Dog Behavior Problems: Separation-Related Distress in Dogs - Synopsis

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Some dogs exhibit signs of distress when they are left alone. These signs may include vocalizing, pacing, damaging objects, damaging potential exit points, salivating, vomiting, and eliminating indoors. In most cases, when a dog exhibits a behavior almost exclusively when alone, they are diagnosed with separation-related distress.

Is separation-related distress the same in all dogs?

The term “separation anxiety” is often used to describe dogs that are anxious when alone, yet new research has shown that the emotional component may be different for different dogs. Some dogs that exhibit signs of distress are more frustrated than anxious, and some dogs are simply restless, with a minimal emotional component to their behavior.

Also, some dogs that exhibit separation-related distress are calm if there is another person or even another pet with them, while others become distressed when a specific, significant person is absent, and do not appear comfortable even when they have another person or pet nearby.

Why do some dogs become distressed when alone?

Dogs are social animals. Their ancestors lived in groups, and free-ranging dogs also tend to travel with other dogs when possible. That means there is a genetic predisposition to seek companionship. Many dog breeders begin to acclimate their puppies to being alone by removing puppies from the litter, usually in groups of 2 or 3, for an hour or so every day, and then easing them into spending time alone in a pen or crate. It is understandable that a puppy or adult dog that has never been alone might become distressed when they arrive in their new home and suddenly have no company.

"It is understandable that a puppy or adult dog that has never been alone might become distressed when they arrive in their new home and suddenly have no company."

Other factors may also affect a dog’s tolerance for being alone. Studies show that a traumatic separation, such as being dropped at a shelter, increases the likelihood that a dog will be distressed when alone. Also, dogs that are easily frustrated may become further distressed when their demands are not immediately met. If they call out with a bark or scratch at a door and no one appears, they may escalate the intensity of their efforts, eventually barking or clawing at doors for the duration of the time they are left unattended.

Finally, some dogs move into a home in which there is at least one person present most of the time. If the household routine changes, perhaps children move off to school or an adult takes a job out of the house, then the dog could be distressed as he is suddenly faced with a silent home and no companionship.

My dog used to tolerate being alone. What happened?

Any change in the household or home environment can reduce a dog’s comfort with being alone. Some dogs are sensitive to sound and when noise-muting carpets or curtains are removed, the dogs do not settle well. Similarly, construction projects at your home or in the neighborhood can trigger anxiety.

"Any change in the household or home environment can reduce a dog’s comfort with being alone."

Medical conditions can also trigger distress. Dogs experiencing pain often do not settle well. Diseases that cause an increase in the urgency to urinate or defecate can also trigger distress, as some of these dogs cannot wait to relieve themselves. If your dog exhibits a sudden onset of separation-related behavioral concerns, consult your veterinarian to schedule an exam.

Senior dogs may develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome, a condition related to brain aging. With cognitive decline, dogs can exhibit anxiety as well as a loss of learned behaviors, forgetting that they are safe when alone. Treatment can slow the process and address the underlying anxiety.

Can I prepare my dog for being alone?

Once your new puppy or adult dog has acclimated to your home, it is important to teach her that she is safe, even when she is not in your direct view and even if she is confined in a pleasant area.

To train your dog to be comfortable with confinement, begin by using a gate or crate so that she cannot always follow you. Always give her something fun to occupy her (e.g., a food-filled toy). Then be sure to return to her before she finishes the toy; otherwise, she may finish and start to bark or whine. When you return to her view, quietly tell her she is good, but don’t make a big fuss. You can let her finish her toy as you open the gate or crate.

After a few sessions, when you return to her view, leave her confined so that she understands she can relax even when you are physically unavailable. If your dog enjoys chewing or playing with toys, provide her with some standard-quality toys so she can entertain herself while she is waiting for you to let her out. It is best if you are in the area, but a bit busy, so she has something to watch.

To prepare your dog to be comfortable when you are absent from home, practice taking short outings. To begin, it is usually best to put your dog in the comfortable confinement area, particularly young puppies. However, if you have adopted a calm, mature dog that settles, is housetrained, and does not display any tendency to chew objects, then you may leave your dog free. Many dogs enjoy sleeping on the couch or a favorite bed while they are alone. In either case, leave a food-filled toy for your dog to enjoy.

Before you leave, set up a camera or monitor so that you can return home if there are signs of distress. At first, just go out for a few minutes, come home, give a quick hello, and go about your business – just as you did with the confinement training. If your dog does well, take departures of varying lengths, always monitoring the camera for signs of distress.

