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Separation Anxiety in Dogs: What It Looks Like And How to Cure It

Updated on July 7, 2020
CaitBooth profile image

Caitlyn loves animals of all species and sizes. Yes, that includes creepy-crawly bugs and snakes.

My dog named Moose!
My dog named Moose!

Many people have heard the phrase 'separation anxiety' used in reference to people who can't be away from a boyfriend/girlfriend for periods of time. It is typically said in a teasing manner, but separation anxiety is a very real thing. Called 'Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)', it is defined as “a condition in which a person, often seen in a child over the age of 6 years old, becomes fearful and nervous when away from home or separated from a loved one - typically a parent or other caregiver - they have become attached to”. This behavior is often seen in young children – between the ages of 8 and 14 months – and is typically referred to as being 'clingy'. It can be seen best when parents take their children to an event where there are many people they don't know, so the child will grab onto their parent and behave anxiously. Maybe crying or becoming fussy if someone else holds them.

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD):

A condition in which a person, often seen in a child over the age of 6 years old, becomes fearful and nervous when away from home or separated from a loved one - typically a parent or other caregiver - they have become attached to

Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety Disorder:

  • An unrealistic and lasting concern that something bad may happen to parents/caregivers if the child leaves

  • Refusal to go to school or other places away from the parent/caregiver in order to stay with them

  • Refusal to sleep without the parent/caregiver; refusal to sleep away from home, such as at camps or overnight stays with friends

  • Nightmares about being separated and bedwetting

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach pain, especially when having to go to school or being separated from their parent/caregiver

  • Temper tantrums or pleading when having to be separated

What Causes SAD?

Separation Anxiety can be caused by a number of things. Typically, it is caused by stressful or traumatic events, such as deaths, long stays in a hospital, or a major change in environment (like moving schools, cities, or the country), but it can also be brought on by overprotective parents. When a parent suffers from Parental Separation Anxiety, this can transfer to the child and cause them to develop distress over leaving their parent, reinforcing the parent's need to soothe and comfort the child rather than forcing the separation that they need. One final cause can be mental or anxiety disorders already existing in the family as this can make them more susceptible to developing a disorder such as separation anxiety.

In Summary:

Causes:

  • Traumatic or Stressful events, such as death or major changes in environment
  • Overprotective parents and Parental Separation Anxiety influencing the child
  • Mental or anxiety disorders in the family

Dog named Pumpkin
Dog named Pumpkin

What About Dogs?

What does any of this have to do with dogs? Well, dogs are much like humans. They can have aggression problems, depression, allergies, and even separation anxiety disorder. And like people, these behavior problems can be cured with patience, determination, and a strict plan. Having an understanding of the disorder and what's causing it can give you the edge in helping the dog who is experiencing these problems.

Minor cases can be cured without professional help, but moderate and severe cases may call for some assistance from trained professionals (such as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists or Certified Professional Dog Trainers). Yes, there are even dog therapists!

Symptoms of SAD In Dogs:

  • Urinating & Defecating: nervousness about being alone or separated from the guardian may cause them to go to the bathroom in the house
  • Barking & Howling: when the guardian leaves, the dog may begin barking or howling, and they won't stop until they have returned
  • Chewing, Digging, and Destruction: some dogs will chew on objects or try chewing/digging through the door when separated from their guardian or when left alone. If it is caused by separation anxiety, they will not continue these behaviors when the owner is present
  • Escaping: if the dog is confined somewhere away from their guardian, they may try to escape in order to find them again and ease their anxiety, which can include breaking out of crates or destroying doors/gates.
  • Pacing: dogs may travel in circular or straight-lined paths back and forth across the room, as a sign of anxiety when their guardian is missing
  • Coprophagia: in severe cases, dogs may defecate and eat part of or all of it when the owner is not around

Notice the similarities to the human symptoms? This disorder is based on anxiety, and while that looks different behaviorally between humans and dogs, they are caused usually by the same things: trauma/stress, overprotective parents or coddling, and genetics.

Not To Be Confused With

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in dogs can be confused with many other dog behaviors, so it is important to rule out any of the following behaviors before continuing with separation anxiety therapy and treatment.

Common Behavior Problems to Watch Out For:

  • Submissive or Excitement Urination: sometimes submissive dogs will urinate during greetings, playing with other dogs or people, physical contact, or when being reprimanded for wrong behavior. Look for submissive postures such as the tail being down (usually between the legs), flattened ears, crouching, lip licking, or rolling over and showing the belly.
  • Incomplete House Training: if the dog is using the bathroom in the house occasionally, including in front of their guardian, then this may be a sign of inconsistent training or fear to use the bathroom due to punishment during their bathroom training
  • Urine Marking: typically done by male dogs who are not neutered, this behavior is done by peeing on certain pieces of furniture to mark their territory. Female dogs will do this on occasion as well
  • Juvenile Destruction: many young dogs will chew on and destroy things, and will do so regardless of whether the guardian is present or not
  • Boredom: dogs need things to do, so when they are unable to find anything to stimulate themselves, they will destroy things. They aren't anxious when doing so.
  • Excessive Barking or Howling: some dogs will bark more than others depending on their surroundings and personal quirks (some dogs hate bicycles, others the school bus for example). They will do so regardless of whether the guardian is around or not


Treatment For A Minor Case of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Cases of SAD can be minor, moderate, or severe depending on how deep the fear and anxiety go and how long they have experienced these problems. For a minor case, working to associate the bad or scary situation with a positive thing - such as treats or a fun toy filled with food - can help ease anxiety and slowly teach the dog that being left alone is not a bad thing. Be sure to only introduce the toy when the dog will be left alone so they are still seen as a special treat for the dog.

