What is Dog Separation Anxiety?
Canine separation anxiety is a blanket term that refers to the following different and distinct anxiety disorders that can be found in dogs:
Separation anxiety - When a dog is distressed by being separated from its main or preferred human caregiver.
Isolation distress - When a dog can’t tolerate being left alone.
Containment phobia - When a dog feels trapped in confined spaces.
While some dogs lean towards displaying one, predominant type of anxiety disorder, many display a combination of two or all three types depending on the circumstances.
The Difference between Separation Anxiety, Isolation Distress, & Containment Phobia
Understanding the difference between these disorders, and how to treat them when one or more combinations of symptoms is present, is essential to effectively turning these behaviors around.
True canine separation anxiety then refers specifically to when a dog has an intense bond with one person or preferred companion and cannot tolerate their absence, whether another human or canine friend is present or not.
Isolation distress occurs when a dog becomes panicked when left alone and exhibits stress-induced behaviors such as pacing, excessive drooling, destructiveness, loss of bowel and bladder control, and/or distress vocalizations, all of which can be abated by the presence of another person or dog.
Containment phobia is characterized by frantic escape attempts such as a dog:
chewing through the moldings around thresholds or doors themselves;
breaking out of crates, kennels, or through screens or windows;
climbing over gates;
and digging under or jumping over a fence.
Containment phobia can be considered a primal response to confinement that activates a feeling of being trapped whether a dog is being kept indoors or out.
It is most often prompted by a dog:
being crated or kept in a kennel;
being shut in a room behind a closed door;
being left alone in a fenced-in backyard or kennel without access back inside the house.
Containment phobia is, therefore, similar to when humans experience claustrophobia and have a panic attack when caught in a small, tight space like an elevator, a room with no windows, or the cabin of a plane.
Causes of Dog Anxiety Disorders
It can be difficult to pinpoint the causes of dog separation anxiety and isolation distress, especially if the origins of a dog are unknown, but here are some possible contributing factors:
Pre-mature separation from a mother and litter-mates or isolation between the ages of 5-12 weeks.
Adopting a dog or puppy over a long weekend or holiday and not preparing it for everyone’s back-to-work and back-to-school schedules.
Trauma as a result of sudden abandonment due to owner surrender, break-ups of a family unit due to divorce or death, or as a consequence of a natural disaster.
Relocation to a new residence where everything is completely unfamiliar to the dog.
Any major changes to a dog’s daily routine.
Unnatural isolation due to household dynamics like long working hours or the over-use of isolation as a punishment tool.
Inherent traits within the canine DNA that cause a dog to experience confinement as life-threatening.
Dogs Are Social By Nature
Dogs, by nature, are social animals and are, therefore, likely to show distress when left alone.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “dogs are pack animals,” but rarely is it used in the appropriate context of examining how important social dynamics are for the mental health of domestic dogs.
If you consider that the canine species’ base survival instincts are rooted in a dependence on group living, then the fact that dogs CAN and actually DO learn to adapt to spending as much time alone as is expected of them during the course of their life as a house pet is quite significant.
Adaptive Survival Mechanisms in Dogs
There is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why dogs experience separation anxiety and isolation distress; however, the behavior at its root is most likely based in self-preservation instincts that can be considered an expression of the typical adaptive survival mechanisms seen in all mammals (including human babies who cry when hungry).
Adaptive survival mechanisms in dogs are characterized by the following behaviors:
puppies crying out in song for their mother’s return when they become hungry or need her warmth;
distress cries that transform a pup into a “homing device” when it gets separated from its family, enabling its mom to easily find it and rescue it;
puppies once weaned and ready to leave the den instinctively following their mother and litter-mates everywhere;
howling to locate pack members when separated from the pack.
Since a puppy or adult canine who is left alone in the wild is more likely to die—either from starvation, since it has no pack to hunt with, or from attack, since it has no pack mates for mutual protection—separation from the pack almost always means certain death and will elicit an adaptive survival response in an attempt to reunite with the pack.
Containment Phobia Is An Inherent Trait
Containment phobia is generally considered a genetic predisposition of the canine species and was first recognized in wolves and wolf-hybrid dogs whose guardians discovered they could not cohabitate with them.
