Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Causes and Solutions

Feel free to use the navigation below to jump to the appropriate section:

  1. What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
  2. Signs of Separation Anxiety
  3. Why Do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
  4. What Is Not Separation Anxiety?
  5. Separation Anxiety and Isolation Distress: What’s The Difference?
  6. Separation Anxiety Solutions
  7. What Happens if Separation Anxiety Goes Untreated?
  8. Get Professional Help

What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Separation anxiety is a stressful and traumatic experience for dogs that can also ruin the quality of life for a dog parent. If your dog follows you everywhere and acts like your shadow, or if your dog exhibits stress or destructive behavior when you are not home, your dog likely has separation anxiety.

Some parents think that it’s endearing and cute when their dog is attached to them at the hip and follows them everywhere, but what is not understood is that the dog is displaying those behaviors because they lack the confidence to self-sooth independently, are untrained, insecure and have fear, anxiety, and stress.

When it comes time for a parent to go to work, socialize or anytime the dog must be left alone, the dog becomes phobic, causing significant behavior and health problems. In addition to anxiety being traumatic for the pet, separation anxiety is a very serious disorder that affects a parent’s quality of life as well.

Many studies have shown that when a parent leaves their pet alone, emotional, physical, pathological, and detrimental conditions ensue, shortening the lifespan of your dog. For example, “It was predicted that dogs with fear and anxiety disorders would have decreased lifespan and increased disease frequency and severity. Dogs with extreme non-social fear and separation anxiety were found to have an increased severity and frequency of skin disorders.”

If a dog or puppy’s separation anxiety goes untreated, these ailments increase your pets’ susceptibility to other diseases and health problems and subject a pet to the increased likelihood of stress, recurrent health issues and infections in their lives.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

As with other dog anxiety and stress signals, dogs may exhibit any combination of the following signs of separation anxiety in the absence of the parent:

  • Panting
  • Yawning
  • Tongue-flicking
  • Licking
  • Drooling
  • Sweaty Paws
  • Salivation
  • Inappetence – Lack of appetite/interest in food when a pet parent is gone
  • Lack of interest in toys/games when a parent is gone
  • Vocalization (whining, barking, yelping, howling, crying)
  • Destructive behavior (chewing, tearing, biting, digging, destroying items)
  • Shadowing behavior – following a parent around nonstop
  • Hyperattachment to parent
  • Excess excitement upon pet parents return (whining, jumping, running in circles)
  • Escape Behaviors
  • Trembling, tense muscles
  • Displacement behaviors
  • Repetitive behaviors (Canine Compulsive Disorder)
  • Pacing
  • Vigilance/Hypervigilance
  • Shaking
  • House soiling/Incontinence
  • Coprophagia
  • Door orientation/fixation

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Why Do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?

All behaviors are a combination of nature and nurture, even genetic ones such as Separation Anxiety Disorder. Phenotype and genotype shape all animal behavior. Some of the dog’s anxiety is caused or exacerbated by a parent and others are genetically inherited. In order to focus on the solutions to a dog’s separation anxiety, it is mandatory to do a functional behavior assessment and to consider the behavior of the dog before, during and after separation, antecedent arrangement, behavior and consequences (ABC) of each unique family and dog.

What causes separation anxiety? Research has shown that separation anxiety in dogs is correlated to the gender of the pet parent, how many people live in the home and the age and ontogeny of the dog.  It goes on to state that, “Dogs from a home with a single adult parent were approximately 2.5 times as likely to have separation anxiety as dogs from multiple parent homes.” and that neutered dogs may be more prone to separation anxiety compared to their intact brethren.

Research also shows the correlation between thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety. If your dog has either one of these phobias, chances are they will have both.

Although dog’s are not pack animals, they are social gregarious animals like us, and abrupt change, lack of stability, and routine is uncomfortable and destabilizing for dogs. Because there is no conclusive evidence pointing to “one” reason or thing that causes separation anxiety here is a list of the possible (likely) culprits of contributing factors of separation anxiety in pets. As always every behavior is a combination of phenotype and genotype (nature/nurture).

