By creators of Dog Monitor and renowned vets
Separation anxiety is a state of distress and fear a dog feels when a person the dog is strongly attached to leaves the house or is just about to leave. It is the most common issue dogs and their owners have to face. Any breed (including cross) and gender may develop separation anxiety. The disease mostly affects young dogs up until 3 years of age (approximately 60%), in the middle age occurrence of separation anxiety drops. It is more common again around the age of 8. That is most possibly connected to other anxiety disorders usual for older age.
A dog is a strongly social animal that needs a company of other social partners in order to live a happy life. Solitude can often create fear, anxiety and uncertainty.
Dogs who deal with solitude well are usually the ones with immune nervous system that are being used to being alone gradually. It is less likely for a dog to develop the anxiety if it has enough social contact with other dogs and people outside the family. They also should not be exposed to long periods of separation and should not go through stressful events such as storms, fireworks or big noises in the house.
It is very difficult to get used to the solitude for puppies older than 16 weeks that had only lived with their mother or siblings or for mature dogs that are taken away from their pack. The ones that are likely to develop separation anxiety are also the ones coming from shelters, found on the streets or from cruel conditions. Even the shortest periods or just a hint of the possibility that they might be left alone may cause panic reaction. Separation anxiety also affects dogs with unstable nervous system or tendencies for other fears and phobias (these tendencies are usually inherited).
“It is the most common issue dogs and their owners have to face. Any breed (including cross) and gender may develop separation anxiety.”
Many factors can cause separation anxiety. The following ones are those that are most commonly connected to developing the anxiety.
This phenomenon is connected to the fact that these dogs may have to spend extended periods of time alone (8 hours or more) when the owner is at work. It also may occur in dogs who live in the company of an elderly person who only leaves them on rare and brief occasions (they go to the doctor or go shopping).
Dogs that are used to “work” with the owner – meaning to follow their instructions and to desire reward and recognition – often have problems to get used to solitude.
Separation anxiety may occur during the time the dog stays in an unknown environment of a dog hotel or some other facility when the owner cannot take care of it.
A triggering moment might be a situation when the dog experiences something scary during the time it is home on it’s own. This includes an intense storm, draft, broken window, robbery or a noisy reconstruction of neighbor’s flat.
One of the causes that lead to developing separation anxiety is the puppies being brought up in inadequate conditions such as a shed, garage, separate room or a crate where they lack outside impulses. These dogs are often oversensitive to any sort of stress including solitude and it is harder to train them to solitude.
Fear is one of the emotions that originate primarily in an almond-shape mass of nuclei, the amygdala. Amygdala is located in the temporal lobe of the brain and all information about a stimulus and all possible experience associated with it can be found there. It reacts to a stimulus by sending a signal to three locations: 1) to grey matter that controls the activity of skeletal and muscular system; 2) to the parts of hypothalamus that control the activity of autonomic nervous system; and 3) to the parts of hypothalamus that control the hormonal function. It triggers an instantaneous reaction of the whole body aimed at saving a life. This reaction is called the fight-or-flight response and it is characterized by increased breathing and heart rate, increased cardiac output, and increased blood flow to vital organs (brains, muscles). Hormonal response involves the release of cortisone which significantly impacts the glucose metabolism and other important metabolic processes. The body mobilizes fast sources of energy.
In some cases these changes are positive because they allow the animal to fight or run away from the thing that endangers it. When the animal cannot escape or avoid it in any way, chronical stress reaction appears which might end up harming or even killing the animal.
Character of the response to fear impulse is dependent on several things. There are genetic and empiric factors. In most cases the animal reacts normally to impulses that threatens it in that moment. When the reaction is extensive or nonsensical it is considered to be abnormal. It may lead to dysregulation – loss of control over responses to impulses. This can display in several levels, including neurotransmitters activities.
Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that transfer signals and information between nerve cells. The most important neurotransmitters that participate in the response to fear are serotonin, noradrenaline, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Therefore the treatment of disorders related to fear focuses on influencing those neurotransmitters.
There are many ways of how separation anxiety displays. It is vital for the owner to realize that the dog that suffers from the separation anxiety never does anything harmful on purpose and never avenges even though it is, unfortunately, what most owners think.
Dog is most commonly destroying things connected to the close person – beds, couches, books, bags, shoes, clothes or kitchen items. They often destroy walls and floors around windows and doors by intense pawing and scratching.
