Does Your Dog Really Have Separation Anxiety?

Understanding the differences between separation anxiety and separation-related behaviors will help with the diagnosis and treatment of an affected dog.

The term “separation anxiety” is more widely known now than ever before. During the pandemic, lockdowns and work-from-home mandates hugely increased the number of dogs no longer left home alone on a regular basis. Add to this the equally large number of dogs that were adopted during the pandemic but never introduced to being alone because of the circumstances. When people resumed their normal activities and started leaving the house again, many observed negative reactions from their dogs, such as vocalizing, destroying objects in the home, trying to escape, and inappropriate elimination. People referred to the issue as separation anxiety…but is this really what these dogs are experiencing?

SEPARATION ANXIETY VS. SEPARATION-RELATED BEHAVIORS

Although separation anxiety is very common, and can even be referred to as one of “the dog behavior diseases of the 21st century,” there are actually many other reasons dogs can display these behaviors when left at home alone. These are referred to as separation-related behaviors rather than separation anxiety.

So what’s the difference? Separation-related behaviors are all the undesirable behaviors a dog can display when left home alone without humans. A wide range of behaviors can fall into this category, with vocalizing, destruction, and inappropriate elimination being the most common.

However, the underlying motivation for a dog to display any of these behaviors when alone can vary:

  • There are many reasons why a dog may bark when alone. It could be the environment — barking may occur in dogs living in a busy neighborhood, or in a home with wide front windows from which they can see other dogs passing by, children playing outside, or the mail carrier coming up the walk.

NOTE: The dog’s health might be impacting his behavior. Pain or discomfort can trigger behaviors such as vocalizing, eliminating in undesirable places, and pacing.

  • A dog whose mental and physical needs aren’t being met, or whose routine and environment don’t meet the requirements of his breed, could engage in destructive behaviors when alone and unsupervised.

NOTE: Pacing, panting, hyper-salivating, self-harming, and trying to escape can also be separation-related behaviors.

  • Lack of communication and understanding between the dog and his human family about expected boundaries, and which behaviors are off-limits, could lead to behaviors such as destruction and elimination when human guidance is absent.
  • Being introduced to a new home without subsequently being left alone in the new environment could be reason enough for a dog to display some of these behaviors when finally left for the first time. Understanding that the dog doesn’t necessarily know the new place is safe can make it easier to comprehend this reaction. However, dogs who don’t suffer from separation anxiety know how to effectively use their coping mechanisms to face this new challenge. This means that over time, you’ll see a decrease in the intensity of the signs, as well as the length of time it takes the dog to process the situation and relax.
  • Dogs who are confined when home alone, either in a crate or room, or with baby gates or x-pens, could display signs of distress. They experience confinement as an aversive stimulus, and being exposed to it releases a fight or flight response that triggers involuntary behaviors like vocalizing and trying to escape.
  • A dog who suffers from noise sensitivity could display signs of distress when left alone because of a particular noise in the environment at that time, or during that season.
  • Separation anxiety itself could also be the underlying cause of separation-related behaviors.

NOTE: Fireworks, thunderstorms, high-pitched noises such as fire alarms, and construction noises, among others, could be triggering an emotional response that can look like separation anxiety.

Ruling out what is causing these behaviors will allow you to successfully address them with an appropriate management, training, or medical plan that targets the root of the problem.

SO WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?

Separation anxiety is defined as a disorder in which the dog exhibits an extreme fear of being alone. Because he experiences being left alone as an aversive stimulus, it elicits an emotional and involuntary response. It’s considered dysfunctional because of the dog’s limited chances to naturally adapt to it, increasing the likelihood that the behavior will escalate over time.

But why does a dog lose the ability to adapt, and why does this become a disorder? Although the cause of separation anxiety is still unknown, evidence suggests a genetic predisposition. A high correlation has been found between different anxiety disorders such as noise sensitivity, generalized anxiety, confinement issues, and separation anxiety. This suggests that some dogs have a greater likelihood of developing these issues at some point during their lives.

NOTE: Our fast-changing world has resulted in a very different environment from the one known to dogs 50 years ago.

Artificial selection has impeded genetics from keeping up with these changes and allowing dogs to better adapt to the constant shifts. In its turn, captivity has prevented dogs from having a choice about their environment and developing tools to face it. These events, although not yet fully recognized, have created an imbalance between the environment and the genetics of dogs, and could be the ultimate cause behind the exponential increase in emotional disorders such as separation anxiety.

WHAT DO DOGS WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY HAVE IN COMMON?

The behaviors that dogs with separation anxiety display when alone are an expression of the underlying fear and stress they are experiencing, which means they can vary from dog to dog. Since separation-related behaviors are also unspecific, and could have different underlying motivations, determining that a dog actually suffers from separation anxiety can be challenging.

Although there is no rule about what signs or combination of signs a dog needs to display to be classified as having separation anxiety, there are a few things dogs with this disorder have in common.

When a dog with separation anxiety is exposed to being left alone (which represents an aversive stimulus to him), he will try to cope with it.

NOTE: As the intensity of the stimulus increases (i.e. the longer you’re out), he will reach a point where he can’t successfully handle it anymore.

This stage, called the threshold, will be marked by the first overt behavior suggesting distress. After this point, the dog won’t be able to settle again and will continue displaying signs of distress until the intensity of the stimulus decreases or is removed (i.e. the absence ends and someone returns). Instead, the signs will either increase in intensity over time, or will occur cyclically until someone is back.

If no training plan has been successfully implemented, and the dog hasn’t yet learned to stay relaxed for longer than 30 minutes of his family’s absence, it is likely that this threshold will be reached within that first 30 minutes.

Even though the unspecific nature of the signs surrounding separation anxiety might lead to confusion, body language that suggests distress while performing these behaviors will allow us to differentiate between alert barking, destructive behavior due to excess energy and/or boredom – and behaviors being triggered by fear and anxiety.

Consulting a specialist and implementing an alone time assessment to objectively observe the behaviors a dog displays when left on his own is the cornerstone of the separation anxiety diagnosis. Ensuring an accurate diagnosis will in turn allow us to choose the appropriate training plan and medical aids, which will ultimately help the dog rehabilitate and succeed.


Veterinarian Dr. Moira Hechenleitner graduated in 2007 from Mayor University College of Veterinary Medicine in Santiago, Chile. She is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), a postgraduate in Animal-Assisted Therapy, and has completed courses in Bach Flower Therapy for animals, dog training, and Reiki. Dr. Hechenleitner is a founding board member of the Chilean Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT Chile), and has worked as a canine behavior consultant for ten years. She currently resides in Mystic, Connecticut and works remotely with clients from several countries.

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