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Is your dog barking, howling or whining when you leave them? Are they destroying your house if you dare walking out without them? Do you come home to a soiled floor despite having a dog who is otherwise reliably potty trained? If you answered yes to one of those questions, they might be experiencing what is generically referred to as Separation Anxiety.
According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical association, Separation Anxiety is “one of the most common canine behaviour problems”. More than a quarter of the world dog population are believed to show those signs.
Besides being very hard for dog parents to live with, separation anxiety is also a welfare concern for our furry friends. It is also (sadly) a very frequent motive for giving up on a dog and surrendering them to a shelter.
You probably heard about the words separation anxiety many times, in very different situations, to describe many dog’s behaviour. “ My dog was upset when I left, she has separation anxiety”,” my dog chewing the furniture, he has separation anxiety”, “ he whined when I left him with my friend at the park, this is separation anxiety” and so on. But what do those words really mean ?
A few definitions
The terms Separation Anxiety are commonly used to describe what is actually called Separation Related Problems( SRP).
- Separation Related Problems (SRP) are behaviour that only happen, or happen in a greater intensity when dogs are on their own or when the figure of attachment is absent
There several kinds of SRB, the 2 major ones, that we’ll focus on here being :
- Isolation distress : the dog gets fearful when left on his own, but is fine as long as someone is there with them. Isolation distress allows the dog’s humans to find management solutions : day care, pet sitters/ walkers, etc…
- Clinical separation anxiety : the dog needs their figure of attachment to feel safe/ secure : only mom or dad’s presence will be good enough so the dog isn’t scared. Another person won’t do. That makes daily management quite hard, since they cannot be left with anyone else.
Other forms of SRP exist, they ‘ll be the subject of another article :
- Fear Of Missing Out behaviour
- Behaviour related to boredom
- Noise sensitivity/ Sound reactivity
- Behaviour linked to a health condition ( pain, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, etc)
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are experiencing what can be compared to a panic attack. Their whole body/brain is in “ survival mode” and the behaviour we can observe is a coping mechanism to what they consider a life threatening situation. Every dog reacts differently, and those behaviour have a function : attempting to reduce the distance between the dog and their humans, escaping, calling for help, feeling better, etc…
We know we are coming back when we leave, dogs don’t, and for some of them, seeing us leaving is the scariest thing in the world. For some dogs, we can even talk of a phobia to be left.
- “Fear is an emotional, behavioural and physical response to the stimulus that the animal perceives as threatening.”
- Anxiety is the anticipation of a danger or threat. The stimulus for the response is not always identifiable or present
- Phobia is a persistent and mal adaptative fear that is out of proportion to the situation or stimulus”
In this article, the terms separation anxiety will be used to refer to both isolation distress and clinical separation anxiety.
Most common signs of Separation Anxiety
|Separation anxiety ” symptoms”|
|Excessive vocalizations : barking, whining, howling|
|Destructions : chewing furniture, scratching around entrances/exits|
Self-harm : generally happening when the dog is trying to escape
Soiling when being otherwise potty trained
|Anxious behaviour (excessive agitation) before you leave|
Those are the most common expressions of separation anxiety. A dog can be anxious when left home alone and expressing only one of those behaviour or even none at all. They can express fear in different ways that are less noticeable ( and let’s face it less annoying for us) :
- Withdrawn behaviour,
- Whale eyes
- Tucking tail between legs,
Those don’t mean the dogs showing those signs are less scared, it just means they are coping with it in a less obvious way, and they need as much help as the ones destructing and vocalizing do.
It is extremely important to identify the cause of the behaviour, to be able to propose an adequate protocol. Only a certified/ trained dog behaviour specialist will be able to tell the difference between those different types of SRB, that will be addressed in a very different way whether the dog is expressing a true panic when being left on their own or they are lacking of physical/mental stimulation. Sometimes, the same SRB will be displayed by 2 different dogs, for different reasons :
- A dog chewing the furniture when left could be doing it because they are anxious and it makes them feel better to do so. She could also be bored, and doing it to pass time, and the reason why she isn’t doing it when her humans are home is because she knows she’ll be told off or punished for it ( she learned it’s safe to chew when humans are not here).
- A dog could be barking when his humans are leaving because he us truly fearful of being left. The same dog could also be experiencing FOMO and the barking is a way for him to say “ hey, what about me, you forgot to bring me along”. The body language in those 2 scenarios will appear to be quite the same, but the behaviour will be more intense at the beginning of the absence for the FOMO dog, and stop after a while, when for the anxious dog, it’ll last for the whole time he is on his own.
