Separation-Related Problems: Anxiety Is Not the Only Cause
Separation anxiety (SA) is the term commonly used to describe the collection of behaviors exhibited by a dog who is significantly distressed when left alone. It is one of the most well-studied behavioral disorders in dogs, and yet there is still no consensus of terminology. The term separation-related problem (SRP) has been used in academic articles for over a decade now. This perhaps is a more inclusive term than separation anxiety, as it is more encompassing of a range of behaviors, causes and intensities. The other names in regular use include separation-related behaviors, separation-related disorders, separation-related distress, isolation anxiety and separation distress.
The internet is overflowing with articles describing SA, leading to many consultants receiving calls from owners declaring their young puppy has SA because they vocalize when they are on one side of a baby gate and the owner is on the other. Conversely there are many sad tales of distressed dogs continuing to suffer from unrecognized anxiety-based SRPs; the most common reason for this is lack of visible evidence, or owners not being aware of the serious nature of the condition.
When assessing a case involving SRPs, it is critically important not to dismiss a true case of significant distress associated with separation. These dogs are suffering, and a structured and methodical plan is required to eliminate ongoing exposure to psychological trauma and chronic stress.
Common signs and behaviors typically associated with SRPs
SRPs encompass a range of behaviors indicating a change in emotion and/or arousal state when the dog is left alone.1 These can include behaviors associated with frustration, anxiety, fear, or panic.
One on the key features of SRPs is that the signs occur only when the dog perceives that they cannot access their owner. Some common signs are:
- Destructive behaviors (chewing; digging; destroying furniture; destroying gardens; destroying walls, floors, doors, windowsills, and skirting boards)
- Evidence of salivation (puddles of saliva, wet carpet, wet chest fur)
- Inappropriate elimination (urination and defecation in the home in an otherwise house-trained dog)
- Excessive vocalization
- Attempts to escape
- Abstaining from eating and drinking when owner not present
- Self-injurious behaviors (bleeding foot pads, claws, gums, or lips, associated with attempts to escape; skin lesions due to excessive licking or biting of body parts)
Less commonly, aggression toward the owner at time of departure can occur.2
Why is addressing SRPs so important?
There are a range of issues associated with SRPs. Some of these issues directly affect the dog, but many affect the owner.
Potential issues for dogs
- Exposure to painful and fear-inducing punishments implemented by the owner as a result of the dog performing undesirable behaviors.
- Increased stress due to not being able to perform stress-relieving behaviors.
- Increased stress due to physical restriction (e.g., being confined to a small crate).
- Damage to the relationship between the human and the dog.
- Chronic stress and cumulative psychological trauma due to routinely being left alone, without the SRP being appropriately addressed.
- Relinquishment to a shelter or rescue, or behavioral euthanasia.
Potential issues for humans
SRPs can be extremely emotionally draining for the human. Owners may also be confronted by specific issues:
- Noise complaints.
- Damage to property from chewing, digging, and other destructive behaviors — resulting in financial cost, emotional stress, tension between household members, and tension between landlords and tenants.
- Stress and increased workload associated with ongoing inappropriate elimination requiring regular cleaning.
- Emotional issues including disappointment and/or frustration, sadness and empathy, or guilt.
- The potential for eviction from their home due to noise or damage.
- Potentially having to rehome, surrender or euthanize their dog, or feeling worried that any of these might be necessary.
What could it be if not fear- or anxiety-related?
Many of the behaviours associated with SRPs are not exclusive to this syndrome. Along with fear and anxiety, frustration is also considered to be a significant contributor to a number of the behaviours associated with SRPs. The presence of excess salivation or inappropriate elimination, in the absence, or perceived absence, of the owner are signs that do tend to be indicative of anxiety, stress, or panic. However, excessive vocalization, digging, and destructive behaviours can occur for a range of reasons. One of the most common is a lack of appropriate physical exercise and mental stimulation.
When left alone, an under-stimulated dog may perform the type of behaviours that can be confused with an anxiety-based SRP. If the performance of the behaviours is not really to do with separation from their owner, then ensuring the dog’s needs are appropriately met may result in a sudden reduction of the undesirable behaviours.
Identifying where the dog is performing these behaviours can be useful when first assessing potential causes. If the destructive behaviours are occurring near exits, then anxiety is a likely root cause, whereas if the digging is occurring randomly in the yard during the owner’s absence, it is worth considering a broader range of potential contributing factors.
