Understanding separation anxiety and separation-related behaviors helps with the diagnosis and treatment of affected dogs.
There has never been a time when the term “separation anxiety” was more widely known as it is now. Both during and since the pandemic, the words “separation anxiety” are frequently on the lips of dog guardians and professionals alike, all around the world. Lockdowns and work-from-home mandates hugely increased the number of dogs who were no longer left home on a regular basis, as well as those that were adopted but never introduced to being alone because of the circumstances. When people resumed their normal activities and started leaving the house again, many observed a variety of reactions from their dogs when left alone. These reactions included vocalizing, destroying objects in the home, trying to escape, and inappropriate elimination. People started referring to the issue as separation anxiety.
Is separation anxiety what our dogs are currently experiencing? Although the problem is highly prevalent around the world, and can even be referred to as one of “the dog behavior diseases of the 21st century” thanks to our fast-changing environment and the challenging time dogs have while adapting to it, the reality is that there are many other reasons dogs could display these behaviors when left home alone without humans. Statistics show the high prevalence of separation-related behaviors, with numbers up to 80% in the UK (APBC 2012), and 50% to 56% worldwide (Bradshaw2002). However, these aren’t strictly separation anxiety cases.
So how do separation-related behaviors differ from separation anxiety? Separation-related behaviors are all those undesirable behaviors a dog can display when left home alone without humans. A wide range of behaviors can fall into this description, with vocalizing, destruction, and inappropriate elimination being the most common. But pacing, panting, hyper-salivating, self-harming behaviors, and trying to escape can also be placed within this category.
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, for example. It could be that the environment is triggering the behavior — 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.
- Perhaps the dog’s health could be impacting his behavior. Pain or discomfort can trigger behaviors such as vocalizing, eliminating in undesirable places, and pacing, among others.
- A dog whose mental and physical needs aren’t being met, or who belongs to a breed that doesn’t match the routine and environment provided for him, could engage in destructive behaviors when alone and unsupervised.
- Lack of communication and understanding between dogs and guardians regarding 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 understand this reaction. However, dogs who don’t suffer from separation anxiety know how to effectively use their coping mechanisms to face this new challenge. Therefore, 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, will be observed over time.
- Dogs who are confined when home alone, either in a crate or room, or by setting up restrictions suchas baby gates or x-pens, could display signs of distress due to confinement issues. The dog experiences confinement as an aversive stimulus, and being exposed to it releases a fight or flight emotional response that triggers involuntary behaviors such as vocalizing and trying to escape. Although there is a high correlation between confinement issues and separation anxiety, there are various cases where only the former is observed.
- There are other behavior challenges that dogs can face separately or in conjunction with separation anxiety. A dog who suffers from noise sensitivity could display signs of distress when left alone because of a particular noise present in the environment at that time, or during that season. 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 eliciting these behaviors will allow us to successfully address them by implementing an appropriate management, training, and medical plan that targets the root of the matter.
SO WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?
Separation anxiety is defined as a disorder in which the dog exhibits an extreme fear of being alone. A dog with separation anxiety experiences being left alone as an aversive stimulus, which elicits an emotional and involuntary response. This behavior challenge is considered dysfunctional due to the dog’s scarce chances to naturally adapt to it, increasing the likelihood of the behaviors escalating over time and inhibiting the dog’s daily life functions.
Why does a dog lose the ability to adapt? Why does this become a disorder? Although the cause of separation anxiety is still unknown, evidence suggests a genetic predisposition to it. A high correlation has been found between different anxiety disorders such as noise sensitivity, generalized anxiety, confinement issues, and separation anxiety. This leads to the hypothesis that some dogs have a greater likelihood of developing these issues at some point during their lives.
The fast-changing world of the last century has resulted in a very different environment than the one that dogs from 50 years ago knew. Artificial selection has impeded genetics in keeping up with these changes and allowing dogs to adapt better to these constant shifts. Captivity, in its turn, 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, like a round key in a square lock (L.E.G.S. model®, Kim Brophey), and could be the ultimate cause of the exponential increase in emotional disorders, such as separation anxiety, in first world countries during the 21st century.
