The separation anxiety dogs experience can be absolutely heartbreaking. Characteristics of separation anxiety can be similar to poor house training. However, science confirms that certain behavior is a desperate plea for togetherness. Separation anxiety in dogs can be extremely difficult to break. Understanding the signs of separation anxiety and why your dog might be experiencing it is key.
Read more to learn more about separation anxiety, why it happens, and what you can do about it.
What Is Separation Anxiety
The separation anxiety dogs experience is due to being apart from their guardians. This looks like deep distress and agitation when a dog’s human(s) are going to leave the house. Dogs can become aggressive, destructive, or just plain act out of character.
Experts can’t pinpoint exactly what contributes to separation anxiety, but research can. Dogs who are adopted from animal rescues and shelters often have higher rates of separation anxiety. Pups who have had one single family since puppyhood seem to exhibit less separation anxiety. This suggests that separation anxiety is born from a dog losing their person or family, or a group of important people.
Separation anxiety is also triggered by less dramatic events, too. Consider a dog whose human has worked from home its whole life. The dog is used to its owner being there day and night, and used to being on a specific schedule with its owner. Then, surprisingly, the owner is gone all day at a new job. This is enough of a drastic change to make a dog experience separation anxiety. It’s the fear of being left behind, feeling helpless in changing the outcome, and feeling trapped in the house.
Some dogs develop separation anxiety when he or she moves to a new home, too. The change of familiars, scenery, and schedule can all contribute. Just like humans, dogs need structure and predictability. Dogs like to know when their person is coming home, where they live, and when they are going to eat again.
Another reason dogs can develop separation anxiety is if there is a change in the home, like if suddenly a person is not there anymore. Consider a couple who has been married for 5 or 6 years, and ultimately get divorced. The change (and the emotions) will be noticed, felt, and absorbed by the dog. Chances are the big shift will cause some separation anxiety.
What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like?
Separation anxiety in dogs can look like a few things, but none of them are normal or healthy. Anxiety affects dogs just as it does people in the way that people often need something to do when they are anxious. Dogs are the same. When a dog is wound up tight with anxiety, it is going to let that anxiety out on furniture, itself, or others.
Chewing on door frames, baseboards, furniture, doors, cabinets, and anything wood is a popular symptom of separation anxiety. So is scratching at a place on the floor— but for hours. This is dangerous behavior, because when a dog is high on anxiety, stopping this activity can be impossible. These behaviors can lead to cracked teeth, broken nails, and damaged paws. Dogs who have separation anxiety will only do these things while their human isn’t home, not in front of them. If your dog is destroying your home while you are there, you probably have something different going on with your dog.
Dogs howl to get attention, communicate with other dogs, and to let others know they are there. In the case of separation anxiety, dogs can howl for hours. The howl is usually incredibly sad and low toned, and a desperate plea for attention. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety can also bark excessively, making it impossible to ignore them. Constant barking and howling is not only incredibly loud for neighbors, but doesn’t allow for the dog’s nervous system to relax.
Separation anxiety in dogs can look like many things, but the top two characteristics are often the most popular. Again, if your dog is does these things in front of you instead of while you’re gone, the behavior is probably because of something else. Symptoms of separation anxiety take place while humans are gone, not while they are home with their animal.
What You Can Do About It
For mild separation anxiety, you can do something called ‘counterconditioning’. Counter-conditioning is a method in which you can teach your dog to train it’s mind to respond differently to hard situations. For instance, if you want to counter-condition your dog to not completely lose their mind when you leave the house, teach them to expect delicious food when you’re gone. Filling a toy with treats, or getting a puzzle that will allow them to use their brain to get the treats out of the puzzle might do the trick. This will teach them that when mom or dad leave, it doesn’t mean they are abandoned— it means they will get delicious and yummy food instead!
For more severe cases of separation anxiety, we suggest seeking professional help. Helping a dog out of severe separation can be an extremely challenging road to walk alone. Even if you don’t hire a professional to help you one on one, we strongly recommend at least speaking to one about next steps.