One study indicated that the owner’s permissiveness — defined as their inconsistency in which behaviours are reinforced or punished — may lead to frustration-based SRPs. This is because permissiveness may result in a lowering of the threshold of frustration in the dog, resulting in an increase in frustration-related behaviours such as barking. Also, dogs who experience higher levels of unpredictability due to the behaviour of their permissive or inconsistent owners may react with frustration when separated, showing a collection of signs substantially different from fear- or anxiety-based SRPs.3
This does not suggest that dogs who live as family members have an increased risk of developing SRPs. Indeed, two large studies have confirmed dogs who sleep on the bed, get on furniture, and eat scraps at human mealtimes have no greater chance of developing an SRP than dogs who are not allowed to undertake these behaviours.4,5 The difference is in the variability of the owner’s responses to the dog’s behaviours.
There are other challenges that may present alongside SRPs and are likely to contribute to the overall negative emotional state of the dog in the absence of their owner. For example, noise phobias are often found alongside SRPs in dogs6 although it’s not possible to determine whether a noise phobia has caused SRPs in a dog, or if that dog has a higher chance of developing any issue related to anxiety, including noise phobias and SRPs. In either case, paying attention to the noise in the home is recommended. Some background noise may be useful for blocking outside noise, but an attempt to replicate the usual soundscape of the home is best in most cases.
Addressing SRPs as a behaviour consultant
Regardless of the emotional basis for the SRP, the management and training can look remarkably similar. The difference between anxiety-based and frustration-based SRPs often becomes evident in the speed of response to intervention. Fear- and anxiety-related cases can take months, years, and in some cases a lifetime of careful management, whereas if the root cause lies elsewhere, evidence of progress can occur in days to weeks.
Modifying non-anxiety based SRPs through training and enrichment
All dogs need an outlet for their natural behaviours, and certainly some breeds, age groups, and individuals have a stronger desire to do things like vocalize, dig, and chew. Finding an outlet for these activities that is acceptable to the owner is critical.
It is worth noting here that while leaving food puzzles, toys, and slow feeders with the dog is an excellent strategy for increasing mental stimulation, if it is the same items all the time, this is not true enrichment. Enrichment requires variety and change to be effective.
Vocalization alone can be a significant issue for owners. Dogs are often inadvertently “trained” to bark or whine to attract human attention. This frequently starts because the puppy is left to sleep in a crate or playpen, and the owner lets them out for a toilet break as soon as they hear them vocalize. This sets up the understanding from the puppy that vocalizing equals a human appearing and offering contact. To avoid this association forming, owners should either ensure there is access to a toileting area within the enclosure, or watch closely for the early signs the pup is starting to wake, and act before the vocalization starts.
Some basic operant conditioning can be greatly beneficial both as an early intervention and as part of a behavior modification plan for an adult dog who vocalizes excessively — quiet equals human interaction, vocalizing does not.
Often dogs who vocalize for human attention are labeled by their owner as having separation anxiety. However, vocalization alone is not a guarantee that a dog is suffering from anxiety.
A video can give further information in these cases. Many dogs who appear to have anxiety issues under these circumstances stop vocalizing and undertake normal activities within a short period of time of the owner completely leaving the premises. The behaviors in these cases are frustration driven as opposed to anxiety-based, and strategies must be implemented to assist the dog to reduce and manage their frustration.
With dogs who show frustration-related behaviors like barking, jumping, spinning, or other ways to attract attention, I like to play short training games that reward the dog for showing calm behaviors after a round of excitable play.
Veterinarians may also consider the inclusion of medication in an overall program for dogs with SRPs. This can be particularly useful where behaviors are intense or have been ongoing for a substantial period. Not only can medications address the performance of the undesirable behavior(s), but some may also directly improve the underlying emotional state.7 For dogs with complex behavioral issues or other diagnosed disorders occurring together with the SRPs, medications are likely to be an essential aspect of the overall program.
Building toward leaving a dog with SRPs
Systematic desensitization to separation is the cornerstone of all current treatment plans for dogs displaying SRPs, whether rooted in anxiety or frustration. Dogs need to develop the ability to remain calm and relaxed when not able to:
- Make physical contact with their owner
- See their owner
- Hear their owner
These are three separate skills for a dog with SRPs. Training strategies ultimately need to include all three.
