Separation anxiety is a common anxiety disorder in dogs. It can be triggered by rehoming, changes in the household composition (such as key people in the dog’s life moving out), moving, or traumatic experiences (for example, the dog is home alone during a break-in to the house).
A 2020 study by Luciana de Assis and colleagues shared that between 22.3 and 50% of the general dog population is believed to show signs of separation anxiety. There are 77 million dogs in the United States.
Do the math—that means 15 to 38 million dogs suffer anxiety when home alone. This condition is a welfare issue for both the dogs and the people who love them.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in dogs is the fear of being left alone and the equivalent of a full-blown panic attack in a human being. Hormonal and neuro-chemical processes change in the dog’s body, and the dog has no control over those changes. Think of a time you were anxious. All the logic in the world probably didn’t help you change your feelings about the cause of your anxiety.
Two terms are used to describe this condition: separation anxiety and isolation distress.
There are lots of different terms used to describe the anxiety a dog feels when home alone: separation anxiety, home alone syndrome, separation-related behavior, home alone anxiety, canine alone distress disorder (CADD), owner hyper attachment, and isolation distress to name a few.
The term separation anxiety refers to a clinically diagnosed condition by a licensed veterinarian. The dog displays a hyper-attachment to one individual and becomes panicked without that person, regardless of who else is present.
Isolation distress is the term given to dogs who become anxious when home alone, but are comfortable when left with any other person (rather than the need to have a specific person present).
The catch-all term to describe both types of conditions is separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Dogs display a wide range of symptoms when alone and anxious, but the top three symptoms are excessive vocalization, destruction around the entry and exit points of the home, and urination and defecation (all when owners are away).
Other symptoms can be damage to heavily owner-scented items (furniture, clothing, eyeglasses), bent crate door or wires, shredded crate bedding, or flooring.
Many dogs with separation anxiety also present with confinement anxiety, so crating adds additional stress.
If you have a dog who suffers from this condition, please know two things: you did not cause this behavior, and your dog can recover. Treatment includes addressing the underlying anxiety, not the symptoms. The behavior modification training protocol used is desensitization—exposing the dog to that which scares him—the human’s absence—in small enough increments of time so that the dog “does not” feel anxious during the training. The repeated small duration absences increase over time.
If you suspect your dog is anxious when home alone, video your dog when you’re away using Zoom, Skype, or your smartphone. If you suspect anxiety, reach out to your veterinarian or a trainer skilled in behavior modification for fear and anxiety issues. Left untreated separation anxiety usually worsens, but with treatment, recovery is possible.
I was honored to share information about separation anxiety a few weeks ago on the Local 3 News 3 Plus You show in Chattanooga.
Our four Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers have 21 years of combined experience working with dogs who have separation anxiety. If your dog is anxious home alone, please know there is hope for recovery! Get in touch with us, we’re here to help.
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals. www.coldnosecollege.com