I, Kramer, Sidewalk Dog’s intrepid canine reporter, have a confession: I have separation anxiety. I’ve had it for as long as my parents have known me, but I’ve since learned that I’m not alone: many other dogs have separation anxiety too. So in an effort to debark the myths, I talked to my very own veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Margaret Duxbury.
Kramer Canine (KC): What exactly is separation anxiety (SA)?
Dr. Margaret Duxbury (DMD): Separation anxiety is apprehension or worry that occurs specifically when someone (or some pet) is apart from an attachment figure.
Highly social species [like dogs] are more likely to develop separation anxiety because the desire for connectedness is biologically driven. Dogs are uniquely capable of forming closer bonds with humans than they do with members of their own species, so are more likely to be affected by our absences.
KC: Why do dogs get SA?
DMD: There can be many reasons: distress at a young age, the age at which puppies are removed from their litter, being suddenly left alone without first feeling safe, or unstable home environments. Fear and anxiety-driven behaviors often begin after a sensitizing event (something so traumatic that even similar contexts trigger fear or panic) and that confinement and separation are independent stressors.
KC: How would a human know if their dog has SA – and what can they do about it?
DMD: Dogs with separation anxiety may urinate or defecate in the house when left alone, howl/bark for long periods of time, scratch/chew at doors and windows, or chew/shred things they otherwise wouldn’t – often times these items have the owner’s scent. People sometimes misinterpret this as targeted spite, but it is more likely that the dog was seeking out the scent of someone they love. Of course, there can be other reasons for all of these behaviors, so the best way to distinguish SA from other causes is to watch the dog when he/she is home alone to see what is happening.
Video cameras, webcams, or video baby monitor apps allow humans to watch their dogs in real time via smartphone or computer. Dogs who are “bored” will likely have periods of downtime where they are completely relaxed: their body postures and facial expressions will be soft and unconcerned. Anxious dogs may pant, pace, whine, or watch exits for long periods of time.
KC: What’s your advice to Sidewalk Dog humans who are concerned their beloved companions may have SA?
DMD: If owners suspect separation anxiety, they should talk to their veterinarian. Many general practice veterinarians do an excellent job of treating these types of problems. [They] help humans teach their dogs to be more independent, to relax despite pre-departure cues, and to relax as their owner moves about the house, steps out of sight, or leaves the home for a few moments. Anti-anxiety medications are not always necessary, but they can speed up the process of recovery, helping the dog feel better faster, and allowing owners to be successful.
If the pet has a more difficult case of separation anxiety, or if it is complicated by other anxiety-related problems such as noise phobia, then they may be referred to a veterinary behaviorist.