Canine Separation Anxiety
Dogs are social animals that form strong bonds with people, so it is not surprising that they may feel somewhat anxious when separated from their social group. Most dogs adapt well to the typical daily separation from their owners. Unfortunately, problems can arise when an overly dependent dog develops a dysfunctionally strong attachment to the owners. The dog with separation anxiety is distinguished by signs of distress when left alone and over-attachment when the owner is present.
Separation anxiety may be manifested as destruction of the owner’s property and other behaviors that may be harmful for the dog or annoying for people sharing the dog’s immediate environment.
It is important to realize that dogs with separation anxiety are not doing these things to get even with the owner for leaving, out of boredom, or due to lack of obedience training. These dogs are not being destructive out of “spite” or “anger.” They are truly distressed when left behind.
Consider instead that the dog’s dependence on the owner is so great that she becomes anxious when the owner leaves. The dog must find an outlet for this anxiety, and her methods of doing so may cause considerable damage. Also consider that, no matter how flattering a dog’s constant attention to her owners may seem, it is not fair to the dog to allow her to be so stressed by the owner’s absence that she must resort to one of these unwanted behaviors to alleviate inner tension.
How to Spot Separation Anxiety in Dogs
For some dogs, the anxiety associated with being left alone becomes evident to their owners soon after they join the household. In some cases, dogs may be genetically predisposed to anxiety but inappropriate or insufficient socialization experiences during the juvenile period is the most likely cause. For some dogs, no initiating trigger can be identified. Symptoms of separation anxiety may develop gradually over time or may appear in full-blown form the first time they are left alone.
The onset of separation anxiety sometimes occurs after the dog is exposed to an experience that disrupts its social bond. This can occur when owners board the dog for vacation or change their work schedule. It may also occur when a household member leaves or dies, or when the dog is relocated to a new house or household.
Overly indulgent owners may promote separation distress in predisposed dogs. Owners of dogs that show separation distress are often nurturing, empathetic people who indulge their dog. They allow the dog to follow them around the house and encourage the exuberant welcome the dog gives them when they return home. Somewhat less-nurturing (but by no means neglectful) owners may help instill independence in the dog thus circumventing the worst throes of the problem and permitting its gradual resolution.
Separation anxiety may be confused with other separation-related behavior problems that occur in the owner’s absence. A lack of stimulation leads some dogs to engage in excessive and destructive “exploring,” barking and other nuisance behavior. This type of problem does not necessarily indicate a dysfunctional bond with the owner.
Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
It is widely held that dogs with a dysfunctional background (adopted from shelters, puppy mills, pet stores, dogs that have had multiple owners or traumatic handling early in life) are more prone to separation anxiety. Whether this is because these dogs were relinquished or abused, or whether the condition emerged after their abandonment, is not known for certain. Certainly, inadequate early socialization is a concern with puppy mill and pet store dogs, but not all dogs acquired from these facilities develop separation anxiety.
It also has been reported that mixed breed dogs appear to suffer from separation anxiety more commonly than purebred dogs. Since more mixed breed dogs are obtained from shelters than purebred dogs, this raises a question: Does exposure to a shelter environment predispose some dogs to develop separation anxiety or are more mixed breed dogs relinquished to a shelter as a result of preexisting separation related issues?
It is possible that some dogs are genetically predisposed to develop stronger than normal attachment to members of their social group. Logically, we would predict that these dogs would be more submissive in temperament. Such dogs may belong to breeds that have been genetically selected to form overly tight bonds with owners in order to perform a “job,” such as hunting or herding.
Dogs that develop separation anxiety are often young dogs. However, geriatric dogs may develop separation anxiety in response to physical discomfort accompanying old age. These dogs become less independent and more emotionally attached to the owners as a consequence of their infirmity.