  • Dog’s genetics
  • Change in dog or person’s schedule. Dogs are routine animals, and a slight change may affect them significantly.
  • Change in residence. This is a significant change in a dog’s life and comes with stress and uncertainty. It upsets their routine and may trigger separation anxiety.
  • Change in partners or household residences. One or more people move out of the home.
  • Environmental stressors
  • Dog’s unhealthy extreme attachment to people and their social nature
  • Lack of dog training and consistency
  • Lack of enrichment in a dogs environment
  • Lack of socialization and play with people and dogs
  • Poor breeding/congenital/inherited
  • Stress
  • Lack of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (SD/CC)
  • Lack of habituation to absences and departure cues

Keep in mind that dogs who come from shelter environments, rescue organizations, who are rehomed, or who are older tend to have the greatest propensity to display separation anxiety.

What Is Not Separation Anxiety?

There are many dog anxiety behaviors and medical ailments that might look like separation anxiety but are not by themselves separation anxiety. It’s important to remember that separation anxiety is measured in degrees on a continuum so while some dog behaviors may indicate a dog is in stress, the behaviors and stress might not be extreme enough to reach phobic anxiety levels when a dog is diagnosed with separation anxiety. These dog behaviors and conditions do not by themselves indicate separation anxiety.

General dog anxiety, fear, storm/noise phobias, and fear aggression to dogs or people oftentimes look like separation anxiety but they are different behavior problems that are not by themselves called dog separation anxiety. Separation distress is different from separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety and Isolation Distress: What’s The Difference?

The difference between both of these disorders is the level of fear and the behavior the dog exhibits. Both fear and behavior are measured in degrees. They are both on the emotional continuum whereas separation anxiety is at the extreme phobic end of the stress behavior scale, a full-on panic attack, and isolation distress is a few degrees less stressful.

Equally important is the terminology difference between “separation” and “isolation.”

Isolation distress, (sometimes interchangeably referred to as separation distress) is the discomfort a dog is in when left alone. However, the dog can cope and be soothed when left with another person, any person or dog.

A dog suffering from isolation distress doesn’t want to be left alone at all. However, the dog doesn’t have to be with a specific person.  Whereas with separation anxiety, no random person will sooth a pet besides the one person who the pet is unhealthily emotionally attached to.

In other words, if you can have a pet sitter or friend hang out with your dog and everything is OK when you leave, your dog may have isolation distress. However if your dog is manic when you leave and no amount of other people can soothe him or her, your pet has separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety Solutions

When treating separation anxiety, one has to look at the whole dog, not a fractionalized compartmentalization of a dog or behavior problem. When treating the dog’s emotional, mental, physical and behavioral illness, a successful treatment plan for separation anxiety will be addressed similar to how all behavior disorders are examined, through a functional assessment.  Addressing the dog and parent relationship and examining and implementing operant and respondent conditioning, systematic desensitization, habituation, and positive reinforcement dog training, physical and mental exercise, healthy nutrition, socialization, and play but also requiring a parent to change their habits, environment and when and how they give their dog attention.

Separation anxiety solutions require trial and error to see what your unique dog responds to as no two dogs or circumstances are the same. There is no one solution, whether separation anxiety is treated with behavioral medicine, behavior modification or both. Because of the extreme severity of separation anxiety and the genetic component of the disorder, both behavior modification and medicine are typically needed. Simply putting your dogs on Prozac or another form of psychopharmaceuticals will generally not work nor will address any of your dog’s behavior, training, self-soothing, and confidence-building coping ability.

On the other hand, just practicing dog training and behavior modification without behavioral medicine will also not work because when a dog’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, your dog is over their fear threshold and therefore unable to learn or process any information or think. They are in a fight, flight, fear mode and in a state of panic.

No two dog separation anxiety cases are the same, and treating dogs with anxiety requires vast experience in dealing with thousands of separation anxiety cases, and knowledge of ethology, cognitive ethology, psychopharmacology, epidemiology, ontogeny and as always thinking outside of the box. A full medical history, examination, and analysis should be performed prior to administering any dog psychological medicines, dog training or behavior modification protocols are implemented to rule out any medical conditions that may be the cause of your dog’s anxiety before proceeding with a certified behaviorist.

