The bond between people and their dogs is one of the most beautiful relationships between two species on this planet. But that bond can also make it difficult for a dog to cope during times of separation. Many dogs destroy, vocalise, urinate inside the home or otherwise act out when left alone or when a favourite person departs.
Separation anxiety is a serious disorder that is often misunderstood, and the term may be misapplied to any dog whose behaviour changes when left alone. Separation anxiety is a state of panic that involves very specific brain chemistry, which differentiates it from a related behaviour pattern: separation distress. Separation distress may cause a dog to dig holes in the garden or bark excessively when left alone, but this is not due to anxiety or panic. It may result from boredom, frustration or even anger – but it is not anxiety in the clinical sense. What distinguishes the two is the pattern of behaviour displayed, and severity, with separation anxiety being far more extreme.
Separation anxiety is indicated by certain features. The dog becomes agitated when his owner starts their departure routine. He may pant, become restless, salivate, shiver or hide.
The associated behaviour starts soon after the person has left, usually peaking within the first hour of departure. Recording equipment is often used to assess separation anxiety. If the dog only starts the concerning behaviour a few hours after being left alone, it is less likely to be anxiety-based.
The behaviour often occurs at the point of departure. For example, I once worked with a dog whose owners would arrive home to find a huge puddle of saliva at their front door, as well as new holes chewed in the door.
Providing the dog with food or toys isn’t effective. The owner may arrive home to find that their dog has not eaten the treats left out for him, or the new toy is still in the same position. These dogs are simply too anxious to enjoy such activities, and this can be an effective means of testing for anxiety. Leaving safe and interesting activities often works with a bored or frustrated dog.