[Updated October 5, 2017]
Thank goodness, I have never owned a dog with separation anxiety. This complex behavior challenge can be one of the most difficult to live with, and one of the toughest to resolve. The dog who panics when left alone may manifest a range of behaviors that the average owner finds intolerable, including serious household destruction (I’ve heard about dogs who have clawed holes through the walls of their homes, all the way through the outdoor siding), self-injury from biting or clawing at doors or walls, hysterical vocalization (nonstop whining, crying, barking, howling, and/or screaming), and inappropriate defecation and urination – on floors, carpets, beds, and owners’ possessions.
Separation anxiety (SA) stems from a dog’s natural survival instinct to stay in close proximity to the pack. In the wild, a canine who is left alone is more likely to die, either from starvation, since he has no pack to hunt with, or from attack, since he has no pack mates for mutual protection. Given the vital importance of a dog’s canine companions, it speaks volumes about their adaptability as a species that we can condition them to accept being left alone at all! We’re lucky we don’t have far more SA problems than we do, especially in today’s world, where few households have someone at home regularly during the day to keep the dog company.
Recipe for Failure
It’s not enough that dogs are naturally inclined to become anxious when left alone. Many well-intentioned but misguided owners of new dogs inadvertently set the stage for SA by doing all the wrong things when they first bring their new dog home.
For example, lots of families adopt their new dog or puppy at the beginning of the summer, when the kids will be home to spend a lot of time with him. Other new-dog parents may take several days off from work, or at least arrange to bring the dog home on a Friday afternoon so they have the entire weekend to help the new kid settle in. On its face, this is a thoughtful approach to acclimating the dog to his new life. What better way to help him feel comfortable and welcome than to give him a couple of days of your loving company?
It’s true that spending extra time with the newcomer can help smooth the transition for him, but unless you take some important precautions, you could be setting him up for a rude awakening on Monday morning when you go back to work, leaving him alone all day to wonder and worry the pack is ever coming back to rescue him from solitary confinement.
Recipe for Success
The key to SA is to never trigger it in the first place. This is without a doubt one of those behaviors where it is well worth investing in many ounces of prevention, lest you end up spending many beginning with making a wise selection of your new family member.
Dogs adopted from animal shelters seem to have a higher than average incidence of SA. We don’t know whether this is because dogs with SA are more likely to be recycled through shelters by their frustrated owners, or because the stress of shelter life triggers SA in previously unaffected dogs. It’s likely that both explanations play a significant role. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t adopt from a shelter. It means that you need to look for signs of potential SA whatever the source of your new dog, and especially if you adopt from a shelter or rescue group.
Dogs who seem anxious in general are more likely candidates for SA, particularly those who are worried and clingy. Velcro dogs who won’t leave your side in the get-acquainted area, even though they have just met you, can be hard to resist. “She loves me already,” you think to yourself. “How can I possibly leave her here to face the risk of euthanasia?”
Indeed, that kind of instant bond can be very endearing in the moment. It is far less so when you get home from a hard day’s work to find your sofa cushions in shreds, and dog feces and urine smeared across the kitchen, or worse, a note from your landlord informing you that elderly Mr. Jones with a heart condition who lives in the apartment next door called 11 times today to complain that someone was screaming at the top of their lungs in your living room. If you do think that’s your furry soulmate glued to your leg in the get-acquainted room, do a simple test. Place an inexpensive pillow or cushion that you have purchased at Goodwill for this very purpose on the chair or floor, and leave the dog alone in the room for 10 minutes. Wait outside, close enough that you can hear any activity. Ideally, the shelter will have a one-way window into the room, so you can watch her but she can’t see you. Now, take note of what she does.
A certain amount of activity is normal. She might explore the room, playfully chew on the pillows or other dog toys, snuffle at the door, and stand up on her hind legs to look out the window. She might even whine or bark a bit to see if anyone responds. As long as she seems relatively calm, and settles down after several minutes, you’re not looking at SA behavior, despite her instant and endearing connection to you. You will still need to take precautions not to trigger SA once you get her home, but again, that’s easier than undoing an existing condition.
If, however, she charges in a panic from one end of the room to the other, digs frantically at the door, flings herself bodily at the window, shreds the pillow into tiny pieces and proclaims her distress vocally and insistently, you are looking at a serious behavior challenge. If you choose to adopt her anyway, be prepared to enter into a long-term, potentially costly relationship with a good, positive behavior counselor and a doggie daycare facility.
Puppies are less likely to come complete with a fully developed set of SA behaviors, but again, some are more likely candidates than others. Puppies will naturally exhibit some concern at being isolated from their littermates, but the pup who happily visits with you or explores his new environment is a safer bet than the one who shows immediate distress and a single-minded determination to return to his siblings. A conscientious breeder who makes an effort to separate littermates for brief, non-traumatic periods between the ages of six to eight weeks can help set the stage for a puppy who is able to tolerate being left alone when he arrives in his new home.
Pat Miller is a freelance author and a professional dog trainer. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.