Does My Dog Have Separation Anxiety?

You come home to an overturned garbage, a chewed coffee table, dishes knocked off the counter – and a dog who runs to greet you at the door. What happened while you were gone? You wonder, does my dog have separation anxiety?

This is one of the most common questions I get from owners. They will come home to destruction, or hear their dog barking, and wondering if their dog is panicking. This is not always true. Two scenarios could be at play here, a dog experiencing separation anxiety or a dog who is bored.

What’s the difference between Separation Anxiety and a bored dog?

Separation Anxiety will occur when a dog experiences panic while left alone. It is characterized by vocalization, peeing/pooing, pacing, panting, destruction (especially at points of human entry/exit). It can be associated with a single person (the dog panics every time that person leaves) or only when no one is home (the dog can be left with a human ‘sitter’ with no symptoms).

Boredom occurs when a dog is under-enriched. Maybe they are not receiving enough exercise, they are not using their brain enough, they have too much freedom in the house and therefore they choose their enrichment by exploring the garbage can, the laundry hamper, the kitchen counter….

How do you know for sure?

The best way to know what your dog is doing while being left alone is to videotape them. You can either setup a Go Pro type recorder, or angle your laptop so the webcam captures the main area they are left in and review the recording upon your return.

If your dog begins whining/howling/pacing as soon as you leave the house and the behaviour escalates over the course of the recording, you could have a dog with separation anxiety.

Instead, if your recording captured a calm dog exploring the garbage can with a wagging tail, you probably have a bored Fido.

What next?

Separation Anxiety will require the assistance of a certified dog trainer to help you get your dog more comfortable and confident with being left alone. You can begin by reading the book “I’ll Be Home Soon” by Dr Patricia McConnell for more information on the issue. There’s also Malena DeMartini-Price’s book “Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs” for an in depth look at the issue.

Boredom can be helped by looking at your dog’s daily routine and seeing where they can get more enrichment. Here are some quick ways to enrich your dog’s days:

  • Change up your walking routine – go to a new park or new neighbourhood for them to sniff and explore. It doesn’t have to be fancy or far away, anywhere new is a new adventure for your dog!
  • Feed your dog from a food dispensing toy – it allows your dog to use their brain and get a food reward for it. 
  • Structure times for training – pick a new trick to teach your dog and spend a few minutes every day working on it. You don’t need to dedicate huge sections of time to training, keep it short & sweet so it’s enjoyable for both of you. Kikopup has some great video tutorials for lots of tricks.
  • Interactive play – don’t forget that dogs like to play with YOU. Games like fetch or tug (if your space is limited) can go a long way in tiring a dog out and having fun together at the same time.

New Home, Old Anxiety

I know that moving can be stressful for dogs, my dog Sandy being firmly in that category. She is a dog who likes her routine and can get stressed by changes in the environment. So upon moving to our new home in Hamilton I worked on leaving her alone for short time frames and every time I came back she was calm & relaxed, no signs of anxiety.

Found our local library

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Phew. Or so I thought.

The first morning I had to leave her for a few hours I got a call from my landlord that Sandy was barking. If you’ve ever gotten a call or had a note left about your dog’s behaviour you know what it feels like: your stomach drops, your face flushes with embarrassment, maybe you even get frustrated or angry that this is happening, why is my dog behaving like this!  

That’s the very question I asked myself: why was my dog behaving like this! Sandy had never experienced separation anxiety prior to this and I was shocked to get the phone call. But then I started piecing together some issues in the past year that I had ignored.

The brave adventurer

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As a dog trainer I’ve worked to be carefully attuned to signs of stress and anxiety in dogs I work with and yet, when it came to my own dog, I had explained away those same subtle signs I would’ve brought to the attention of a client. Before moving, while still in Toronto, some days I came home to Sandy panic barking. It was a bark I had never heard from her before.

If a client had come to me with that situation I would’ve recommended to record the dog while the client was out to see exactly what was going on. Without video, you can only speculate about your dog’s emotional state while you aren’t there.

Instead, I attributed her behaviour to needing to go to the bathroom, a change in our schedule, or maybe she had heard a strange noise. Now, after the phone call from my landlord, I saw that those were signs that she had been coping with increased anxiety. I had ignored them, which resulted in separation anxiety when the BIG change of our new home came.

Standing in the shadow of the escarpment

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I put together a training plan for Sandy that included her never being left alone in unfamiliar places, I was lucky to have family close that could look after her when I had to be out of the house, and I chose to put her on medication in order to get us to our end goal quicker.

Sandy is now weaned off the medication, she can be left alone for as long as needed with no anxiety and we have a reliable routine, which she loves. She actually wants me to hurry up and leave the house so she can get her stuffed kongs!

Here is some footage of the first trial of Sandy being left alone during our training plan. (Sorry for the camera angle, it tipped a little too far to the side!)

Note that initially she is alert, focused on the point of exit, but no vocalization or excessive pacing. She’s clearly not comfortable being left alone yet. Compare that to the second half of the video after she has worked through separation anxiety protocol.

 

If your dog has a behavioural change, don’t be ready with a quick answer to dismiss it.

If I had taken the time to consider why Sandy was behaving differently at our home in Toronto, it would’ve saved me the extra work when the additional stressor of the move occurred.