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  • Stacey Bell

My dog freaks out when I leave. What is going on?

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Maybe you’ve heard the terms ‘separation anxiety’, ‘isolation distress’, ‘hyper-attachment’ and ‘separation-related behaviors’ discussed in relation to dogs showing fear/anxiety when left alone. Yeah, I know, it can be confusing especially since these terms are not always used to mean the same thing. Let’s do a quick definition of terms!


In her book, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Dr. Karen Overall defines separation anxiety as,


A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone.

While this is the commonly used definition of separation anxiety, strictly speaking this is describing isolation distress. These dogs are OK as long as any human is with them.


True separation anxiety refers to dogs who have to be with a particular person(s) to be OK. This is a less common form of home-alone anxiety. You may hear this called hyper-attachment as well.


So what about separation-related behaviors? How is this different from separation anxiety? Well… that depends on who you ask. Some use it interchangeably with the term separation anxiety (as defined by Dr. Karen Overall), while others use it to encompass home alone behaviors that stem from boredom and frustration as well as fear and anxiety. Think of it as more of an umbrella term.


For our purposes, we will use Dr. Karen Overall’s definition of separation anxiety (SA), hyper-attachment to indicate when the dog must be with a particular person to be OK, and separation-related behaviors (SRBs) as an umbrella term.


COMMON SIGNS OF SEPARATION ANXIETY


The most common separation anxiety symptoms in dogs include destructive behavior (particularly around points of entry), excessive vocalization, and house soiling (especially with dogs who are otherwise potty-trained). Many dogs with separation anxiety don’t tolerate crating and go to great lengths to try to escape from confinement, often totally disregarding injury to themselves.


Does your dog have to exhibit all of these signs to have separation anxiety?

Nope, not at all! In fact, your dog may only show one of them OR may display other indications of anxiety aside from the most common signs. Some other signs of anxiety may include:

  • Pacing

  • Panting

  • Drooling

  • Withdrawing

  • Shaking

  • Freezing

  • Vomiting

  • Self-harm

  • Licking

  • Cowering



WHAT ELSE COULD IT BE?


If you are not quite sure if your dog is anxious when home alone, your first step is to record them while you are gone. This will give you a better idea of what is happening and how the behavior escalates. In addition, a vet check may be in order. This is especially true if your dog has displayed a sudden change in behavior.


If not separation anxiety, what could these separation-related behaviors indicate? This can be tricky to determine, but a little detective work will help narrow things down. Seriously, use a camera!


If you are seeing a lot of destruction, your dog could….

  • Be bored or frustrated. Try increasing exercise and enrichment.

  • Be teething (if they are a puppy). Try giving them a variety of chews and a puppy safe area.

  • Be reacting to storms or other ‘scary’ sounds. Try adding background noises to drown out outside noises.

  • Have cognitive issues (if they are a senior). Check in with your vet. There are medications to help!

If your dog is vocalizing a lot, they could….

  • Be hearing outside noises. Try management strategies to dampen sounds

  • Be seeing things that trigger them (people, other dogs, small animals, cars…). Try blocking their view.

  • Be bored or frustrated. Try increasing exercise and enrichment.

If you are seeing house soiling, your dog could…

  • Have a medical issue or parasites. Check with your vet.

  • Have been left too long. Decrease the amount of time left without a break.

  • Cognitive dysfunction. Check with your vet.


NEXT STEPS


To further complicate things, your dog can have separation anxiety AND be bored and frustrated. Frustration, left unchecked, can grow into anxiety. If you are concerned about your dog’s home-alone behavior, reach out. It is so much better to get to the bottom of what is going on ASAP to minimize bad experiences and help your dog be home alone and happy!

#homealoneandhappy #dogseparationanxiety

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