It mostly begins immediately after the dog is convinced the owner has left. Door closing or a departing car work as signals. With small pauses for listening whether the owner is coming back, the dog is able to bark and howl for many hours. It is not unusual for the dog to do it the entire time the owner is not at home.
„The dog does not do this „to spite you“, as many angry dog owners claim, but it is simply an involuntary reaction of the dog's body triggered by the fear.“
When the fear kicks in the metabolism of the dog accelerates and bladder as well as rectum fill in a very short period of time – often in several minutes. Sensitivity of the bladder rises so the dog feels compulsion to excrete even when the bladder is not full. Fear also causes the sphincter to relax and therefore the dog cannot hold its urine or feces as well as when it is calm, and has to empty the bladder and/or bowels immediately regardless of where it is. The dog does not do this „to spite you“, as many angry dog owners claim, but it is simply an involuntary reaction of the dog's body triggered by the fear.
The fact that the dog drools extensively can also be an organism’s reaction to big fear and anxiety. Sometimes it can drool to such extend that the dog gets all wet and the floor gets slippery.
This symptom is connected to the fear reaction of organism. The dog has an open snout, a tongue out, breaths quickly, loudly and sometimes even chokes. Remaining in such state for a long period can lead to complete exhaustion.
When the dog is by itself, it does not eat or drink. As soon as the owner comes back home, it starts to gobble everything which frequently results in vomiting.
The dog runs in circles, by the fence or from one door to another without any specific reason. This sort of behavior leads to the dog getting tired or completely exhausted.
The dog can harm itself while trying to escape a flat or a crate. It is not irregular to develop a compulsive behavior when the stressed dog starts to lick its paws, sometimes for many hours. Infected wounds might appear on these spots that go deep to muscles or even bones. These wounds are hard to heal as the dog licks them over and over again when it faces stress.
The dog goes through an immense anxiety with the prospect of the owner leaving again so it fears losing a visual contact even for a brief moment. It nervously follows the owner all around the flat checking whether he/she is about to go somewhere. The dog cannot relax and calm down which exhausts the dog.
As soon as the dog spots first signs of the owner leaving, it starts to shiver, salivate, breathe fast, refuses to go to its place and will not even eat anything. Some dogs are aggressive while the owner is leaving and do not want to let him/her go from the door or gate.
A scared dog sometimes try to hide itself to avoid an activity such as morning walk which is often followed by the owner’s departure. Some dogs try to hide under a parked car or a place hard to access. Some just do not allow their owner to catch them when they let them out before their departure.
As soon as the owner returns, the dog starts to welcome him/her vigorously. It jumps around, breathes with an open snout and a tongue out. It sometimes whines and it takes time to fully calm down. This kind of intense welcoming may occur even after a very short period when the owner was gone.
Many of these symptoms might not necessarily mean separation anxiety. You can read about differential diagnosis lower.
By this term we classify other illnesses and conditions that have similar symptoms to separation anxiety but they are different and it is necessary to differentiate them from the anxiety.
Especially young, active dogs have tendencies to damage home equipment and chew on things only to entertain themselves. They can also do it because of gums pain during teeth replacement or diseases of teeth and gums.
Attempts to escape or scratching around doors and windows might have hormonal origins (female on heat) or the dog has tendencies to wander. It might also be frustrated from the limited space or even suffers from claustrophobia.
Howling, barking and whining may be only reactions to outside stimulus such as other people’s or animals’ motion in the corridor or around the house, noises caused by a loud reconstruction in the apartment nextdoor or construction works close by. It can also be caused by something hurting the dog or bothering the dog (heat, cold, thirst, hunger). Another cause is a cognitive disorder in older dogs who tend to forget learnt habits and react inadequatly.
Urination and excremination have several reasons. There can be an issue with digestive system or excretory system or the dog has poorly learnt hygiene habits. It can also be caused by a storm, fireworks etc. There are also possibilities of incontinence, marking or cognitive disorder in older dogs.
Strong salivation might occur if the dog drank detergent, irritant or bitter substance or even managed to poison itself. Teeth or gums illness might also be the reason for extensive salivation.
Accelerated and heavy breathing may occur under the influence of hormones or outside stimulus. Another reason behind can be when the dog overheats or is battling breathing system disease, circulatory disorder or an illness with infection or high temperature.
Inappetence is usually a sign of an overall illness, oral cavity illness or digestive system illness. General appetite of a dog is highly influenced by hormones during the time when females are on heat. Appetite might also be reduced when the weather is too warm or the dog fears something else than separation.
