As professionals in the pet industry, it’s likely you’ve experienced separation anxiety in dogs. Perhaps you have a customer who is dealing with this very issue with her furry friend. Or maybe you’re a pet sitter who has encountered this first hand with your canine client.

It seems separation anxiety in dogs is quite common. In fact, it is estimated to affect one in every four to six dogs and is more common in senior dogs. However, these figures rely on owners reporting their dog’s anxiety. I imagine there are plenty more of our barking buddies suffering from separation anxiety in silence.

So, what causes this problem, what’s the appropriate treatment, and can steps be taken to prevent it?

Changing lives and the era of COVID-19

Companion animal veterinarian and behaviourist Dr Diane Van Rooy wrote a really interesting article on the University of Melbourne website. It acknowledges that separation anxiety in dogs (and cats, for that matter) not only affects the animal’s quality of life, but also the owner’s.

She notes that separation anxiety is recognised as a psychiatric condition in humans. However, separation anxiety in dogs can be viewed as deviant behaviour. Nonetheless, people nowadays are much more aware of the term and willing to do something about it.

Dr Rooy believes part of the reason why separation anxiety in dogs is on the rise may be linked to the fact we are increasingly aware of this disorder in pets. However, it could also be associated with our changing lives and work arrangements.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has changed the lives of many people. Typically, people are spending more time at home due to COVID restrictions and altered working arrangements. As a society, we’re aware of how this may impact human mental health, but how much thought has been given to our pets?

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs

A dog may demonstrate multiple signs of separation anxiety. The following list of symptoms has been adapted from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) website.

Urinating and defecating

In some cases, dogs that are experiencing separation anxiety will urinate or defecate in the home, despite being well trained. However, it’s worth noting that if the dog does this while its owner is at home, it’s likely the issue is something else.

Whining, howling and barking

This is a very common sign of separation anxiety in dogs. It might be that your client’s neighbour alerts them to the fact the dog is howling or barking when they’re not home. Alternatively, the owner themselves might notice that if they put their dog outdoors he whines or barks (even though the owner is inside).

Destructive behaviour

This type of behaviour can come in many forms. It might be that the dog destroys furniture, chews on objects that don’t belong to him or digs up the garden.

Of course, there are many problems associated with this behaviour. However, one such issue (other than the mess and cost of replacements!) is that it can result in injury to the pet.

Escaping

Sometimes, the destructive behaviour mentioned above is associated with escaping. The dog will chew or dig his way out of any area or place he’s confined to. As with all the other behaviours or actions associated with separation anxiety in dogs, these only happen when the animal is left alone. They do not happen when their owner is home or present.

In the words of Dr Rooy, “True separation anxiety involves real, ongoing distress. A dog that barks for a minute when you leave and then settles down to sleep doesn’t have separation anxiety. A dog that destroys furniture whether people are present or not doesn’t have separation anxiety.”

Prevention

Typically, preventing a dog from developing separation anxiety is all about forethought. If a pet owner knows there are going to be changes to their lifestyle. For example, they are returning to work, they need to make those changes gradually.

For instance, the owner should take action to create space between them and their furry friend. To begin they might leave the house to collect the mail from the mailbox. Next, they might go for a walk around the block without their dog. It’s about gradually introducing small absences and ensuring the dog feels safe.

You can also advise owners not to make a song and dance when they leave the home and when they return, as this can add to their dog’s anxiety.

In the same way that exercise can reduce anxiety in humans, it can be helpful for dogs too. If an owner knows they are going to need to leave their dog alone, they can take the dog for a good walk beforehand. This might assist the dog to feel relaxed.

Treating separation anxiety in dogs

Addressing separation anxiety in dogs will depend on the level of anxiety they have (I.e. whether it’s mild, moderate or severe). According to the ASPCA, counter-conditioning is a useful tool. This method teaches the dog to associate anxiety triggers with something more pleasant.

So, for separation anxiety, the dog is taught to associate being left alone (his owner leaving) with something positive—such as a tasty chew or his favourite food stuffed in a Kong. Once the owner returns, they should remove this treat. He must learn to associate the treat with being alone.

Of course, a more complex program is needed for moderate or severe anxiety. This type of program takes time and commitment. Also, it’s not a one-method-suits-all approach. It needs to be carefully planned and monitored. Otherwise, there’s the risk the dog will become even more anxious.

To implement a complex counter-conditioning program it is worthwhile seeking the help of a trained animal behaviourist. You might like to offer your client guidance on what skills and qualifications to look for and what questions to ask to determine whether the potential animal trainer can assist them.

Have you experienced a dog with separation anxiety? What are your thoughts and insights?

Related reads


Information sources

Dr D Rooy. Dealing with separation anxiety in dogs. Pursuit/ University of Melbourne. Jan 2020. Accessed online April 2021 via: https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/dealing-with-separation-anxiety-in-dogs

ASPCA. Separation anxiety. Accessed online April 2020 via: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/separation-anxiety

Image source: ASPCA website

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Leanne Philpott

Leanne is a professional freelance writer at contentchameleon.com.au. She works alongside her fur pal Chewie (a border terrier) to deliver information that is accurate and relevant to our readers.

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