Separation anxiety, what is it and why has this pandemic increased the problem?
Firstly, I don’t actually like the word ‘anxiety’ in ‘separation anxiety’ as for most dogs it doesn’t come anywhere close to how they are feeling. It can be sheer, absolute panic every single time they are left alone. The word anxiety to me somehow seems to make it seem less than what it actually is on a scale of emotions our dogs feel.
Is it fear or anxiety? Medically, fear is an emotional response to a known, real, or perceived threat, whereas anxiety is an overwhelming sense of apprehension caused by an unknown, expected or poorly defined threat or anticipation of future threat.
But what’s going on with dogs with separation anxiety? Is it anxiety? Or is it fear? We assume its anxiety because to us there is no actual real threat to our dogs. But what if, in our dog’s head, being home all alone presents a clear danger. We don’t actually know because both fear and anxiety have very similar physical responses so it’s hard to tell the difference.
But the label we give it isn’t important, how your dog is feeling is what we are concerned about.
Our dogs have provided so many of us with comfort and company during this year of lockdowns and social restrictions, they have helped us to get through this very difficult time providing us with cuddles, exercise and smiles. However, it’s important that people balance that with letting their dog have alone time while they are still at home so when the time comes for them to go back to a normal work routine so their dogs remember how to be content on their own. For owners of dogs who already suffer from separation anxiety this is an ideal time to work on helping their dog without having to find care for their dog when they go out to work.
“Dogs are truly pack animals, they naturally live in groups.”
I don’t think there is a dog out there who isn’t a little disappointed when we leave. We are their companion and the source of all the good things in their life. Dogs are truly pack animals, they naturally live in groups. When did you ever see a tv programme with a street dog or wild dog living on their own? Humans have evolved to separate and re-join our family groups many times a day or for longer periods. No matter how domesticated our dogs are I don’t think dogs, evolution-wise, have come to the point where they naturally enjoy being separated from their family groups. Thankfully most dogs learn to be content when they are alone and sleep, mooch around or play with their toys. Sadly, many of our dogs find being alone traumatic.
Separation related behaviours are behaviours that only happen when the owner isn’t at home. Or if they do happen at other times they occur with greater intensity and duration and/or out of context when you aren’t there.
Take barking as an example; dogs bark in lots of different scenarios and for lots of different reasons, but barking is a separation-related problem behaviour if your dog barks relentlessly or more intensely when he is home alone. Is the barking separation anxiety?
Sometimes that barking can be due to a dog being fearful or anxious when left alone whilst with some dogs it can the result of boredom or frustration. It would still be classified it as a separation-related behaviour because it’s significantly more noticeable and problematic when alone.
So how do you know if your dog’s separation related behaviour is separation anxiety or not? There is a clear line when it comes to separation-related behaviours v separation anxiety and that division is: Is your dog anxious or not?
What kind of behaviours can be a sign of fear, anxiety and panic? Barking, chewing, defecating, urinating, vomiting, panting, drooling, whining, howling, crying, pacing, being hyper vigilant, self-mutilation, shaking, hiding, destroying, escaping or attempting to escape, refusing food whilst alone, barking excessively at outside noises along with other less common behaviours such as aggression near doorways in an attempt to prevent their owner leaving them.
Why do they do these things? What is the function of the behaviours?
Some are panic-induced physiological responses: drooling or urinating/defecating; usually within minutes of being left alone (yes, a panic poo is a real thing!) or refusing to eat when alone … if you are frightened do you think about your empty stomach? I doubt it. Most behaviours, however, are things dogs do to try and make themselves feel better. They are your dog’s way of trying to stop or reduce that feeling of distress they are feeling. They can be self-soothing; for example, constant licking or chewing of their feet, pacing or chewing, or they can be behaviours related to trying to get to their owner, the most obvious ones being digging floors or chewing doorways.
With dogs who panic when home alone there are two distinct categories
1. Dogs who are frightened of being on their own but are content as long as a person, any person, is with them. These dogs hate isolation but are fine as long as someone is keeping them company.
2. Dogs who don’t like being separated from their owner. They have a hyper-attachment to their caregiver and hate being home alone because their owner isn’t there. For these dogs even another person looking after them won’t help, or at best the anxious behaviours reduce but still persist.
A dog for whom anybody will do to keep them company is described as having isolation distress, which is the most common. Dogs who don’t like to be home alone because the owner isn’t with them have separation anxiety. However, the term ‘separation anxiety’ is generally the label given to both.
Will my dog/puppy get separation anxiety when I go back to work?
This is the million-dollar question I get asked often at the moment. Some dogs are more likely to come out of lockdown with separation anxiety.
This could apply to dogs who were learning to be home alone before lockdown and the learning isn’t hard wired yet. This will include puppies and young dogs and dogs recently adopted who were just settling into their new home and routine. These dogs never had enough practice of alone time to enable them to be independent.
There will also be dogs who had signs of separation anxiety that just weren’t spotted before the lockdown.
Then there will be dogs who had no separation anxiety prior to lockdown but were genetically predisposed to it and separation anxiety is triggered when owners suddenly go back to work.
The contrast from having their people at home with them all the time to then suddenly being home alone for long periods is going to be so huge for dogs in those groups that it can trigger separation anxiety. Thankfully the majority of dogs will be just fine.
Separation anxiety can be triggered in the same way as any fear or anxiety. That is experiencing the trigger (being alone) at an intensity that causes fear. So, going from having their family at home for weeks/months and then one day they all suddenly disappear back to work is a sudden, over threshold experience of alone time.
Living with a dog with separation anxiety is like being in eternal lockdown; unable to go out and leave their dog home alone, the worst thing can be a lack spontaneity as you can’t nip out to the shop for a pint of milk (or bottle of wine) or visit a friend without planning ahead for dog sitters.
So, now you know what it is and why dogs do what they do what can you do to help your dog?
- Video your dog when he is home alone so you can observe how they behave.
- Become an expert at your own dog’s body language so you can spot anxiety, write a list of what your dog looks like when he is relaxed, playing, engaging with you, anxious or frightened so you can spot the early warning signals.
- Write a list of all the things you routinely do before leaving the house such as picking up keys, going to the cupboard where you keep your shoes etc. Your dog is an expert at spotting things that indicate you are leaving and is likely to show signs of anxiety way before you walk out of the door.
- Until you have addressed the issue please try to reduce how much you leave your dog home alone to panic, if possible don’t leave them at all.
- Work on a programme of short positive experiences of being alone. Start with short absences you know they can cope with by assessing his body language and behaviour.
- If possible, work with an experienced separation anxiety trainer to help you through it.
Kerry Lawson is The Fairydogmother and founder of The Happy Dog Project, specialising in working with owners of dogs with all kinds of fear and anxiety related behavioural problems.
For more information: www.fairydogmother.co.uk