Stereotypical motion activities do not always mean separation anxiety. It might mean a different fear or anxiety, boredom or primary psychological illness and pain.
Self-harm can be caused by dermatological problem (skin disease), injury or allergy. Another reason for dog to harm itself is boredom or once again primary psychological illness – compulsive disorder.
To watch the dog, know about it’s atypical symptoms and discuss them with veterinarians is absolutely crucial. It is the only way to properly diagnose separation anxiety.
People, the dog does not feel as strongly about, it does not miss as much as the person(s) it finds to be the most important there. It is not always the head of the family as we perceive it.
Affected dog is usually “glued” to the one it has the strongest bond with. The dog lies on the person’s feet or next to him/her on the couch, follows him/her around the house, cannot relax in another room and jumps up anytime it feels the owner might be about to leave.
It is ideal for the dog when there are rituals that keep the dog informed that everything is as it should be. Irregular work shifts, occasional evening absence of the owner or business trips when the dog is alone for a long time or is watched by unfamiliar people are risky.
All of these information are important so that the owner can plan training process accordingly. It is easier to teach the dog solitude when it is used to work with it’s owner and be motivated to learn something new. Learning solitude is difficult for the dog that never works with the owner.
It is vital to consider all the details in time perspective – how much in advance the dog starts to behave nervously, what it looks like, when the anxious behavior is the strongest, if the symptoms gradually go away or are equally intense the whole time the owner is gone.
Some dogs that have been brought home as grown puppies or were adopted from shelter may show anxious behavior from the very first days during which they form a strong bond with the owner. It is common for the separation anxiety to be preceded by the owner being home for extended time (illness, maternity leave, unemployment) or owner’s absence on the other hand (holiday, long business trip, hospital stay). It can also be developed after separation from a dog or a cat it was used to while at home.
Is the dog calm when a familiar person is at home? Does it tolerate at least short “ritual” departures such as going shopping (symbolized by a shopping bag) or going out with a garbage bag?
Does he/she scold or beat the dog because of broken things or wet carpets? Does the owner put the dog in a cage, tie it or give it an electric collar?
Is welcoming very hectic, involves jumping, whining and accelerated breathing? Does the dog look guilty, crouches, hides or lies on the back?
The dog starts being nervous when it spots first signs that usually lead to owner leaving. Does it react to all the departure the same way or differently when it happens in the evening, on weekends etc? Is it different from the behavior during the week? Does the dog react differently when family members leave one by one and when they leave together? Is the dog calm during some members’ departure and anxious when others leave. How long after the owner’s departure does the dog start to show symptoms of stress? It is typical for separation anxiety that the dog is anxious before the solitude itself and the biggest stress comes just after or soon after the departure.
Can the dog use the whole flat or house to move around when the owner is not home? Is the dog’s space limited? How does the dog react when it is being put in that limited space?
Is it possible for the dog to stay calm when left with relatives or friends? Does it eat and drink? Does it rest? Does it play? Does it communicate?
This is vital to know in cases when the dog spends some time in a dog hotel or other similar facility witch other dogs during his therapy.
Unstable dogs that suffer from fear of storms, fireworks or similar stimulus often suffer from separation anxiety as well. Treatment of the separation anxiety in these dogs is time consuming and it is common for them to never fully recover from this anxiety.
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When the owner brings the dog to the vet, it does not behave in a manner that would allow the doctor to diagnose separation anxiety. The vet is dependent on the information he/she gets from the owner. This information might not have to be perfectly precise and complete.
The best way to diagnose is to have a video recording that shows dog’s behavior in certain periods of time. Based on the symptoms the dog shows in the recording, the vet is able to determine the diagnose either immediately or after thorough examinations of all possible systems (urinary, excretory, circular, nerve or skin) by laboratory or imaging methods.
The doctor needs to be familiar with an overall state of health of the patient.
The first thing to realize is that the dog does not do it to spite anyone as revenge for being left alone. The dog is just scared and cannot cope with the solitude. Any form of punishment even scolding will only make the matters worse as the dog fears solitude as well as the return of the owner. At the time the dog howls or destroys something (or secrete), it does not realize it is doing something bad. It is simply a reaction of the organism to fear. Therefore there is no place whatsoever for physical punishment during anxiety treatment. The treatment itself might take long. It could be months in some cases.
Symptoms may return when the owner leaves for a couple days or is at home all the time and then leaves to work. It may also reappear if the working hours change or daily regime in the household changes.