If you do notice distress, it is important to consult with your veterinarian immediately. A customized treatment plan can be designed to address your dog’s emotional needs. Avoid leaving your dog alone until she can be treated. You may need to hire a pet sitter for the short term.

How is separation related distress treated?

The first step in treating separation-related distress is to identify the specific triggers for your dog’s distress and to address the underlying motivation for the behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Anxiety when alone: If your dog shows signs of distress when alone, such as pacing, salivating, or barking, then much of the behavior modification will focus on helping your dog settle when you are home but out of sight. Relaxation exercises are always important. Practice asking your dog to settle on a blanket when you are nearby, and then bring that blanket to her safe area. Encourage her to relax as you intermittently leave her sight.
  • Anxiety when a specific person is absent: If your dog does not relax in your absence, even when she has company, then the person who remains home with her can begin to practice the relaxation exercise. While you step out of the house, your dog can learn to settle and wait while earning some gentle pets, treats, and/or a food toy. 
  • Frustration when confined: If your dog attempts to escape from the crate, gate, or house by clawing or chewing the barrier, then it is important to work on tolerance of frustration in all aspects of life - in addition to working on the relaxation settle exercise. Avoid giving attention or other rewards when your dog is demanding. Teach her to sit or lie quietly before taking her outside for her walk or delivering her food. You can also try clicker training to shape behaviors and address frustration. Continue to practice confinement training for random blocks of time, using food toys, and the relaxation settle cue. 

Other tips for helping reduce distress:

  • Establish a safe resting spot, such as a settle mat. Your dog can learn that going to the settle mat feels good. She earns some quiet praise, she may have some treats, and she can close her eyes and rest. It can help to dab the settle mat with pheromone such as Thunderease®.
  • Keep goodbyes and hellos low-key. Don’t ignore your dog, but don’t make a fuss. It is important that you never punish your dog if you come home to damage or if your dog has soiled. Just clean quietly, ideally with your dog out of the area.
  • If more than one person needs to leave the house, be sure your dog relaxes between each departure. 
  • If your dog is easily stimulated by outside triggers such as people walking by, block her access to the view. 
  • Leave white noise playing: a noise machine, a radio, or the TV. Some dogs enjoy Dog TV. 
  • Always set up a spy camera when you leave the house to monitor progress.
  • Be sure to provide your dog with ample opportunities for enrichment when you are home: reward-based training, interactive play, exercise, and interesting toys.

What are the most important tips for training dogs to tolerate your departure?

  1. Identify and isolate cues that appear to trigger distress (barking, pacing, ears back, hiding) as you prepare to leave (e.g., getting keys, putting on your coat). Try to prepare so that when you walk out of the house, your dog is not already distressed. You may put your keys and coat outside an hour before you need to leave. It can be helpful to reduce the emotional significance of the cues by handling these objects several times during the day when you have no intention of leaving. 
  2. Provide safe toys for your dog to enjoy when you are gone. If your dog is active, scatter food toys around the house. Less active dogs may prefer toys close to their settle spot. 
  3. Avoid rushing. Prepare for your departure calmly. Before walking out the door, sit for a few minutes and read or relax. If your dog is free in the house, she may relax on her settle mat with you, before you quietly walk out. If she enjoys a food toy, give her the toy a few minutes before you leave.
  4. Begin with short departures and return fairly quickly, before your dog appears distressed. When you re-enter, give a brief hello, then take a seat near your dog’s settle spot and relax until your dog relaxes. Gradually and randomly increase departures if they are well tolerated.
  5. If your dog does not tolerate even a short departure, or if you notice distress at any point in training, it is important to discontinue these exercises. Instead of adapting and relaxing, some dogs become distressed more and more quickly; they are “sensitized” instead of “desensitized”. Further training can be detrimental. In this case, you should consult a veterinary behaviorist in order to meet your dog’s emotional needs. Meanwhile, it may be necessary to take advantage of a pet sitter or boarding/day care facility to keep your dog safe.

Can medication be helpful?

Medications that reduce anxiety, frustration, and panic are available. Two of these drugs, Reconcile® (fluoxetine) and Clomicalm® (clomipramine), have been tested and FDA approved for use in dogs. These medications are generally well tolerated. Dogs that are distressed cannot learn well, and studies have shown that dogs exhibiting signs of separation anxiety can improve faster when they take an appropriate medication. Some dogs benefit from taking medication every day, while others take medication as needed.

Your veterinarian will examine your dog and perform some diagnostic testing to determine whether medication is appropriate for your dog.

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