Separation anxiety

6 Mar


What is it? 

Separation anxiety is defined as “anxiety provoked by separation or the threat of separation”, in the dogs case this will usually be separation from the owner, but I assume it could potentially be the separation from a companion animal (?). In dogs, separation anxiety is regarded as a social behavioural problem and really is something that should be dealt with.

There isn’t really any clear set rule or reason behind dogs developing separation anxiety, whilst some develop it, many do not.  Some dogs never have early experiences of being left alone and become sensitized to social isolation. Studies also suggest that dogs that have no obedience training or daily planned interactions with the owners are much more likely to develop separation anxiety. Strays may have had a similar problem before they were abandoned, or perhaps develop a closer attachment to humans because they were abandoned.

Other possible causes include: inherited predisposition; a learned component (such as a site specific factor); an environmental influence (such as a recent move).



The significant symptoms of separation anxiety usually begins within 5 and 30 minutes after the owner leaves, however, some dogs will begin showing signs as they anticipate departure. Diagnoses for separation anxiety may be difficult because there are a number of complaints that can be presented and can include one or more of the following:

  • Inappropriate urination
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Destructive chewing and/or
  • Digging
  • Excessive salivation
  • Fearful behaviour
  • Trembling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Excessive licking
  • Self-mutilation
  • Overactive greetings
  • Excessive attention seeking
  • Aggression at departures

 Some dogs will behave completely normally providing the owner is home. Some will show the same signs if they are prevented from getting physically close to the owner, even though the owner is still at home. Others will even show these signs if they are left with people, but not the owner.

When the owner is home, the dogs will often have a hyper attachment to the owner where they are excessively attentive, following the owner everywhere and constantly being underfoot, leaning on the owner, wanting physical contact or to be held.

The owner only ever finds the end result of the separation anxiety. Because they out when the symptoms occur, the problem is often underappreciated.


General trends:

  • One third are mixed breeds
  • Two thirds are males
  • In geriatric dogs, the incidence of separation anxiety increases to include between 30 and 50% of dogs.
  • Three times more likely to come from a shelter (about 30% of dogs show separation anxiety)
  • More likely to have been a stray
  • More likely to have noise phobia, territorial aggression, fear aggression towards strangers or have dominance aggression.



The first way in which you could potentially avoid your dog from developing separation anxiety is through making sure that you do not reward the wrong behaviour. When young puppies are separated they will use distress vocalisations as a method of reuniting them. This is one of the reasons why puppies tend to be very vocal in their first couple of nights left alone in their human home. If this behaviour is not rewarded by attention, they adapt.  I can use Maya here as the perfect example of what they do, and how we did the wrong thing. We initially wanted Maya to sleep outside in the kennel. For the first few days she cried (loudly) and threw herself around in the kennel, keeping us and half of our neighbours awake at night as well as potentially hurting herself in the process.  What we did wrong, was to go outside and check on her, telling her to be quiet. Eventually we even have in and ended up with her sleeping inside, with the radio on and a hot water bottle. She did adapt pretty quickly, once we stopped rewarding her behaviour.  Of course, whilst not rewarding unwanted behaviour remains true for rescue dogs and older dogs, you would possibly have a harder time getting them to adapt to being alone than you would a new puppy.


Developing separation anxiety:

When owned dogs suddenly develop separation anxiety, it is often related to a major change in the amount of time the dog spends with its owner, for example when an owner who was previously at home all day takes a job working outside of the home. Returning to work following an illness or unemployment can be the beginning of this problem, as can moving home or another dramatic change in the owners schedule.



In order to “cure” a dog with separation anxiety, you need to be very understanding, patient and dedicated to the task ahead.  As patience runs out, you might be tempted to use punish, but don’t, punishment is not appropriate. First, you need to identify specific cues (this might be jingling the car keys, or putting on your coat). These cues can then be eliminated, or the dog can be desensitized to them.

To desensitize, you will need to repeatedly carry out the cues at times when you are not leaving the house, for example, walking around the house jingling keys. Eventually, the cues will lose their significance to the dog. You should also avoid any emotional or excited actions related to departures or homecomings. No matter how the dog reacts when you leave or come home, ignore it, until it is in a calm and relaxed state of mind.  Desensitization is designed to get the dog used to the owners absence gradually and is therefore is less stressful and more permanent solution. However, you must remember that this is likely to be a long and drawn out process, so it takes a lot of patience and dedication. Your dog won’t come home from work after a couple of days and find the perfect scenario (a calm dog with a clean house) but you will begin to see improvements over time.

In mild cases, simpler techniques might be tried first. If the dog is focused on things with the owners scent such as shoes or clothing, leaving the dog with a “security blanket” could be enough to ease its anxiety whilst you are out. This basically means put something with your scent in your dog’s bed so that it feels close to you. Another option is using high value toys as a distraction method. Give the toy to the dog about 15 minutes before leaving (enough time to get engrossed) and make sure to pick it up again when you arrive home (so that it doesn’t lose its value).  I actually sometimes use this method with Maya. She doesn’t suffer from separation anxiety, but it is good to give a distraction to you leaving, particularly if the dog will be left alone for a longer period of time. Treat balls work wonders here. She also gets an item of my clothing or a towel to take with her when she goes to the kennels as a security blanket.

Drug therapy is an option, however it is not a magic cure and would probably only really have an effect on dogs with mild cases.



If your dog suffers from separation anxiety and you want to take the time to carry out systematic desensitization I would definitely recommend doing thorough research into exactly how you go about doing it. I would also suggest speaking to your vet for advice on what they think it the most suitable method and how to go about it correctly. Although there are methods to work on correcting this behaviour, it needs to be done properly. 


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