If you’re dealing with angry neighbors, damaged doors, soiled carpets, broken crates, or even an injured dog, you have probably heard the phrase “separation anxiety” or its cousins “isolation distress” and “separation-related behavior”. Whatever you call it, it’s hard on dogs and owners. But not every alone-time problem is separation anxiety. How can you tell what’s going on with your dog?
What is Separation Anxiety?
A dog with separation anxiety is stressed by being left alone, often to the point of panicking. Signs of separation anxiety behaviors include vocalizing, chewing or digging, eliminating, drooling, trying to escape, or even self-injury. There are also many more subtle signs that a dog is struggling.
Separation anxiety isn’t spite, anger, dominance, or a failure of obedience or training. Separation anxiety also isn’t an owner’s fault. While we don’t have good information about why some (up to half of dogs, by some estimates) will suffer from separation anxiety, it is not about being spoiled.
What Else Could It Be?
As more people become aware of separation anxiety as a potential issue, you may find yourself worried about your own dog. Maybe you’ve seen other behaviors that make you wonder if your dog is okay being alone.
Does the Behavior Happen When You’re There?
Some behaviors overlap with signs of separation anxiety but also of other, unrelated behavior problems. Does the behavior you’re concerned about only happen when your dog is alone? Or does it happen at the same frequency when you are there? For example, if your dog has a habit of chewing on inappropriate things when you are home or away, this is necessarily a sign of separation anxiety.
There are a few other behaviors that guardians are often concerned about. Does your dog:
- Always follow you from room to room
- Trying to follow you when you leave
- Get very excited when you return home
- Whine or bark when they can see you but not get to you (for example, if they are in their crate while you are in the same room)
While dogs that exhibit these behaviors could suffer from separation anxiety, these signs are not enough to determine that. Many dogs prefer to be near their people and will try to stay close. If prevented, they may try to get their person’s attention to change the situation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be distressed when they are actually alone.
Other Reasons for the Behavior
Whether or not the behavior is directly linked to being alone, there are many other reasons for vocalizing, eliminating, and being destructive when alone.
- Incomplete Housetraining
- Lack of Chew Training
- Boredom and Self-entertaining
- Confinement Distress (due to being in a crate or small space)
- Noise Sensitivity and/or Reactivity to Outside Activity
Each of these challenges can be worked on with training and behavior modification, but it’s important to correctly identify the problem first.
How To Tell
There’s one easy place to start figuring out what’s going on when you aren’t home. Watch your dog!
Do you have a laptop with a webcam, a tablet, and/or a smartphone? If you have at least two, you’re ready to watch your dog live. (If you only have one, you can use it to record your dog and watch after the fact.) Set up the camera and start a free Zoom meeting (or whatever video chat platform you like); then, join on a phone or tablet that you can take with you.
Now leave like you normally would and watch what happens. Don’t go far; you want to be able to come back quickly if your dog seems stressed or starts to be destructive.
Many dogs will bark or show signs of stress when you first walk out. Understandably, they would rather you stay with them! You are watching to see if they settle after a minute or two or if they continue to seem stressed. If their stress level stays high after a few minutes or escalates as time goes on, come back to them. You may be seeing the signs of separation anxiety.
If you see signs of separation anxiety during the first test, what do you do?
Mix It Up
You may want to experiment to see if your dog is more comfortable in different situations. For example, if you left your dog in a crate, are they calmer when loose in the house? What about if they are prevented from watching through the front windows? Or if they’re left with a special food-stuffed toy? None of these changes will fix the problem if your dog truly has separation anxiety, but they may address other reasons for the behavior.
Get a Vet Check
Physical health and behavior cannot be separated; it is important to address both. Perhaps surprisingly, separation anxiety can be a sign of medical issues, especially (but not exclusively) in senior dogs. If your dog was previously able to be left alone and nothing else has changed, prioritize a medical workup. If they are a senior or have chronic health issues, same thing. For other dogs, it is still worth ensuring there are no underlying medical concerns.
In most cases, separation anxiety can be resolved through behavior modification, particularly “systematic desensitization”. This means very gradually building the time that the dog is alone, but only at a pace where the dog is consistently showing that they are comfortable. There is no standard or “one size fits all” plan for this. Your dog needs to set the pace and be protected from feeling the stress and panic that they previously experienced.
Finding a trainer or behavior consultant who is skilled with handling this problem can be very valuable to many families. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSATs) have gone through special education and training on how to work through separation anxiety in an individualized manner. This training is all done remotely so wherever you are, you can find help.
You can learn more about separation anxiety training and schedule a free phone call to talk about your specific situation here. If you’re not sure that separation anxiety is your problem or you know that something else is going on but aren’t sure what to do about it, there’s still help available! You can learn more about training services here.
If your dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.