We won’t address chewing the furniture the same way whether it is done out of fear or out of boredom, it is totally essential to know the cause of the behaviour before working on it.
The causes of separation anxiety
It is very natural and human for separation anxiety dogs owners to wonder what might have caused it. What did I do wrong? Did I cause my dog’s separation anxiety? Should have I left him sleeping on the bed with me?
Those are questions I hear very often when meeting people living with separation anxiety dogs. You probably read an affirmative answer to your interrogations, but let me break it to you : it is NOT your fault. And it is NORMAL to look for answers. The issue is : answers are not very clear, and if some factors have been unanimously identified as potentially responsible for separation anxiety, studies are more conflicted about others.
Research have been trying for quite some time to make some sense to separation anxiety and its origins. Different studies have enlightened various probable causes of the fear dogs suffering from SA or isolation distress are experiencing :
- Life experience : environment where bred, being abandoned, unsecure attachment
- Anxious parents
- Absence or lack of alone time training : being exposed too soon to an absence they can’t cope with
- Sudden changes in environment : moving houses, change of schedule, loss of a companion, new person or pet in the family, etc..
- Health issues ( pain, Canine cognitive dysfunction, old age, loosing sight or hearing)
Even though there are a few factors that are recognized as potential factors for Separation anxiety, there are some others that are absolutely NOT causing it.
- Sleeping on the bed
- Lack of house rules
- Reassuring them when scared.
- Making a fuss when coming home and leaving
- Being too lenient
- Lack of authority
There is a bit of a controversy about the role played by hyper attachment in the development of separation anxiety. The relation between the 2 is quite complicated, as some dogs that are hyper attached and shadow their humans everywhere are not necessarily fearful of being left and vice versa.
Being happy home alone : a skill that needs to be trained.
One thing is sure and needs to be reminded : it is not natural for a dog to be on their own.
What’s left of their wild instinct screams that being isolated from the group means one thing : danger! Thousands of years of selective breeding to make them the best companions possible has consequences : they want to be around us, and if it could be all the time, they’d be very happy.
Alone time needs to be part of the basic training, the same way we teach our dogs how to come back to us and to sit down. It is though quite often left out when a new dog /puppy is joining the family. It should even be a priority to help them feeling comfortable when left alone as soon as we can, to avoid suddenly leaving them when urgently need to go and traumatize them.
A few separation anxiety myth taken down.
You probably read or heard many of those before. It doesn’t make them any more true. Most of them come from dominance based theories that have done quite some damage when it comes to dogs suffering from separation anxiety. It is very important to only rely on science, instead of what the uncle who “ had dogs his whole life and knows them so well “ says about it.
- “ My dog is destroying everything to get back at me, he is so naughty”. They are NOT, and I am 100% positive about this. Dog’s minds are way simpler than ours, and they will do whatever works. Every behaviour has a function, and the behaviour displayed is the result of fear they are feeling when they are left or in anticipation of being left. Revenge and plotting are things they simply aren’t capable of, even if they wanted to. They are not naughty, they are feeling bad and trying to cope any way they can.
- I need to be stricter to my dog, he thinks he is the boss in the house : now that you know that the behaviour displayed during home alone time are based on fear or even phobia, doesn’t it seem a bit ridiculous? Teaching your dog “their place” won’t help them feeling safer when you are not around. Full disclosure, it could even make it worse.
- “If I put them in a crate, she ‘ll be okay”: experience of thousands of separation anxiety trainers have shown that dogs who do better confined in a crate when home alone are quite rare. It will for sure stop some behaviour from happening, like destruction, but the dog isn’t feeling better. Some of them will actually even hurt themselves trying to get out of the crate. For those who will do better, being crated is also a skill that needs to be gently taught and associated with something positive.
The impact of a dog with separation on their human’s life is absolutely huge and it is important to address it. Do you feel like spontaneously going to the movies or to a gym class is an ancient memory? Do you feel trapped in your own home because you are afraid to leave your dog alone? Good news, separation anxiety is treatable. It takes time, dedication and a certified separation anxiety dog trainer to help you, but it works, and you can get your dog’s wellbeing ( and life) back!
The fear free treatment of Separation Anxiety.
Separation anxiety can be treated, with an individual protocol built with science based methods, by a qualified separation anxiety dog trainer.
The starting point of separation anxiety training : the assessment
Before even thinking about starting a training protocol, it is essential for the trainer to assess that the dog is actually suffering from either isolation distress or clinical separation anxiety. A behaviour consultation needs to be done as in order to see the “ whole picture”, and eventually address other challenges that the dog is experiencing. If the dog is suffering from SA, then an assessment of what level of exposition to absences they can comfortably cope with. They are different ways to do it but I personally don’t need to see the dog “freaking out” to be able to assess the situation. Instead, we gently observe what the dog is comfortable with.
