Separation Anxiety in Dogs - Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

What is Canine Separation Anxiety?

 Australian Shepherd puppy with dog separation anxiety.

Canine separation anxiety is a blanket term that refers to the following home-alone 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).

True separation anxiety, therefore, refers to a dog that has an intense bond with one person 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 behaviors such as pacing, drooling, destructiveness, loss of bowel and bladder control, and distress vocalizations, but is abated by the presence of another person or dog. 

Containment phobia is characterized by frantic escape behaviors such as chewing through the moldings around thresholds or doors themselves, breaking out of crates or through windows, or digging under or jumping over a fence as a result of a primal response to feeling trapped in confined spaces, both indoors and out (like when a dog is kept in a fenced-in backyard).

Causes of Home-Alone Disorders

 Puppies should stay with dam and litter until 7-8 weeks of age.

Puppies should stay with dam and litter until 7-8 weeks of age.

  • 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 or 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 training or punishment tool;

  • Inherent traits within the canine DNA that cause a dog to experience confinement as life-threatening.

 Dog separation anxiety can be provoked by putting a dog or puppy in isolation too frequently.

Dog separation anxiety can be provoked by putting a dog or puppy in isolation too frequently.

Dogs Are Social By Nature

 Puppies need social interaction with their litter-mates and can be traumatized by being separated from their litter too soon.

Puppies need social interaction with their litter-mates and can be traumatized by being separated from their litter too soon.

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 animals whose survival instincts are rooted in a dependence on group living. 

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 and only increase in intensity, then a home-alone disorder is generally in the making.

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 and can be considered an expression of the typical adaptive survival mechanisms seen in all mammals (including human babies who cry when hungry), but that are characterized in dogs by the following behaviors:

 A dog or puppy will howl when separated from the pack so that its family members can find it.

A dog or puppy will howl when separated from the pack so that its family members can find it.

  • 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 generally considered an inherited trait that was first recognized in wolves and wolf hybrid dogs whose guardians discovered they could not cohabitate with them indoors.

Any form of containment including being left inside a home alone 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 an inherent trait of the wolf DNA and can be activated within any dog under the right circumstances, but some dogs seem to possess a more intense reaction to confinement than others.

Common Symptoms of Canine 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.

When a dog is stressed because of a home-alone disorder, it will most likely vent its distress and frustration through one or more of the following innate behaviors while the owner is out of sight or away:

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.

 Separation Anxiety in dogs can manifest as a dog or puppy laying at your feet.

All dogs follow their human from room to room, but dogs with separation anxiety may insist on sitting on their human’s lap or are always laying by their feet since any loss of proximity causes distress.

Often, these dogs will also curl up by themselves, away from other members of a household, when the human they are most closely bonded to is absent.

Urinating & Defecating

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 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

 Separation Anxiety in dogs can manifest as cyclical howling, barking, whining.

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 being left alone or their main caregiver’s absence.

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

 Photo by delectus/iStock / Getty Images

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.

In general, dogs or puppies with separation anxiety and isolation distress will destroy things around the house or may even get into the garbage as a means of venting their frustrations, whereas dogs with containment phobia will actively destroy crates or thresholds in attempts to free themselves from confinement. 

If a dog’s chewing, digging and destruction are caused by separation anxiety or isolation distress, the behaviors don’t usually occur in their guardian’s presence.

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. 

 This dog has containment phobia and chewed through this entire door when locked behind it. He stopped being destructive once given free reign of the house.

This dog has containment phobia and chewed through this entire door when locked behind it. He stopped being destructive once given free reign of the house.

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:

 Symptoms of Separation Anxiety: Dog chewed through its crate.
 Separation Anxiety Symptoms: A dog or puppy attempting to chew through a fence may have containment phobia.
  • 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. Home-Alone Disorder

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.”

 A dog regularly digging in the trash is more often a symptom of cabin fever and a need for more diversity in their diet than a home-alone disorder like separation anxiety.

A dog regularly digging in the trash is more often a symptom of cabin fever and a need for more diversity in their diet than a home-alone disorder like separation anxiety.

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.

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 Turbo 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 Home-Alone Disorders

While all home-alone 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

Canine 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.

Doggie Decompression 

Guardian is present and within sight of their dog but separated by a barrier.

 Doggie decompression requires erecting a barrier or using an exercise pen to teach a dog or puppy to spend time by themselves while their guardian is present and within sight.

Doggie decompression requires erecting a barrier or using an exercise pen to teach a dog or puppy to spend time by themselves while their guardian is present and within sight.

Since a dog with a home-alone disorder generally follows their owner everywhere when they are home, they will need to create an area where their dog can learn to spend time by themselves--either by napping, playing with a toy or chewing on something it likes--while their human is still nearby and within sight. This can be done 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. It 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.

Depending on Family Members, Pet-sitters, & Daycare  

Sometimes, the best option, while a dog is undergoing rehabilitative training, is to not provoke the home-alone disorder by leaving the dog with family members who are home most of the day, hiring a pet-sitter to spend time with them while their guardian is at work, or taking the dog to daycare. 

Taking A Dog with you

If a dog guardian has the option to take their dog to work or letting them accompany you on chores or when running errands, this is the optimal solution to not leaving your dog alone whenever possible while undergoing treatment for a home-alone disorder.

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 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 incorporate this into your new routine: 

  • 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. 

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Los Angeles dog trainer Alexandra Bassett is the owner of Dog Savvy, a dog training company based in Los Angeles that specializes in treating canine separation anxiety. If you have a dog that you suspect is suffering from separation anxiety, Alexandra offers free 30-minute phone consultations and provides in-home dog training to the greater Los Angeles metro area, as well as remote dog training services via Skype.