Training the specific behavior of relaxed separation is critical for all dogs demonstrating SRPs. Many people spend the whole time with their dog when they are home, often in physical contact with the dog, then expect the dog to be comfortable when the human is not present. Being relaxed and confident in a physically separate space from the human is an important skill to encourage in dogs, and like every other skill it requires practice.
The starting point for this exercise will be entirely dictated by the individual dog. The aim is to build confidence and resilience, without causing distress. The conclusion for this exercise would be that the human can leave the dog and go out of sight for a significant period and the dog remain calm. Distance and duration need to be built separately and slowly, with the dog not showing signs of distress during the process.
Some consultants encourage the use of remote feeders for this type of training. There are pros and cons to this. In my personal opinion they can be useful in the early training of “quiet” behaviors for dogs who are very vocal, and I think they can be useful at the start of separation training when initially undertaking short distance and duration. The caution I would put forward is to be aware that in many dogs, true relaxation will not be reached with a remote feeder. This is because the dog is unlikely to fully settle and relax, as they will remain ever-vigilant about the potential for a spontaneous treat delivery. I wouldn’t go to sleep if I thought a piece of chocolate may be tossed to me at any random interval of time!
Another personal opinion is that I think it is best to use a tether or enclosure for this type of training rather than a stationed behavior on a mat. The stationed behavior is excellent for so many purposes, and it does create physical distance. However, while on the mat or bed, the dog is not doing independent activities, they are just performing a cued behavior, and may even feel compelled to remain there, regardless of their emotional state. Allowing a dog to have some freedom of movement, as well as experiencing the physical restriction provided by the leash or the enclosure in this training phase, will provide the owner or trainer with much more information.
Crates can be used for this training, but it is worth noting that some dogs with SRPs also suffer from a version of claustrophobia, often labeled confinement distress.6 Crates are not a good option for these dogs and will likely create or exacerbate undesirable behaviors.
The process of leaving a dog with SRPs
Another area to consider is the protocol for leaving the home. General consensus is that desensitizing to the leaving cues is appropriate but is only one aspect of the overall picture. Remember, this process is not about “tricking” the dog by suddenly sneaking out a back exit with no warning, but rather it is about undertaking a methodical process to remove the arousal and emotion associated with the dog back-chaining the cues indicating the owner’s departure.
Really this is about lowering the arousal level of the dog before leaving. While it is true that dogs are exceptional at going from 0 to 100 in a split second, this does require a significant trigger. If we work to make the trigger (the human leaving) less significant and we work on the dog’s baseline being as low as possible before leaving, then these combine to assist in the process.
For a similar reason, undertaking high-energy activities such as playing fetch immediately prior to leaving is not ideal. Even though owners often think it will function to “exhaust” the dog, it is more likely to result in the departure occurring while the dog is in a high state of arousal.
Many papers specifically recommend ignoring the dog entirely for 20-30 minutes prior to departure.7-9 A more recent article suggests no play, training, walks, or direct interactions for 15-30 minutes prior to departure.6 It is stated that the aim of these pre-departure periods is to reduce arousal levels and avoid inadvertent reinforcement of anxiety-related behaviors. While there is no clear evidence to suggest ignoring the dog is required, certainly keeping energy levels low with only gentle petting and calm play prior to departure may be the most beneficial strategy.
Providing safe chew toys and slow feeders 5-10 minutes prior to departure is recommended as a potential distraction.6 Of course, leaving these items as a primary “fix-all” for SRPs is questionable, as many dogs exhibiting anxiety-related SRPs are unlikely to interact with these items in the owner’s absence. For this reason, they can be an excellent tool for gauging progress; if the dog is relaxed enough to interact with these items in the owner’s absence, then progress is likely being made.
Greeting a dog with SRPs
Much has been written in the academic literature on this topic within the last decade, varying from withdrawing contact entirely as a negative punisher for performing undesirable behaviors during separation,10 through to short periods of no contact upon arrival, waiting to actively reward calm behaviors only.7-9
The exact method for greeting a dog after separation is still being debated. My personal view is that the dog should be greeted immediately. Physical contact is known to be effective in decreasing stress levels in dogs during and after experiencing stress.11 This would indicate that calm physical contact upon arrival is likely beneficial for the dog. It may be prudent though to encourage low-arousal activities such as a treat scatter or calm petting initially, as opposed to the high-energy greeting many owners undertake.