This is because any form of containment including being kept inside a home would be experienced by the wolf as a feeling of being trapped, prompting frantic escape attempts that lead to destruction of the residence.
Containment phobia is, therefore, considered to be an ancestral trait of the wolf DNA that lies latent in domestic dogs and can be activated in any dog under the right circumstances.
All Dogs Experience Frustration When First Left Alone
While many dogs feel some level of frustration when left alone, certain dogs express it through various behaviors such as chewing, soiling in the house, howling, barking, and whining or attempts to escape confinement.
These are all behaviors that a young puppy or new rescue dog may exhibit when first experiencing being left alone or in confinement for the first time—but if they do not subside as time goes by and only increase in intensity, then a home-alone/confinement-related anxiety disorder is generally in the making.
Symptoms of Dog Separation Anxiety, Isolation Distress, & Containment Phobia
Dogs experience frustration when life presents them with circumstances they find unpleasant. Being left home alone suddenly may be very upsetting to a dog that is not accustomed to it.
Dogs with an anxiety disorder, however, will most likely vent their distress and frustration through one or more of the following innate behaviors while the owner is either out of sight or away (for dogs suffering from canine separation anxiety and isolation distress) and whether someone is present or not (for dogs suffering from containment phobia) :
Distress When Caregiver Disappears From Sight
Dogs with separation anxiety and isolation distress may feel anxious when their humans disappear from sight and get visibly or audibly agitated whenever this occurs.
Dogs specifically with separation anxiety are so closely bonded with just one caregiver that they may even get stressed when their human closes a bathroom door to take a shower or go bonkers if that particular human steps out of the house for mere moments to take out the trash.
All dogs follow their human from room to room, but dogs with separation anxiety may not want to take their eyes off of their beloved caregiver.
They may also insist on sitting on their human’s lap or always laying by their feet since any loss of proximity causes distress.
Often, these dogs will not interact with other people, preferring to curl up by themselves—away from other members of a household—when the human they are most closely bonded with is absent.
Urinating & Defecating within 20-30 Minutes
Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone or separated from their guardians—either because they are frustrated or because they simply lose their bowel and bladder control due to the stress they are undergoing—typically within 20-30 minutes of their human’s departure.
If a dog urinates or defecates in the presence of his guardian, its house soiling is probably more of a house-training issue.
Cyclical Barking, Whining, & Howling
A dog may bark, whine or howl when left alone or when separated from its guardian.
This kind of barking, whining or howling is persistent, cycling up and down in intensity, and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything except by being left alone or their main caregiver’s absence.
Often, a dog parent doesn’t know their dog is making distress vocalizations until they receive a complaint from a neighbor or building manager and many people face eviction if they cannot help their dog learn to tolerate being left alone.
Excessive Drooling, Panting, & Pacing
If a dog drools or pants excessively, it's a sign that they are having a stress response to being left alone or isolated in a small, confined space like a crate.
Caregivers often return home to find their dog soaked by their own drool or panting so hard that it seems as if they have heatstroke, but these are signs of being panicked or feeling trapped by isolation or confinement.
Often, if a dog is allowed to roam free when home alone, the drooling or panting is accompanied by pacing behavior. Some dogs walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern, others move around in circular patterns, but both are signs of the dog's agitation and discomfort over spending time alone.
Chewing, Digging, & Destruction Within 20-30 minutes
Some dogs will chew on objects, door frames or window sills, dig at doors and doorways or under fences, or destroy household objects when left alone or separated from their guardians because they are bored.
Dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress, however, usually display destructive tendencies within 20-30 minutes of their human’s departure as a means of trying to cope with the frustration or anxiety of being left alone.
They may destroy anything they find nearby or around the house, gnaw on furniture, and may even get into the garbage as a means of venting their frustrations, but these behaviors don’t usually occur when their guardian is present.
This is different and distinct from dogs with containment phobia, who will actively destroy crates or thresholds in attempts to free themselves from confinement whether a human is present or not.
