Help, I can’t leave my dog alone! This is what you need to know about separation anxiety.

Lonely puppy
Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a serious condition that has significant impacts on a dog’s wellbeing. In fact, about 17% of all dogs have separation anxiety and it’s one of the most common reasons why people give up their dog. 

If you’ve got a dog with separation anxiety, it is likely that training your dog on how to be alone might feel like an impossible task right now. The good news is that separation anxiety can be cured with the right approach and techniques.

Many first time owners and even experienced ones struggle with getting their pup used to spending time by itself without whining or trying to follow them around. To make sure you choose the right approach to help your dog get over separation anxiety, I will discuss the most common symptoms of separation anxiety, the different separation anxiety types and the emotions involved.

Whether you have just acquired a new puppy or are struggling with training a dog that you’ve had for years, read on!

In this article I will discuss:

What is separation anxiety in dogs?

First things first. What exactly is separation anxiety? Separation anxiety is made up of a cluster of behaviours that are only expressed when your dog is left alone. Even though most of the time these behaviours are caused by fear, for some dogs it is caused by frustration or boredom (more about this in the section below), so the proper sciency term is actually separated-related behaviours. Ok, now we got that out of the way, how do you know that your dog has it?

The signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs

If your dog has separation anxiety, you will notice at least one of the following signs and symptoms when your dog is alone:

If your dog soils the house and destroys your belongings while you’re away, it’s pretty obvious that she has a problem. But it is important to rule out any underlying medical conditions first, because these can also make your dog more fearful and express signs of anxiety. 

But let’s assume that you’ve been to your vet and ruled out any medical problems. What if you do not see destroyed items and your house is clean? Can she still have separation anxiety?

The answer is yes. Many dogs constantly howl, whine or bark when they are alone. This is actually the most common sign of separation anxiety. It is pretty obvious when your dog does this (have you talked to your neighbours?). But other dogs express more subtle signs, such as not being able to relax when alone. They will stay ‘alert’ the whole time, and will not lie down and rest. Maybe they’ll whine softly. They may pace around the house, and show body language of stress (e.g., lip licking, yawning etc). 

How to know if your dog has separation anxiety?

But how can you tell your dog has separation anxiety? You’re out of the house, right? 

Well, it’s simple… film your dog while you’re away. Use your camera on your phone and leave it with your dog for 60 min while you leave the house. Come back and watch the video, and look for the above signs. 

Why does my dog have separation anxiety?

It is almost impossible to say exactly why your dog has separation anxiety. Research in this area is done on big groups of dogs, mostly by questionnaires given to the owners of dogs with and without separation anxiety, so that they can be compared. In these large groups of dogs, it is possible to detect correlational patterns across the study population.

For example, dogs with y (separation anxiety) are more likely to have x (for example, barking at strangers). 

Lonely dog behind fence

However, it is important to remember that a correlation does not mean causality. So it does not necessarily mean that x caused y, although it could have. Maybe y caused x instead, or there was a third factor, z, that we didn’t measure but that influences both x and y. Science is so frustrating, I know…. Never a clear answer.

But I will discuss some of these correlations here, because they do give us some important insights. 

The emotional state of dogs with separation anxiety

The underlying emotional state is a critical factor in helping your dog with separation anxiety. Some people believe their dog chews up their furniture or soils the house out of spite. There is simply no evidence for this. No, the distress and panic that your dog experiences is real. But where exactly does it come from?

Guess what, a dog with separation anxiety already has an underlying negative emotional state, even when they are not alone. So it seems that a lot of separation anxiety is driven by negative emotions, which may include both depressive and anxious emotions.  

But let’s dig a little deeper. In a large study questioning over 2,700 owners of dogs with separation anxiety, four different ‘types’ of separation anxiety were identified:

Type 1. Exit frustration

The smallest group (about 17%) consisted of dogs showing high levels of exit frustration (destruction directed at the doors and windows) as well as redirected frustration (destroying items in the house, such as the owners clothes or furniture), combined with high social panic (for example, vocalisations, restlessness and agitation when left alone).

The authors of the study suggest that these dogs find being alone aversive (social panic signals), and attempt to return to their owner (exit frustration), but are unable to do so because they can’t leave the home. So instead they find another way to cope and start to chew up the furniture (redirected frustration).

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Type 2. Redirected reactive

This group made up about 29% of dogs that showed high redirected frustration (destroying items in the house) combined with reactive communication. Reactive communication includes barking when the doorbell rings, when meeting a stranger or barking when it can’t reach an unfamiliar person.

These dogs also show social panic, and frequently display distress behaviours when left alone. The study authors suggest that these dogs are fearful and sensitive to external events (reactive communication), and they frequently try to reach these stimuli as an immediate response (exit frustration). Because they are unable to do so because the door is closed, they find an alternate way of coping by chewing up the furniture (redirected frustration).

Type 3. Reactive inhibited

This was the largest group in the study, making up over 35% of dogs. These dogs showed high levels of reactive communication (see paragraph above) combined with social panic, but very low levels of frustration (destroying the door, windows or items in the house). The authors suggest that these dogs also react to external events (reactive communication), but unlike the redirected reactive dogs, they do not attempt to go after these stimuli.

This could be because they are generally more anxious and avoidant than the redirected reactive dogs. And these dogs most likely experience the absence of the owner as a loss of social support (social panic). But they somehow manage to find some feeling of safety in the home, which lowers their arousal and stops them from chewing up the furniture.

Type 4. Reactive under-stimulated

This group makes up about 18% of dogs and these dogs do not show a clear pattern in their behaviour. They most often show signs of social panic, but the other signs happen less often. The authors suggest that these dogs have learned that being alone is aversive due to a lack of stimulation (aka boredom). They may become more sensitive and reactive to things happening in their environment over time (reactive communication), which in turn may lead to redicted frustration, because they can’t escape. 

This study is a great start in getting to better understand why dogs with separation anxiety do what they do, and identifying different underlying emotions and motivations. It gives us some good foundations to start treating dogs taking into account their individual separation anxiety types.

dog looking out through gate

Whining, howling, or barking. Does it make a difference?

Well, perhaps it does. A study combined an extensive questionnaire with an actual behavioural test in which dogs were separated from the owners. They found that more fearful dogs (as identified by the questionnaire) were more likely to whine during the separation test.

On the other hand, dogs that were considered as more ‘demanding’ by their owners may have a lower frustration threshold and were more likely to bark during the separation test. 

These results are interesting, because they suggest that whining may indicate an underlying emotion of fear, while barking may indicate frustration. However, we need to be careful and not over-interpret this data. It is not a diagnosis but may be used as a guideline. 

Take home message

Separation anxiety is a serious condition that requires proper attention and treatment. Left untreated, it can lead to a whole host of problems.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to get your life back on track, but it can be incredibly difficult for dog owners to manage on their own.

If your dog shows any of the symptoms discussed above, it will greatly benefit you and your dog if you seek the guidance of a professional.

Is my dog hyper-attached to me?

Many dogs with separation anxiety follow their owners around the house constantly and get very agitated when their owners are getting ready to leave. Some may also go a little crazy when the owner comes back home. A common belief is that a dog with separation anxiety is hyper-attached to the owner, and should be taught to be more independent. But is this really true?

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five common misconceptions about treating separation anxiety in dogs

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