Leaving your puppy all by himself when you have to go out is not easy to do, especially if your furball is still very young. As he grows older and wiser, he will learn that it is okay and that you will return – unless your dog suffers from separation anxiety and he cannot cope being by himself.
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 after 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.
In severe cases, dogs may cause themselves injury. They may chew at security gates until their gums bleed; they may scratch doors until their nails are ripped out. I have seen dogs cause themselves serious injury while attempting to escape over wire fences or squeeze through the gaps in burglar bars.
Separation anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors. It is common in puppies, understandably so, as they are babies who have left the security and comfort of their mom and siblings. It takes puppies a while to bond and feel safe with their new families. They should not be left alone when whining or crying.
Change in circumstances
All puppies should be taught to be left alone, by associating departures with yummy snacks and toys, while very gradually increasing the amount of time they spend on their own. Any change in circumstances can trigger separation anxiety. Moving to a new home, being adopted from a shelter, or losing a companion animal or person, are all commonly associated with raised anxiety levels. Being kennelled for a period of time is another common cause. A change in the owner’s routines – for example, going from working at home to an office job – is a significant factor. Dogs who have suffered through a difficult illness or injury may also be more prone to it, as well as senior dogs, who may be struggling with the mental consequences of ageing. In some cases, there is no apparent cause or trigger. Any dog can develop separation anxiety at any stage in his life, and some dogs will go through their entire lives being quite happy when left alone – there is unfortunately little means of predicting which dogs may develop the disorder.
Addressing the condition
As this condition can cause extreme suffering for a dog, it is essential to address it. No dog should ever be punished or scolded for any behaviours performed in the owner’s absence: firstly, the dog will not associate the scolding with his behaviour, as dogs only make immediate associations; secondly, it will only serve to raise the dog’s stress levels and make him feel even less safe than he already does.
The ‘guilty look’ is a complete farce, as is the idea of dogs being spiteful, and it’s about time that those notions are left in the past – there is no evidence that dogs comprehend spite or guilt. That ‘look’ is fear. Dogs do not urinate inside or bark non-stop because they want to. These behaviours are coping mechanisms or signs of anxiety; these dogs need help, not punishment.
Separation anxiety is difficult, if not impossible, to address without the diagnosis and assistance of a qualified behaviourist and veterinarian working together. Dogs displaying such anxiety often require medication as a first step in managing their anxiety, and to make it easier for them to learn the appropriate coping skills. Fortunately, there are some amazing medications currently available for treating anxious dogs. Medication is only one aspect, though, and these dogs also need to learn the skills that will allow them to manage being alone – and that is where a qualified behaviourist comes in. It can be a long and difficult process to help a dog with separation anxiety, but it is well worth putting in the effort to ease a dog’s suffering.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs include:
- Becoming agitated upon departure;
- Becoming restless;
- Hiding; and
- Onset of symptoms within the first hour after departure.
By Katherine Brown, behaviourist