A mandatory vet visit
There are 2 reasons why the dog needs to be seen by the vets before getting started with a separation anxiety training protocol :
- To rule out a health issue as the cause of the displayed behaviour : a dog who is in pain or suffering from pathologies to old age will be more likely to struggle with alone time.
- To discuss potential medication. Medication isn’t always necessary but can be a great combination to a systematic desensitization protocol in some cases. It shouldn’t be a last resort, used when everything has been tried and didn’t work. It is really important to at least talk about it with before starting the training protocol and to keep an open mind. Using medication to support the training process doesn’t mean the dog will be on it for his whole life. I have heard many times concerns about the dog being a “zombie” if on medication, and they are not supposed to be! When the molecule and dosage is right for the dog, their personality stays the same, it just helps them processing information learned during training in a calmer and more rational way.
Management : suspending absences until the dog is comfortable
This one of the most important aspects, and one of the keys to a successful systematic desensitization protocol. During separation anxiety training, we are re programming the dog’s brain to think humans leaving is safe, that it isn’t a big deal because they are always coming back. Exposing the dog to an absence they are not ready for and during which they are experiencing fear ( going over threshold) will cause a set back re sensitise them to being alone.
Management is crucial when starting a training protocol, and is also a big point of struggle among dog parents : since the dog can’t be left more than they can handle, care solutions need to be found. It is even harder for dogs with clinical separation anxiety that will only be okay if they are with one of their attachment figures. Sometimes, very creative solutions need to be found to be able to deal with life situations.
Systematic desensitization is a behaviour modification technique that consists of exposing the dog to a stimulus at a level they are comfortable with ( under threshold) to slowly be able to extend their comfort zone. Applied to home alone training, that means the dog is only exposed to duration of absences they can handle without showing signs of stress. For most cases, humans aren’t even able to go out the door in the first stages of the training. If food is used for a lot of sensitization protocols, separation anxiety training doesn’t involve food for 2 reasons
- We want the dog to be fully aware of what is happening. Some dogs will eat when left, then realize when food is gone that they are alone and start feeling anxious at that moment. Some others won’t even be able to eat, because their emotional state won’t allow it. Would you go make yourself a sandwich before trying to get out of a house on fire or calling for help?
- If food is systematically used for leaving the dog alone, it becomes a predictor of the absence, and the dog can start fearing being given a treat or chew.
What the training protocol looks like :
Little training missions are built and sent to the dog’s family, 5 times a week. Training should last between 20 and 30 minutes. The training missions are absences rehearsal, and the dog’s body language is being watched by both his humans and the trainer, to make sure they are comfortable with what is happening. The dog’s comfort zone is then slowly extending, and the dog is able to cope with longer and longer duration.
It is essential to watch the dog’s body language to keep them under threshold at all times. Before experiencing full blown fear, dog will start showing signs of stress, that will be a good feedback to adjust the training. Some of those signs can be :
- Lip licking
- Rapid movements
Like with every desensitization protocol, progress is never linear : plateau and regression phases are part of the learning process, and data analysis will help the trainer adjusting and keep taking the dog’s family through the finish line.
Separation anxiety training : a remote service
Desensitization to absences is always done remotely. The only things you need to be able to train is a reliable internet connection and a camera to watch your dog during absence rehearsal. That way, you don’t necessarily need to find a trainer in your city. The only thing that matters is having someone who’s approximatively on your time zone, to coordinate live training slots.
Living with a dog suffering from separation anxiety can be very difficult to cope with and manage on a daily basis. Do you feel trapped in your own house because you can’t leave your dog? Do you feel guilty every time you are walking out the door without them? Those are normal emotions, and the good news is : I can help you. I am one of Julie Naismith’s Separation Anxiety Pro Trainers https://julienaismith.com/find-a-trainer/) and I am using a method that has helped thousands of dogs all over the world.
Go check out my separation anxiety training page for more info https://dog-training.ie/certified-separation-anxiety-trainer/ and feel free to ask if you have any additional questions.
Lea Chevalier- Harmony 4 Paws dog training
Separation Anxiety in dogs, Next Generation Treatment Protocols and Practices ( 2020) Malena Di Martini Price
Be right back, How to overcome your dog’s separation anxiety and regain your freedom (2019) Julie Naismith
Be right back, Puppy separation anxiety edition (2021); your Simple Step-by-Step Guide to Raising an Easy-Going, Independent, Happy-Home-Alone Puppy
Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs.’ (2001), Flannigan, G. and Dodman, N.H., Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.