There are many separation anxiety products to help a pet with dog anxiety. As helpful as these are, just like behavioral medicine, they do not work in a vacuum by themselves. Behavior modification is needed and often times over -the -counter holistic products and remedies are effective for lower levels of dog anxiety are not as helpful for dogs with extreme phobias such as separation anxiety cases. It is vital to understand that a dog will not likely “get over” their phobia of being left alone, or grow out of their separation anxiety. In fact, in most cases, untreated separation anxiety typically gets worse, not better with time.

In addition, it is critical to remember that a pet who is experiencing separation anxiety is in trauma so don’t wait to address separation anxiety to see if it gets better over time, take action immediately. There is no one size fits all cure or panacea for unique individuals, but some indispensable tools and protocols that help and ameliorate dog anxiety and separation anxiety are:

  • Video camera and audio are mandatory to assess the severity, duration, and frequency of your pet’s separation anxiety when you are not home. This is a vital tool to monitor a dogs’ separation anxiety and to implement and treat separation anxiety.
  • Behavior modification (habituation, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning {D/CC})
  • Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and only positive reinforcement, force-free Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) with many years of experience working with pet separation anxiety. Never punish or force a dog for being fearful or scared as that is inhumane and will only make matters much worse.
  • Employ your dog. Consider getting a dog backpack, giving your dog a job and have your dog work for rewards. Contrafreeloading
  • Ignore shadowing around the house and pushy dogs that demand attention
  • Reward calm and confident behavior in your dog’s Zen environment
  • Do not encourage shadowing behavior
  • Implement a relaxation and deference protocol
  • Encourage independence and perform confidence building exercises
  • Desensitize to departure and arrival cues (jacket, keys, car, shoes, glasses, hat, perfume, purse/bag/backpack, routine, alarm, times/days, TV, lights, radio)
  • Avoid giving attention at least 30 minutes prior to departure and after arrival
  • Environmental management
  • Antecedent arrangement
  • Functional assessment
  • Pharmacotherapy (medicine/drugs) is not successful when used alone. Drugs do not resolve problems and only aid in the behavior modification protocol. Because separation anxiety is a genetic disorder, many pets who exhibit separation anxiety need psychopharmaceuticals. However, it’s worth repeating that meds alone will not solve separation anxiety.
  • D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) – Research shows that DAP helps working dogs such as gundogs, to display fewer nights of whining and crying distress.
  • Thunder Vest and the evidence of pressure wraps
  • Lavender chamomile or other calming essential oils research bodes well for relaxation
  • Another holistic option is Rescue Remedy by Bach Flower
  • Supplements such as L-Theanine, Valerian Root, and Composure
  • Dog/Cat heating pad 
  • Canine classical music
  • Regular exercise, enrichment, play, and socialization with dogs and people
  • Use food-dispensing toys for all meals and treats when not using the food for training and behavior modification protocols
  • Environmental enrichment
  • Socialization (other dogs, species, and people)
  • Avoid leaving dogs alone for prolonged periods, doggie daycare, dog boarding, and pet sitters
  • I have also used mannequins wearing pet parents lightly soiled clothing in combination with video obedience training to successfully soothe pets when left alone
  • The best results come from a combination of the above

Other tools that may be of help are the Treat and Train, Pet Tutor, Furbo, and any other video/audio apps and software devices.  These will help to train your dog by rewarding them from a distance if you are a single parent and while out of sight.

It is imperative to avoid triggering fear/anxiety. Although sometimes impossible to accomplish, try your best to avoid replicating the behaviors that result in where your dog is stressed. It helps to brainstorm, be creative and to discuss with your certified behaviorist the different options and scenarios where you may avoid putting your dog in any undue stress and panic.

In addition, create a safe room or Zen area of your home where your dog feels confident and comfortable and train often with your dog there. Conditioning your dog to go to their bed or Zen area is a wonderful and effective replacement behavior instead of shadowing you around the house. Once your dog’s Zen area is established through thousands of repetitions, you may slowly begin graduated departures and training out of your dog’s sight with one of the video/audio tools of your choice.  As with all social animals, empowering a dog, fosters learning, comfort, and calm homeostasis. Always empower your pet and let your dog choose this safe Zen area, not you.