“The dog is just scared and cannot cope with the solitude. Any form of punishment even scolding will only make the matters worse as the dog fears solitude as well as the return of the owner.”
First thing to do is to eliminate fear stimulus. This means that the dog should not be left alone during the time of the treatment. It should either stay with the owner or at the place it does not show any signs of the anxiety (stationary, hotel, at relatives, in the car or in the garden). For better understanding it is possible to use an example of burns: First you pull the hand out of the fire, only then it can start healing.
The environment should be adjusted so that the dog feels well and is safe (prevent possibilities to escape, get injured or self-harm). Some dogs like to have a lot of room around, some prefer the crate. An everyday “departure training” is important. The training should be preceded by a little walk with games and exercises ended with praise and calming. The dog should not be given food before training (departure).
As well as with other fear-related disorders, even separation anxiety is treated with the help of desensitization (very brief exposure to stimulus so that the fear does not manage to occur, the time of exposure is being gradually prolonged) and counter-conditioning (teaching new conditional reflex/new reply to an old stimulus). Based on the character and intensity of the condition, the owner performs either all or just some of these points below:
Independence training: The owner does not react to the dog trying to get the owner’s attention. He/she starts and finishes common activities and rewards independent behavior (being alone in it’s place or being in a different room than the owner). The dog is separated from the owner but only for as much time as it is able to stay calm.
Change of the meaning of departure rituals: The owner performs the usual rituals (keys, bag, clothes, perfume etc.), goes towards the doors but will not leave and instead comes back to the previous activity. This is repeated twice or three times a day until the dog is calm. Pauses between the ritual trainings must be long enough so that the dog completely calms down. The goal of this is to have the dog stop connecting it only with departure and long absence of the owner.
Change of departure and return habits: The owner pays the dog no attention for 5–15 minutes before departure and does not “say goodbye”. When returning the owner greets the dog with no emotion and immediately takes the dog out.
Desensitization is a very brief exposure to stimulus so that the fear does not manage to occur, the time of exposure is being gradually prolonged.
Counter-conditioning is teaching new conditional reflex/new reply to an old stimulus.
Departure counter-conditioning: The owner teaches the dog to stay in the place where it is not afraid and it is able to relax. He/she creates correlation between training departures/short departures and something positive like good food in a filling toy. If the owner has to leave for a longer period of time than the dog is used to, it should not be left in the place where trainings take place and should not play with the same toys. A dog should go through 1–2 trainings a day.
The time the dog is able to stay alone without stress is set in the beginning. It can be seconds or minutes. After seconds (minutes), the time during which the dog is alone is being prolonged. Departures and returns are being done without emotions and without paying attention to the dog. The owner gives the dog a filling toy before he/she leaves. When the dog gets up and tries to follow the owner, he/she comes back and takes the toy away from the dog. The training continues until the dog fully calms down and is interested in the toy again.
Departures are only indicated at first or the owner only goes to next room. Only when the dog endures these indicated departures well, the owner tries to open the door to the corridor, step out and immediately come back. He/she tries to close the door and open them again right away. The owner then leaves home for a couple seconds or minutes and later prolongs the time of absence by 1–2 minutes. He/she gradually starts to behave the same way as when he/she actually leaves – takes the bag, keys, puts on shoes etc. If the dog is still nervous, it is necessary to come back to the point where the dog was calm.
As soon as the dog is able to be alone for 30 minutes, the period may be prolonged by 5–10 minutes. If the dog is able to stay alone for 2–3 hours, the training is no longer necessary. It should not stay alone longer than it is comfortable though.
Incorrectly applied behavioral therapy may lead to more fear. If the owner continues to train departure and absence even if the dog expresses stress and anxiety, the conditions will get worse.
Crate training can only be done with dogs that seek small spaces and feel good in them. Condition of a dog that does not seek small spaces will only get worse.
Getting another pet as a companion is not recommended, it rarely works.
Lighter forms of separation anxiety might be treated by thorough training without medicaments being necessary. It is easier to do it with them though. They reduce fear and anxiety and they are safe and available. These include mainly medicaments that contain synthetic soothing dog pheromones, for example vaporizers and dog-collars, but also dietary supplements containing L-tryptophan or alpha‑casozepine, or alternatively a complex veterinary diet enriched by these compounds.
Pharmacologic treatment is aimed at neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that take part in the fear and anxiety responses: serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, and GABA. These medicaments are prescripted by the vets after thorough examination of the patient. The doctor then monitors their efficiency and side effects.