Escape Attempts Accompanied By Destruction - Indicative of Containment Phobia
A dog with containment phobia might try to escape from an area where it’s confined whether or not it’s left alone or separated from its guardian.
It may also attempt to dig and chew through doors or windows, break free of its crate or kennel, or may even dig under or jump over a fence, all of which could result in self-injury, such as broken teeth, cut and scraped front paws and damaged nails, or facing unpleasant consequences as a result of roaming free outside once the dog escapes.
Early Signs of Containment Phobia
Early signs of containment phobia are claustrophobic reactions when left in a crate.
This same dog or puppy is also more likely to scramble to jump over a gate or knock a gate over when contained in a room.
Other signs include:
Climbing out of exercise pens.
An ability to open doors with lever door handles.
Destroying exits when contained in a room. This could include doors, windows, window coverings (such as curtains and/ or blinds), etc.
Chewing through leashes when used as a means of containment.
When sufficiently contained in the backyard, destroying the entryways into the house trying to get back in.
Ongoing attempts to escape kennel runs.
Jumping a fence.
Digging underneath a fence.
Chewing through a fence or wall.
Chipping teeth on a chain link fence trying to escape.
Breaking through glass windows.
Misdiagnoses: Cabin Fever Vs. Separation Anxiety, Isolation Distress, & Containment Phobia
Many dogs or puppies will experience some form of separation anxiety or isolation distress when first left alone, but will eventually learn to self-soothe and settle down for a nap or entertain themselves with a puzzle toy or kong when their owner leaves.
However, some dogs find the monotony of spending time by themselves as a hardship and will exhibit boredom-related behaviors that can be classified as “cabin fever.”
These behaviors can range from being destructive in nature—like gnawing on a furniture leg—to being more of a nuisance in nature—like knocking over a trash can to scavenge for food—and more likely signify a way for the dog to occupy themselves when they find they are left alone.
These dogs are not panicked by isolation or separation from their guardian, just frustrated or bored by spending time by themselves. They may be puppies with excess energy or an adult dog that requires more mental and physical stimulation than they are receiving.
Solutions for Cabin Fever
The solution for these dogs can be adding more variety to their diet, plus more exercise and engagement, possibly in the form of:
long sniff walks, hikes, or playing games like fetch before the dog is left alone;
15-20 minutes of basic training that provides mental and physical stimulation before the dog is left alone;
teaching a dog search games;
remote engagement using gadgets like a Furbo that allow a caregiver to talk to their dog and dispense treats to break up the monotony of the dog’s day;
leaving a dog with a puzzle toy or kong stuffed with something the dog loves so they are less likely to raid the trash;
hiring a dog walker, dog hiker, or petsitter;
taking a dog to daycare.
Treatments for Separation Anxiety, Isolation Distress, & Containment Phobia
While all dog anxiety disorders require some form of rehabilitative training, the treatment may vary depending on the type, severity, and combination of symptoms a dog has.
For instance, a dog with mild containment phobia may not have isolation distress and will often benefit from being given free access to their entire residence, whereas, this solution will not make a difference for a dog suffering from separation anxiety or isolation distress.
Doggie Decompression Periods, Alone Training, & Stay Training
Dog separation anxiety, isolation distress, and severe containment phobia can only be resolved by changing a dog’s Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to being left alone or confined.
This can be achieved in stages by implementing regular calm down periods that can be referred to as “Doggie Decompression” to teach a dog to spend time by themselves while their human counterpart is present, but separated from them with the use of a barrier or tether.
Doggie Decompression must be implemented along with a systematic desensitization and counterconditioning training protocol known as "Alone Training" that teaches a dog to settle down in response to their human’s departure routine.
Guardian is present and within sight of their dog but separated by a barrier.
Doggie decompression can be achieved by:
Erecting a pressure-mounted, walk-through gate in the doorway or threshold of a hallway, bedroom or another living area to create a confined space where a dog or puppy can comfortably spend time NEARBY AND WITHIN SIGHT, BUT SEPARATED from their guardian;
Setting up a puppy playpen or exercise pen where a dog or puppy can comfortably spend time NEARBY AND WITHIN SIGHT, BUT SEPARATED from their guardian;
Tethering a dog or puppy to a piece of heavy furniture where a dog or puppy can comfortably spend time NEARBY AND WITHIN SIGHT, BUT SEPARATED from their guardian.