This will only work in minor cases since dogs with more severe cases will refuse food when the guardian is not there, making this exercise useless in treating them.

Treatment For Moderate & Severe Cases of Separation Anxiety Disorder:

Treating more severe cases of SAD is far more complex and can take a long time depending on how the treatment goes and if the guardians can stick to the plan. Many mistakes can be made as we try to hurry the process along, but SAD is an anxiety/fear-based disorder and will only worsen if the dog becomes afraid during the counterconditioning and desensitization process.

Also, unlike mild cases of SAD, moderate and especially severe cases should be overseen by a behavioralist or trainer of some sort to make sure the pacing is correct for that specific dog and that specific case. Trying to hurry or move forward too soon will not only push back any progress made but can make it far worse. Patience is key when it comes to curing Separation Anxiety Disorder.

If your dog is anxious even as you are preparing to leave the house - putting on a coat and shoes; picking up keys; grabbing purses - this is because they have associated these behaviors over time to mean that their guardian is leaving. Their anxiety at the prospect of being left alone overwhelms them and comes out in bad behaviors such as barking, whining, or pacing.

The important thing to do if this is the case is to break the association they have made with the leaving routine and being left alone. This can be done by performing these same actions - putting on shoes or picking up keys - and then not leaving. Eventually, they will learn that just because someone picks up the keys or puts on their shoes it doesn't mean they should become upset.

Note: This can take many weeks of daily practice and patience to break as this is something that has been developing for many years. Stick to it and don't give in too soon!

Some dogs do not experience anxiety when the owner is preparing to leave, so the first part can be skipped and the meat of the training and counter-conditioning can begin. Again, a behaviorist or specialist of some kind should be sought out if possible to assist and oversee this part of the therapy as it can backfire quickly if done incorrectly.

During this process, it is important that the dog not be left alone unless it is during the desensitization training in order to keep them from experiencing their fear and anxiety at too high levels. This doesn't mean you have to sit by them every second, but it does mean someone needs to be with them at all times. This can be a friend or family member. Maybe a dog sitter if one is available. Of course, the best option would be to keep them with you, like taking them to work, but only if that is possible. Otherwise, the other options are suitable for the therapy.

Also, every greeting with the dog during the process should be done in a calm manner. Pats on the head when leaving or entering a room. Not giving them attention until they are calm.

The entire process of curing SAD can take a long time, so it is crucial to stay on schedule, stay consistent, and to be patient when working with the dog.

The start of the therapy is to begin making short departures. These are dependant on the severity of the case and the tolerance of the dog, but in most cases they will be only seconds at a time. Stepping behind a door and reappearing after a few seconds. This 'game' should only be done when the dog is completely relaxed, without any excitement or anything that makes it out to be a big deal, and not long enough to cause anxiety for the dog, which would be counterproductive to the training. Over time, the length of time out of the sight of the dog can be extended by seconds. Slowly building up to minutes separated without incident. If there are any signs of distress when the time is increased, continue with the amount of time you were successful and continue with that until you feel they are ready for a longer time.

It is important to start the separation exercise with the dog calm, so you may have to wait a few minutes between returning from the last 'departure' and making the next one. Once they are calm, then you may 'leave' again. Continuing until you are able to go 40 minutes without incident. Once 40 is reached, you can increase the increments by 5 or 15 minutes until they are able to be left for 90 minutes at a time. After this, it is safe to work on leaving them for four to eight hours, starting with four at first and then eight.

Other Ways To Alleviate Behavioral Problems:

Many behavior problems dogs have (and kids too, by the way) can be solved by giving them things to do. A tired dog is a well-behaved dog!


Some activities that can keep a dog happy and busy include:

  • 30-minutes or more of aerobic exercise, such as running, especially right before he will be left alone can help stop many of the problematic behaviors their anxiety causes
  • Fun games such as fetch that you can do with them
  • Frequent walks outside and trips out of the house. Show them different things and keep them interested and excited!
  • Playing with other dogs can be lots of fun for them
  • Puzzle toys that have food or other treats hidden inside them. (Be aware that some dogs can become aggressive around other dogs and even towards people when they are in possession of something they believe to be theirs, which can lead to fighting among dogs and growling at their guardians. If these behaviors manifest, take the toy away and do not return it)

Final Notes

Separation Anxiety Disorder, a common disorder among children, can also be found in dogs. When seeking a solution to this behavior problem, it is always best to consult a professional and have the dog assessed before going through any therapy training. While minor cases of SAD can be treated with basic desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises - such as leaving them with a reward before leaving the room - more severe cases require more effort and patience to work through. If everything is kept consistent and there are no setbacks, this disorder can be cured within a few weeks, leaving both the guardian and the dog far happier in the end!

Sources:

  • Grow by WebMD
  • ASPCA
  • CeasarsWay.com
  • Child & Family Psychology Services

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Caitlyn Booth

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