Separation Anxiety: Two Truths and a Lie

True False Choice Dog

The amount of folklore that surrounds separation anxiety in dogs is rivaled only perhaps by that surrounding aggression. As trainers, we’re reminded of the depth and breadth of this misinformation when we get inquiries from confused and frustrated dog owners who have followed well-intentioned advice with very few or bad results. As dog owners, we feel like we’re playing the party game Two Truths and Lie, trying to sort out fact from fiction, but not for giggles around the campfire—for our own sanity and our dogs’ well-being.

The outcome of the misinformation is neither benign nor inconsequential. Ironically, for a disease characterized by hyper-attachment, separation anxiety threatens to destroy the human-animal bond[1]. Like aggression towards people, separation anxiety–related behaviors are a leading risk factor for relinquishment to shelters[2] by pet owners who are pushed way past tolerating a problem that constrains their lives and destroys their homes. Ineffective treatment strategies eat up precious time, resources, and push families past their capacity for dog training, destruction clean-up and repair, and complaints from landlords and neighbors about chronic howling.

If a dog has separation anxiety, there may not be two or three chances to get everyone on a course of action that will relieve his distress.

Even though there is much still to learn about this disorder, a body of animal-behavior research going back decades can inform and refine our work in profound ways. This 3-part blog series for trainers (and nerdy dog owners—science geeks unite!) will explore what research tells us about separation anxiety and see what, if any, truth is left behind when we sift fact from fiction.

I hope that this series will arm my fellow dog trainers with solid information that they can pass along as guidance and encouragement to dog owners who are struggling. If your dog has separation anxiety like mine did, I hope that this helps you identify those professionals who are up-to-date on the latest that science has to offer, and offers strategies to get you and your dog on the right path to relief.

Installment 1—Help! My dog has separation anxiety.

There’s a surprising amount of room for error when it comes to identifying dogs with separation anxiety. For every family that contacts a trainer thinking that their dog has separation anxiety—only to discover he’s got way too much pent-up energy and is tearing up the couch out of boredom—another family reaches out for help with their 7-year-old dog whom they only recently learned was terribly unhappy. Their new neighbor, who works from home, has just left them a kind but heartbreaking note:

I’m sure you didn’t know this but your dog howls on and off all day long. I tried talking to him through the door and that helped for a little bit but he only started howling again when I left.

Nobody knows how many dogs in the U.S. have separation anxiety. One marketing survey found that 17% of all dog owners reported that their dogs had symptoms consistent with separation anxiety[3]. What’s better documented is that dogs with separation anxiety make up about one-out-of-five[4], [5] dogs seen at veterinary behavior clinics.

How can you tell if your dog is among them?

The key is remembering that separation anxiety is a syndrome—meaning a collection of symptoms that consistently occur together—widely agreed to be caused by fear of and anxiety about being alone.

…[T]he degree of anxiety displayed by some dogs [with separation anxiety] is consistent with the diagnostic criteria for panic attacks and other more serious psychiatric disorders in people, some of which are accompanied by intense physiologic and cognitive symptoms of fear and discomfort[6].

Sometimes dog owners misread their dogs’ transformation from Lassie to Cujo while they’re away as a sign of spite—an expression of angry revenge at being left behind. It’s an understandable confusion, but one that should be cleared up at the earliest opportunity, because it can lead to ineffective and even harmful remedies.

spider webBottom line, dogs with separation anxiety are no more in control of their behaviors and emotions than are humans with fear of flying, public speaking, swimming, snakes or spiders.

But let’s be honest, many of the signature behaviors of separation anxiety are seen in plenty of dogs—including the ones without debilitating phobias[7].

This gets to the heart of the matter.

The three most common behavioral symptoms of separation anxiety occur only while the owner is absent, and normally begin within ten minutes of his departure[8].

  • Destruction—normally focused on exit-points, thought to be an attempt to escape and reunite with the owner, and often to the point of self-injury
  • Excessive vocalization—howling, whining and barking, about 25% of the time the owner is absent[9], [10]
  • Elimination—again, in an otherwise housetrained dog (here’s where I pause for a moment to consider how distressed I would have to be to soil myself)

In contrast, dogs without separation anxiety show passive behaviors like sleeping or resting most of the time when alone[11].

In other words, all three of those behaviors are emblematic of separation anxiety, but not all dogs with separation anxiety show all three behaviors. It does get complicated!