Alone Training - Mock Departures
Guardian works toward short absences as they move through a mock leaving routine.
Alone Training helps acclimate a dog to being in at home when no one is present and is an essential part of helping them feel secure when they inevitably find that they are by themselves during work hours.
Alone training involves pretending to go through a dog guardian’s leaving routine without actually disappearing for very long—at least, not at first—and is achieved in three stages:
Phase 1: inducing a dog to settle down in response to indoor triggers (putting on shoes, picking up a handbag, backpack, briefcase or wallet, and grabbing a set of keys);
Phase 2: inducing a dog to settle down in response to the unlocking of a door, opening the door, stepping through the door, and finally shutting the door, only disappearing for a second before returning back in sight;
Phase 3: inducing a dog to settle down in response to absences that only last 1-3 seconds, 5-7 seconds, and 12-15 seconds, before leaping to 30-second increments and longer, once a dog shows they can tolerate it.
Basic Manners Training
Teaching a Sit or Down-Stay While Owner Walks Away
Teaching a dog to stay in a sit or a down can be a useful tool for helping a dog feel calm about seeing their human walk away from them and go out of sight for short periods.
A stay is also a great way to teach a dog impulse control with the side benefits of being good for their mental health by expanding their repertoire of skills, a sure way to help boost any dog's confidence.
An example to work toward would be having a dog lie down and stay on their bed while their guardian goes out of sight for brief periods. This also paves the way for teaching a dog independence by not allowing it to constantly be in a guardian’s lap or resting at their feet.
More Freedom (Foregoing Confinement)
Reducing the Impact For A Dog That Feels Trapped
Dogs that suffer from containment phobia cannot be kept in crates, rooms, kennels or fenced-in backyards that will elicit a feeling of being trapped. The solution for these dogs can be tricky, but may include:
foregoing crates and allowing a dog free access to the entire home, rather than confining them to one room or the backyard;
installing a dog door so that a dog has free access to both indoor and outdoor areas of the home.
regular doggie decompression periods paired with alone training;
regular enrichment exercises like basic manners training and plenty of outdoor exercise in the form of long sniff walks, hikes, and off-leash playtime.
Try Not To Leave A Dog Alone
While a dog is undergoing rehabilitative training, it is best not to provoke the home-alone disorder by leaving the dog alone. Therefore, if it all possible, it is best to:
rely on family members or friends who are home most of the day to look after a dog or puppy with a home-alone disorder;
find a pet-sitter who can spend time with the dog or puppy while their guardian is at work;
take the dog or puppy to daycare where it will not be alone all day;
take the dog or puppy to work;
allow the dog or puppy to accompany you on chores or while running errands.
Getting A Second Dog
If a dog guardian has exhausted all their resources and options, getting another dog is a possible solution to providing a dog with a home-alone disorder some company during the times its guardians are absent.
How To Prevent Separation Anxiety
Once established, separation anxiety in dogs can be really difficult to rehabilitate and can wreak havoc in your day-to-day life.
Angry may neighbors complain about the noise, management companies sometimes threaten eviction, and your social life may suffer because it's impossible to leave your dog alone.
To avoid these unfortunate outcomes, think about how you can get your new dog or puppy accustomed to spending time by themselves and make a plan based on:
How many hours will your dog be alone?
What time will your dog get up/go to bed?
What time will the dog’s walks be?
What time will the dog eat?
Can someone return at lunchtime or during the day, to provide a toilet and play/training opportunity?
What measures can you put in place when you first go back to work to help ease the dog into the transition?
The more prepared you are, the better your chances of helping your dog transition to how life will be once you're back at work or otherwise gone from home.
Los Angeles dog trainer Alexandra Bassett is the owner and lead trainer at Dog Savvy Los Angeles, a dog & puppy training company that specializes in positive dog training and solving problem dog behavior like dog separation anxiety, leash reactivity, and aggression. She is certified as Knowledge Assessed by the Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) and is available for online dog training sessions via Skype.