SEPARATION ANXIETY RISK FACTORS
Although there isn’t a specific known cause that guarantees the onset of separation anxiety at some point of a dog’s life, some environmental factors can facilitate ts expression if the dog has a pre-existing underlying predisposition to it.
These factors are usually catalogued as changes in the dog’s environment that could have been perceived as traumatic events for that dog. Traveling by air, losing a member of the household, moving to a new house or town, experiencing a fear-driven event such as loud noises, fireworks, or a car crash, and health issues that affect the overall quality of life, among others, could fall into this category.
Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety have a challenging time adapting to change. Any alteration in their routine and/or environment, even positive ones, can lead to a tremendous amount of stress and struggle to adapt. Therefore, it is likely that change could act as a trigger for separation anxiety. Throughout their lives, dogs are exposed to a great variety of changes, which increases the possibility of developing separation anxiety at any age.
In some cases, it won’t be possible to determine what the environmental factor was that triggered the onset of separation anxiety. Since the approach to help a separation anxiety dog heal will be the same either way, knowing what elicited it isn’t completely necessary and won’t alter the treatment success rate. However, knowing that what the dog is experiencing is really separation anxiety and not a separation-related behavior caused by something else is a must in order to implement an appropriate plan of action, and a successful one.
WHAT DOGS WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY HAVE IN COMMON
The behaviors that dogs with separation anxiety display when alone are nothing but the expression of the underlying fear and anxiety they are experiencing, which means their involuntary nature and potential to vary from dog to dog.
Considering that separation-related behaviors are also unspecific and could have different underlying motivations, determining that a dog suffers from this disorder can prove to be a challenge.
Although there is no rule in terms of what signs or combination of signs a dog needs to display to be classified as having separation anxiety, there are a few things that dogs with this disorder have in common.
When exposed to an aversive stimulus, in this case being left alone, a separation anxiety dog will unsuccessfully try to adapt by using various coping mechanisms. However, as the intensity of the stimulus increases (i.e. the length or duration of the absence), the dog won’t be able to continue doing so and the stimulus will become aversive to him. This stage, called the threshold (Eileen Anderson, “OverThreshold: The Changing Definition”, PPG Webinar, 2013), 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 until it 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 be relaxed for longer than 30 minutes of absence, it is likely that the threshold will be reached within that first 30 minutes.
Even though the unspecific nature of the signs surrounding separation anxiety could lead to confusion, body language that suggests distress while performing these behaviors will allow the differentiation between alert barking, destructive behavior due to excess of energy and/or boredom, and the behaviors being triggered by fear and anxiety.
Accessing a specialist and implementing an alone time assessment to objectively observe the behaviors that a dog displays, when left on his own, will be 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.
References and Resources
Brophey, Kim. Meet your Dog, Chronicle Books LLC, 2018
Crowell-Davis, Sharon L. & Murray, Thomas.Veterinary Psychopharmacology, BlackwellPublishing, 2006
DeMartini, Malena.Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Dog Wise Publishing, 2014
Eileen Anderson. “Over Threshold: The Changing Definition”, PPG Webinar, 2013
LS de Assis et al.. Developing Diagnostic Frameworks in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine: Disambiguating Separation Related Problems in Dogs, Front. Vet. Sci., 17 January 2020
Overall, Karen L.Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Elsevier Inc. Mosby,2013Sherman et al. Effects of Reconcile (Fluoxetine) Chewable Tablets Plus Behavior Management for Canine Separation Anxiety, Veterinary Therapeutics, Vol.8, Nº1, 2007
Tiira, Katrina et al. Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Behavioral Variation in Canine Anxiety, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Elsevier Inc., 2016Wilde, Nicole. Don’t leave me! Phantom Publishing, 2010