To clear up the confusion somewhat, let’s look closer at the results of a study comparing the behavior of dogs with and without clinical separation anxiety (SA)[12].

Comparison of dog behavior with and without clinical separation anxiety 
Behavior SA dogs (%) Non-SA dogs (%)
Destruction 72 3
Vocalization 61 5
Elimination 28 2
Shadowing or following owner closely 84 64
Showing signs of anxiety when owner puts on coat or shoes 70 32
Excessive greeting upon owner’s return 63 31
Disinterest in eating when alone 47 21
Behavioral signs of depression 59 16
Drooling excessively/Vomiting/Diarrhea 20 0

sad dogKeep in mind that these figures are drawn from a sampling of families who sought behavioral help for their dogs, so there could be some self-selection influencing the numbers. In other words, dogs who injure themselves digging through sheetrock are arguably much more likely to end up at a behavior clinic than those who simply vocalize or drool.

It’s particularly interesting that the last category of behaviors—vomiting, excessive drooling and diarrhea—while only seen in 1 out of 5 dogs with separation anxiety, is strongly suggestive of the disorder because dogs without separation anxiety are very unlikely to exhibit those symptoms.

An important consideration—one that calls on us to have an especially keen diagnostic eye—is that dogs with thunderstorm and noise phobias (such as fireworks) can show an almost identical cluster of symptoms[13], although, of course, their display will be intermittent—not every time they are alone. (More on noise phobias, separation anxiety’s kissing cousin, in Part 2.)

Broadly speaking, there is significant overlap between the two groups in the constellation of behaviors that are symptomatic of separation anxiety. For this reason, vets and vet behaviorists look at the totality of a dog’s behavioral history before diagnosing. Often, trainers ask to see videotapes of the dog in the time period immediately before and after an owner’s departure, and scrutinize them not just for these diagnostic criteria but also for body language indicative of anxiety such as lip licking, yawning, constant orientation to the environment, trembling or pacing.

These days, separation anxiety trainers use video unfailingly. So brush up on your dog body language skills and get some footage. And keep in mind that even though separation anxiety is painful to witness and heartbreaking to contemplate, we have the technology to treat it. Stay tuned for Part 3 of the series which will focus on remedies: fact vs. fiction. Science to the rescue!

Coming up in the next installment: Separation anxiety risk factors: Is it because you spoil him?   

Special thanks to Malena DeMartini and Zazie Todd (check out her fabulous Companion Animal Psychology blog) for their inspiration and mentorship in dusting off and putting to good use all the good science that’s out there!


Footnotes

[1] Sherman, Barbara L., and Daniel S. Mills. “Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 38.5 (2008): 1081-1106.

[2] Salman, Mo D., et al. “Behavioral reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats to 12 shelters.” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 3.2 (2000): 93-106.

[3] Lilly Companion Animal Health, unpublished data, 2006, as cited in Sherman, Barbara L. “Separation anxiety in dogs.” Compendium (2008): 28-31.

[4] Storengen, Linn Mari, et al. “A descriptive study of 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 159 (2014): 82-89.

[5] Wright, John C., and Marc S. Nesselrote. “Classification of behavior problems in dogs: distributions of age, breed, sex and reproductive status.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 19.1-2 (1987): 169-178.

[6] Schwartz, Stefanie. “Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 222.11 (2003): 1526-1532.

[7] McCrave, Elizabeth A. “Diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety in the dog.”Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 21.2 (1991): 247-255.

[8] Palestrini, Clara, et al. “Video analysis of dogs with separation-related behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 124.1 (2010): 61-67.

[9] Palestrini, Clara, et al.

[10] Butler, Rynae, Rebecca J. Sargisson, and Douglas Elliffe. “The efficacy of systematic desensitization for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 129.2 (2011): 136-145.

[11] Palestrini, Clara, et al.

[12] Flannigan, Gerrard, and Nicholas H. Dodman. “Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 219.4 (2001): 460-466.

[13] Michelazzi, M., et al. “Efficacy of L-Theanine on noise phobias in dogs: preliminary results.” Veterinaria (Cremona) 29.2 (2015): 53-59.

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Malena Demartini

About Malena DeMartini

Malena DeMartini is the author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs (Dogwise Publishing) and the founder of the Separation Anxiety Certification Program. Her upcoming lectures and conferences can be found on her website at

About Malena

Malena Demartini
Malena DeMartini is the author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs (Dogwise Publishing) and the founder of
the Separation Anxiety Certification Program. Read More…

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