Chase Correll | July 31 2018
Many dog owners hate leaving their pup home alone. You feel like you’re abandoning your furry little friend. You might leave the TV on or give them a treat to settle their nerves, and usually your pup will relax soon enough.
Some owners will say, “My dog always follows me around the house; I think they have separation anxiety.” This may be true to an extent, but real separation anxiety is much scarier and takes a much larger toll on your dog’s health than you may expect.
I am not a veterinary behaviorist, so I cannot diagnose separation anxiety in your dog. I can, however, tell you why some dogs develop separation anxiety, and how to recognize the symptoms and dangers of separation anxiety.
Let’s Define It
Strictly speaking, dog separation anxiety takes place when a dog enters an extreme state of panic when left by its owner. Not owners, but owner. Dog separation anxiety surfaces in a pup after it has formed an extreme attachment to a single individual. If that single individual leaves the dog alone, the dog will become extremely nervous and destructive. A dog does not have to harm itself for it to have separation anxiety; a dog that constantly whines, barks, and paces around the house when left alone is still suffering from separation anxiety.
Isolation distress is a less extreme form of separation anxiety in which the dog still experiences panic when left alone. The key difference between isolation distress and separation anxiety is that a dog suffering from isolation distress can be comfortable as long as it is left with another family member or a pet sitter.
Don’t Blame Yourself
If your pup suffers from separation anxiety, it’s not your fault. Many dog owners will beat themselves up if their dog’s wellness is affected by isolation, which isn’t fair. The main reasons for a dog’s development of separation anxiety are never a loving owner’s fault. A couple of these common reasons include: a rescued dog that was returned to the shelter before being adopted again, or changes in the family: like a death or birth of a family member, or a kid going off to college. Another common factor is a residential change or a major change in a family’s routine: if the dog is used to everyone being home for summer break, or if the owner goes back to work after a period of being unemployed. The final, common factor is puppyhood trauma. If your pup endured a tough initial upbringing, like malnutrition, then its risk for separation anxiety is increased.
Also, some pups have a greater genetic predisposition for separation anxiety. Certain breeds of dogs are more likely to experience distress if their owner leaves the house. The majority of these at risk breeds are more prone to separation anxiety because they were bred to be companions. Breeds like the German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Border Collie, Cocker and King Charles Spaniel, Australian Shepherd, and hunting dogs like the Shorthaired Pointer are all at greater risk of developing separation anxiety.
Symptoms and Dangers
So how do you recognize separation anxiety in your pup, and why, exactly, is separation anxiety so dangerous? The greatest danger of separation anxiety is the mental distress and the possibility of physical harm that can befall your fur baby. The mental distress can adversely affect your dog’s health and immune system (link for immune system article). As for physical harm, bloodied paws and tails can occur if your dog develops a nervous chewing habit. The worst case scenarios tell of dogs who throw themselves through glass windows due to the distress they’re dealing with. No dog owner ever wants their pup to resort to this; so how can we recognize if our pup is dealing with separation anxiety?
1. Watch out for Urinating/Defecating
a. If your dog urinates or defecates in the house whenever you’re away, but not when you’re at home: chances are your pup is dealing with separation anxiety
2. Barking, Howling, and Whining
a. A dog that barks, howls, or whines loudly whenever separated from its owner is likely suffering from separation anxiety or isolation distress
3. Destructive Habits
a. Destructive habits like chewing, digging, or destroying items around the house when left alone are a common sign of a dog dealing with separation anxiety
4. Pacing and Escaping
a. A dog that paces and never stops moving when left alone, or that attempts to escape, might have separation anxiety
The Next Step
Recognizing the reasons dogs develop separation anxiety, the symptoms and dangers of it, and that the owner is hardly ever at fault is important. What’s even more important is learning how to treat your pup’s separation anxiety. Our next article will cover how to treat dog separation anxiety, and how to properly train your pup to guard against it. Stay tuned!