Partying or panicking? How to be a separation anxiety sleuth

By Julie Naismith

Dogs like company. They like being with us.

I heard Dr. John Bradshaw say in a radio interview this week that ”All dogs hate being left on their own. You can train dogs to be ok with being on their own. But you do need to train them”.

And some dogs hate being alone so much they tip over into full-blown anxiety. They’re not just unhappy that you’ve left them. They’re in a panic.

But how do you know which it is? Are they disappointed you left them, or are they freaking out? It’s not as easy to tell as you might think. But there are some telltale signs.

What is separation anxiety?

Let’s first look at what we mean when we talk about separation anxiety. Canine separation anxiety is when a dog at home without human company. It’s a phobia of being alone. Dogs suffering from it display signs of panic when left for longer than they can handle.

These dogs get anxious on their own, but they are fine as long as someone – anyone – is with them. There are cases where the dog has to be with a particular person. But these cases are much less common than the dog who is fine as long as someone is with it.

What are the common signs?

The signs that we look for when deciding if a dog has separation anxiety include:

  • Excessive barking, whining, crying and howling
  • Chewing, especially of owner’s items, and of course, it’s always something of particular value to us!
  • Destruction of floors and walls; particularly around entrance doors
  • Frantic attempts to escape, sometimes to the point of self-harm
  • Soiling (especially when the dog is otherwise house-trained)
  • Getting anxious well before the owner leaves
  • Disinterest in food (though not with all dogs)

What isn’t separation anxiety?

Some of the behaviours above are also present in dogs who don’t have separation anxiety. Chewing and vocalizing were particularly prevalent in non-anxious dogs. This can be confusing. But the behaviours are often more intense and last longer in anxious dogs.

Take the FOMO dog—the “fear of missing out” dog—who can’t bear to think there’s something exciting going on without it. As soon as you leave, the dog starts to bark. It might begin with a “Hey, I think you might have forgotten me?” but quickly escalates to a “You can’t go out with me!” tantrum. FOMO dogs keep going until they realize the barking isn’t working. Then they give up and slumber through the rest of your absence.

And what about “velcro dogs”? These are the ones glued to your side no matter where you are in the house. Velcro dogs don’t always have separation anxiety. Lots of dogs like to be their owner’s shadow but are cool with alone time.

Then there is the “watchdog barker”, whose life’s mission is to alert you to threats to your survival, such as the UPS guy. These dogs might sit at the window baying at every passerby the entire you’re out. They’ll be even more into this if you don’t let them do it when you’re home.

Other home alone dogs may chew because they’re bored. And some might soil while you’re out because they’ve learned it’s safer to pee on the carpet when you’re not there to yell at them.

None of these dogs are anxious. They may be bored, frustrated, amped up, but they’re not in a panic.

Contrast that with the separation anxiety dog who is so worried that the barking continues to escalate for the entire time. Or the panicked dog who is so upset it rips its nails trying to dig its way out.

How can I tell if it’s anxiety or boredom?

Coming home to chewed furniture, poop on the carpet, or a complaint from the neighbours might point to separation anxiety. But, the only way to know for sure is to video the dog while you’re out.

This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. There are lots of user-friendly options that allow you to record remotely on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Some apps even let you turn the old smartphone sitting in the back of your drawer into a remote camera.

If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety, take a short video. It will be a real eye-opener.

I video all the training sessions I do with clients—it’s the most accurate way to assess the dog. Video helps to rule out home alone behaviours from true separation anxiety.

If I think it is separation anxiety, what can I do?

Separation anxiety in dogs used to be seen as unresolvable. But fortunately, now we now know it’s curable. The treatment isn’t easy, but it’s straightforward and effective. In the first instance, speak to your vet about your dog’s home alone behaviours. And if you want some advice from me on what training would look like, get in touch.

Have you been trying to work out if your dog has separation anxiety? Have you been wondering if there’s something else going on? Share your experiences in the comments.

About the Author

Julie Naismith is CEO and Founder of SubThreshold™ and a self-confessed separation anxiety geek. When her dog, Percy, developed separation anxiety she became a woman on a mission – determined to cut through the swathes of incorrect advice to find how to fix it. Having successfully resolved his separation anxiety, with little support and lots of judgment, she founded SubThreshold Training™ with the vision of pioneering treatment for separation anxiety.

Prior to SubThreshold, she apprenticed with one of the world’s leading force-free, evidence-based trainers, Jean Donaldson. She graduated with honors from Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (CTC) and is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) having studied with leading expert Malena DeMartini’s separation anxiety program. Naismith works solely with separation anxiety cases, making her a true specialist in the field. She is also a member of PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Division.

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