It should be highlighted that current wisdom is clear: any form of punishment, positive or negative, is not productive for SRPs and should be avoided.6
What are the options until the dog can be left alone?
As with any other undesirable behavior, it is important the dog is not placed in a situation where they feel the need to perform the separation-related problem behaviors. The more practiced the behavior is, the more difficult it is to modify. Also exposing a dog with SRPs to separation, to the extent where they become distressed, results in a range of welfare issues associated with flooding and the potential for learned helplessness. Some options available to owners while undertaking the behavior modification training include having neighbors, family and friends look after the dog or using doggie day care facilities. Some of these options may not be suited to certain individual dogs.
If the owner has an unavoidable need to leave the dog alone during the desensitization phase, the dog should be left in a different location of the home if possible. This can reduce the risk for undoing the work already achieved in the “safe space.”
It is common for owners to consider acquiring another dog in an attempt to “fix” the issue. According to several studies, having another dog in the home is not protective against the development, or performance, of SRPs.12,13 Introducing a second dog can in fact cause further issues for the owner, as the behaviors and emotions of a dog with SRPs can contribute to tensions and potentially aggression between dogs.
Although there are many similarities in how we approach anxiety- and frustration-based SRPs, it is nevertheless important to make an accurate diagnosis. Understanding the difference between frustration and anxiety in separation-related problems allows us as behavior consultants to give more information to our clients and develop an appropriate program for behavior modification. Often clients hire us to address one behavior that is only a symptom of an underlying issue — our ability to identify and communicate that issue sets owners up for a greater chance of understanding their dog and taking a proactive role in preventing future problems.
SRPs can be time-consuming to address, and many owners find the process frustrating, confusing, stressful, difficult, annoying, overwhelming, or a combination of these emotions. Due to the immense emotional strain placed on owners, it is often prudent to recommend they seek out support in addition to professional help from a behavior consultant. There are many social media support groups available for owners facing the struggles associated with owning a dog with SRPs.
- de Assis, L.S. et al (2020). Developing diagnostic frameworks in veterinary behavioral medicine: disambiguating separation related problems in dogs. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 6.
- Blackwell, E.J., Casey, R.A., and Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2016). Efficacy of written behavioral advice for separation-related behavior problems in dogs newly adopted from a rehoming center. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 12, Blackwell, E.J.,
- Lenkei, R., Alvarez Gomez, S. and Pongrácz, P. (2018). Fear vs. frustration – Possible factors behind canine separation related behaviour. Behavioural Processes 157: 115-124.
- Voith, V.L., Wright, J.C. and Danneman, P.J. (1992). Is there a relationship between canine behavior problems and spoiling activities, anthropomorphism, and obedience training? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 34:3, 263-272.
- Flannigan, G. and Dodman, N.H. (2001). Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 219:4, 460.
- Ballantyne, K.C. (2018). Separation,confinement, or noises: What is scaring that dog? Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 48:3, 367-386.
- Karagiannis, C.I., Burman, O.H.P. and Mills, D.S. (2015). Dogs with separation-related problems show a “less pessimistic” cognitive bias during treatment with fluoxetine (Reconcile™) and a behaviour modification plan. BMC Veterinary Research 11.
- Sherman, B.L. and Mills, D.S. (2008). Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 38:5, 1081-1106.
- Ciribassi, J. (2015). Home safe home: Treating canine separation anxiety: help your clients take these steps to eliminate home destruction and, more important, canine anxiety when they leave their dogs at home alone. Veterinary Medicine 110:5, 124.
- Butler, R., Sargisson, R.J. and Elliffe, D. (2011). The efficacy of systematic desensitization for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 129:2-4, 136-145.
- Mariti, C. et al (2018). Effects of petting before a brief separation from the owner on dog behavior and physiology: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 27, 41-46.
- Palestrini, C. et al (2010). Video analysis of dogs with separation-related behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 124:1-2, 61-67.
- Herron, M.E., Lord, L.K. and Husseini, S.E. (2014). Effects of preadoption counseling on the prevention of separation anxiety in newly adopted shelter dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 9:1, 13-21.
Sharon has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. She is a CDBC and a CHBC and is also a certified dog trainer (CPDT-KA). Sharon has completed a Grad.Dip. in Captive Vertebrate Management and a Master of Animal Science. She is currently completing a PhD (veterinary pharmacology). Sharon is based in Newcastle, Australia, where she operates her behaviour consulting and training business, Avanti Dog Training.