluoxetine or clomipramine, sometimes combined with other anti-anxiety drugs where necessary.
Always consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog any type of medication.
We must remember that being alone is unnatural and stressful for highly social domestic animals like dogs. It is our responsibility to help make this unnatural situation less stressful.
Separation anxiety is a sign of stress, but not all destructive or disruptive behaviors are caused by separation issues. Many working breeds suffer from chronic stress due to lack of mental stimulation and physical exercise. Companion breeds must be trained to be independent, and owners need to learn to become calm and assertive leaders.
It is important not to give up on dogs with stress-related problems. You should seek professional help to get the issue diagnosed as soon as possible, and remember that in the majority of cases these problems are treatable.
I have to emphasize how important it is to choose a dog breed carefully, and be realistic about the lifestyle and living environment you can offer the dog, especially when it comes to needs that are inherent to the breed. Dogs require exercise and stimulation, leadership, boundaries and affection, but making them dependent on us is doing them a disservice.