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What is Separation Anxiety?

I’m close to completing my SA Pro trainer certification, so I thought that this month I’d focus on separation anxiety.

Most dogs would prefer to be with their humans all the time, but they can tolerate being alone. Some dogs, however, experience their human's absence as an intensely fearful event—even if that human has just dashed outside to get the mail. These dogs struggle with being alone or being away from their person, sometimes to the point of hurting themselves.

Because our dogs can't verbalize their fears, we identify separation anxiety through their behavior, particularly by identifying behaviors that intensify or only occur when the dog is alone. Barking, howling, and crying, destruction especially around doors and windows, potty training lapses in a dog who is fully house trained, and escape attempts are some of the big signs of separation anxiety. Other behaviors could include panting, pacing, and increased agitation as the human prepares to leave.

Before we start treating a dog for separation anxiety, however, we rule out other causes for behaviors like medical issues in the case of potty training lapses or boredom or frustration if the dog destroys things when they are alone—a dog who doesn’t get enough enrichment or exercise, for example, may find their own fun when their humans leave! For bored dogs meeting those needs with targeted enrichment could solve the problem. For frustrated dogs, we may use the same separation anxiety treatment as we do with fearful dogs, slowly teaching them to tolerate being alone.

People whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety often find themselves feeling trapped--even a quick trip to the grocery store requires planning ahead of time to make sure their dog isn't alone. Activities the rest of us take for granted--like going for a run or taking in the new Barbie movie--also require planning and management. But there is hope for these humans and their dogs as I'll explain next week when I detail separation anxiety treatments.

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