Research shows that adding an additional dog or having another dog at home does not help a dog who is suffering from separation anxiety. However, if a legacy pet departs, it can cause separation anxiety to develop or to be displayed. This makes sense because separation anxiety begins to show itself the more destabilizing an environment is. When a life-altering event such as another dog or family member dies or leaves the home, this jarring emotional event can trigger a dog who is already predisposed to separation anxiety.

Systematic desensitization is shown to treat separation anxiety well and be an effective behavior modification protocol if when it is practiced consistently and properly by a parent or behaviorist.

It is important to remember that rewarding and comforting a dog who is exhibiting a conditioned emotional response (CER) or a conditioned fear response (CFR) will not encourage, reward or teach that emotion to reoccur or become stronger. Emotions are not reinforceable, behaviors are. You will not be rewarding a dog for shaking or exhibiting stress and fear. Conversely, you will be helping your pet. It is incumbent upon a pet parent to assuage and ameliorate a pet’s panic attack and fear by comforting your dog and by seeking appropriate help. Just as you would help assuage a child who is terrified, you should also comfort a pet.

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What Happens if Separation Anxiety Goes Untreated?

When separation anxiety goes untreated, a dog is prone to developing the same illnesses that occur with dog anxiety, fear, and stress

  • Compulsions
  • Reduced and altered blood flow to vital organs
  • Physical Pain
  • Emotional Dysregulation
  • Maladaptive Behaviors
  • Displacement Behaviors
  • Nutrition Metabolism Disorders
  • Sleep Disorder
  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Separation anxiety in dogs is an acute or chronic unnatural, unhealthy phobia and stress which ensues when a dog is left alone from their pet parent. Separation anxiety often occurs with shelter dogs and older dogs who experience substantial change and instability in the family home. It takes a great deal of time and energy to help a dog with separation anxiety, and you should have reasonable expectations and time frames before calling a certified dog behaviorist and dog trainer with extensive experience in dealing with puppy separation anxiety.

A dog’s separation anxiety can also get a parent evicted from their home or fined by the HOA or landlord. Studies reveal that cortisol levels (a steroid hormone released in response to stress) spike even for dogs that are left alone who do not display signs of separation anxiety.  Separation anxiety and your dog’s clinginess are far from cute or endearing and they will immediately end your social life.

It is incumbent upon certified dog behaviorist, or competent certified positive reinforcement dog trainer to diagnose a dogs behavior problem not only from the parents account of what happens but also empirically and through videos and audio while the parent is not home, to fully assess the duration, frequency, and intensity of a dog’s separation anxiety, all subtle dog behaviors, and contextual variables. Often parents misdiagnose and overlook subtle, yet important behaviors that they are doing to exacerbate the dog’s anxiety and the dog’s behavioral clues that are vital to the behavior modification protocol.

Get Professional Help

Separation anxiety is a very serious genetic disorder that is often exacerbated by a parent. It can be life-threatening and is a traumatizing experience for dogs. It is not to be taken lightly and left untreated does not get better with time; conversely, it intensifies and becomes more complex. If it is determined that your dog’s separation anxiety is severe, psychotropics can be very effective in combination with behavior modification.

As with all treatments, the sooner you get started the better. Never scold or punish your dog for any reason, in particular for being afraid and having fear. Instead teach your dog how to cope and learn in a healthy, confidence-building way through empowering exercises. Be patient. Depending on the intensity, lasting reprieves from separation anxiety are measured in months and take a lot of commitment and time.  You are not alone, separation anxiety is treatable and common, occurring in many dogs. Consistency, patience, and repetition will pay off with a skilled force-free, CDBC, and CPDT. Your dog will thank you.

We are dog separation anxiety specialists and have been successfully helping parents of dogs who have anxiety for decades! Fill out this short form for an expert certified dog behaviorist and trainer to help you with your dog’s separation anxiety today.

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