The best way to determine the progress of the treatment is to monitor the dog during the time it is by itself. That can be done by setting up a videocamera or with the help of Dog Monitor. This convenient phone app allows the owner to have both visual and audio overview of his/her dog goes through when left home. That helps the owner adjust the training and it also gives the vet materials that ease to diagnose and decide whether to start medical treatment. Medical treatment should last one more month after successful treatment. After that ¼ of medicaments a week is dropped while constant monitoring for potential return of the symptoms.
Prevention means slow and steady process of getting the puppy used to solitude. In order to increase chances to succeed it is recommended to leave the puppy in a nice and safe environment, walk the dog and exercise before leaving and leave the reward (filling toy) while leaving. The process of both leaving and coming back should only be accompanied by short greeting.
It is good to monitor the puppy while alone from the very beginning so that the length of solitude and equipment in the environment can be adjusted to physiological needs (food, excretion) and puppy’s nature (toys, crates). It can capture first symptoms of stress and fear so the problem can be coped with immediately and the chance of a successful therapy rises.
This is where Dog Monitor phone app comes in handy. It allows the owner to see how the dog behaves when left home alone. Practical activity log feature shows the history of monitoring during the time it was left alone. It helps both the owner and the vets to map dog's behavior during a certain period of time which gives the opportunity to determine whether or not the animal indeed suffers from separation anxiety.
“This is where Dog Monitor phone app comes in handy. It allows the owner to see how the dog behaves when left home alone. Practical activity log feature shows the history of monitoring during the time it was left alone.”
Separation anxiety is often relatively easy to solve with low or no level of medicine therapy if the owner cooperates properly. Medicaments can speed up the process and relieve the dog from a lot of fear and anxiety. There are some cases though when all training and treatment lead nowhere. These are usually the cases of long-lasting untreated (or incorrectly treated) anxieties or occurrence of several parallel behavioral disorders.
Here you will find true stories of dog patients suffering from separation anxiety and how the condition was solved under an expert’s supervision.
Bibi ate her own feces while alone
Bibi was a seven-month-old female French Bulldog. She lived in a city apartment with her retired owners who were with her most of the time. Bibi was very nifty and obedient. She learned many tricks and got on well with the owners’ grandchildren, but she had a problem. As soon as she was home alone, even if for only ten minutes, she would immediately urinate and defecate and then she would eat those feces. She was never left alone for more than two hours.
Rocky whined and howled while alone
Rocky was a fifteen-month-old active and chipper dog. Every terrier likes to bark a lot though. He was taken home by his new owner Monica when he was nine weeks old. She would take him to puppy school and to trainings on regular basis. Rocky liked to fetch a ball, so Monica started to train flyball with him. Plans were forced to change by Monica’s injury. She fell down skiing and badly broke her leg. She had to stay home for almost two months. During that time she and Rocky got very close, they spent all the time together at home, played and rested together. Rocky was only taken out to walk by Monica’s boyfriend or her mother.
They came up with the idea of Dog Monitor app after being approached by some of the users of a similar app called Baby Monitor 3G. To their surprise, the users told them they were using Baby Monitor 3G to monitor their dogs and that it helps them overcome separation anxiety. The creators developed a “dog version”
They started to learn more about the issue of separation anxiety. After discussions with several veterinarians and dog psychologists, they adjusted the app so it helps to solve the separation anxiety more effectively. In cooperation with experts led by MVDr. Zertova they put together all the knowledge about the anxiety and created this online guide.
She graduated from University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Brno. She worked as an editor in magazines such as Veterinary, Veterinary Clinic and Zodiac and later published her own Pets and health magazine. Mrs. Zertova also worked in small animals doctor’s office.
She has spent last fifteen years focusing exclusively on behavior disorders in dogs and cats. Hana Zertova gained her knowledge in this area during her postgraduate studies in Germany. In 2009, she worked on her TV series “Pets’ Reformatory”. The doctor wrote a book called “From a puppy to a dog” dealing with the correct way of puppies’ upbringing.
During the preparing website we have used mainly these resources:
Schmidt W-D: Verhaltenstherapie des Hundes. Schlütersche, Hannover, 2002.
Horwitz DF, Neilson JC: Canine and Feline Bahavior. Blackwell Publishing, Ames 2007.
Bennet SL: Animal Behavior Case of the Month. JAVMA 234, 12, 2013: 1697-1699.
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