You’ve probably heard that dogs who follow you around the house, are overly excited when you come home, howl, bark, destroy things and soil the house when you’re gone have separation anxiety. Well, not necessarily.
Lots of dogs follow their people around because they don’t want to miss out on anything. And some dogs are just naturally exuberant greeters. Bored or frustrated dogs may find ways to entertain themselves when the humans are gone. That can include destroying things like sofa cushions or getting into the trash. Dogs will often bark at noises outside, or people passing by. Dogs who are not reliably housetrained or have a medical condition may have accidents in the house.
There are some key differences between dogs with separation anxiety and dogs who are bored or frustrated while home alone.
One sign is your dog getting upset before you leave. Dogs are masters at noticing connections between events. For example, they’ll get excited when the food cupboard opens because it reliably predicts dinner or treats. They also notice the sequence of behaviors you do prior to leaving (called predeparture cues), like putting on your shoes, or grabbing your purse or the car keys.
Many dogs get excited when you pick up the keys or put on your shoes, because it often predicts they’re going with you. They might get bouncy or vocal and follow you to the door. A dog with separation anxiety though, will show signs of stress, including whining, pacing, drooling, and body language that indicates fear or anxiety. They’re truly worried about being left alone.
House soiling can be a sign of separation anxiety if it’s only happening when you’re away (assuming you’re not gone longer than your dog can hold it).
Destructive behavior by separation anxiety dogs tends to be focused on exits. They may shred blinds, tear up carpet near the door or chew door jambs. Many dogs will harm themselves in their frantic attempts to escape. Broken nails or teeth are not uncommon.
Key differences between frustration and anxiety are duration and persistence. Frustrated dogs may bark periodically, then settle down. Separation anxiety dogs will keep it up until you come home. Bored dogs may chew for a while then settle, while dogs with separation anxiety will continue efforts to escape.
To work out if your dog has separation anxiety, start by learning their body language, specifically signs of stress or fear. You might see cowering, shaking, furrowed brows, or tucked tail. Every dog is unique, so it’s important to understand your dog’s signs. Check out the dog-body-language-101 video at fearfreehappyhomes.com to learn more.
Take some video. Set up a simple camera system so you can see what your dog is getting up to when you’re gone. You may only need a few seconds or minutes, depending on when your dog starts to panic. If your dog is showing the classic signs of separation anxiety, and not just behaving out of boredom or frustration, then you’ll need to think about training.
Dogs can overcome separation anxiety. Training involves teaching the dog to be okay when alone, starting with what the dog can do now, and increasing absences in very tiny increments, while keeping the dog stress free. Next time we’ll look at several popular suggestions for treating separation anxiety and why they can make the problem worse.