Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Apr 16, 2023 | Dog Behaviour

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Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Causes, Behaviours, and Solutions


Dog owners often recognize the poignant look our dogs offer when we depart, even briefly. This reaction can manifest a range of emotions and actions, known as separation anxiety or, more accurately, separation-related behaviors. This article explores the complex nature of separation anxiety in dogs, examines its causes, and provides practical strategies for managing these behaviours, aiming to foster a happy and healthy bond between you and your dog.


Causes and Triggers of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs encompass a range of emotional responses and coping strategies that emerge when dogs undergo temporary or permanent separation from their owners or other companions.

These behaviours can manifest in different forms, such as anxiety, restlessness, or even destructive actions. In this blog post, we will explore the causes, signs, and solutions for separation-related behaviours in dogs to help you maintain a strong bond with your canine companion.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

  • Inadequate socialisation: Dogs that are not properly socialised during their early development stages may struggle with separation-related behaviours due to a lack of exposure to various situations and environments.
  • Over-attachment: Dogs that are overly attached to their guardians may become anxious or distressed when separated from them.
  • Previous negative experiences: Dogs that have experienced traumatic events or abrupt changes in their routine might develop separation-related behaviours as a coping mechanism.
  • Breed predisposition: Some dog breeds are more prone to separation-related behaviours due to their genetic makeup and inherent temperament.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, often manifesting as excessive barking, howling, or whining. Some dogs may exhibit destructive behaviours, like chewing on furniture or scratching at doors and windows, in an attempt to reunite with their owners. Other dogs may display pacing, restlessness, excessive drooling, or even attempts to escape from the house.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Canine separation anxiety is common and can be induced in animals before their owner even leaves the house. After the dogs leave the house the dog may show a combination of symptoms of separation anxiety: Pacing, dogs who panic when their person leaves may have no way to settle or have to walk repeatedly. Barking or howling is a common canine response to isolation. Dogs with separation anxiety may keep vocalising the same way when isolated

  • Excessive vocalisation: Barking, whining, or howling when left alone or through the night.
  • Destructive behaviour: Damaging furniture, doors, or personal items in the owner’s absence.
  • Elimination: Urinating or defecating indoors, even if the dog is house-trained.
  • Escape attempts: Trying to break free from confined spaces or attempting to escape from the house or yard.
  • Pacing or restlessness: Exhibiting repetitive behaviours or difficulty settling down when alone.

Medical Problems to Rule Out First

Various medical issues, such as urinary tract infections, a weak sphincter due to old age, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, renal disease, Cushing’s disease, and neurological problems or abnormalities of the genitourinary system, can lead to health problems. Please check with a vet to see if behaviour changes are necessary to avoid health issues. Please consult a vet for any medical issues you are concerned with.

Dog own its own with separation anxiety

Attachment Theory and Dogs

Attachment theory, originally developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the context of human relationships, can also be applied to the unique bond between dogs and their guardians.

The theory posits that a strong emotional connection forms between two individuals, providing a sense of security and comfort. In the case of dogs, they form a strong attachment to their human caregivers, who fulfil their needs for safety, food, and companionship.

Dogs, like humans, have an innate need for social connection and a stable attachment figure. The canine-human bond is based on mutual trust and understanding, with both parties benefiting from the relationship.

A securely attached dog will feel safe and confident when their guardian is present and experience mild or severe distress when separated. However, when this attachment becomes overly intense, it can lead to separation anxiety in many dogs themselves, resulting in behaviour issues when they’re left alone.

Key Points on Attachment Theory

  • Attachment theory can be applied to the bond between dogs and their guardians, not just children.
  • Dogs form strong emotional connections with their human caregivers.
  • A securely attached dog will feel safe and confident in their guardian’s presence.
  • Overly intense attachment can lead to separation anxiety in dogs.
  • Poor experiences or past trauma of isolation and/or confinement in a dog’s past can affect separation perception in future relationships.

The Stranger Test in Dogs: Assessing Attachment and Security

The stranger test is a method derived from Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiment, originally designed to assess attachment styles in human infants. Adapted for dogs, the test aims to evaluate the strength and quality of the attachment between a dog and its owner.

By observing the dog’s behaviour in the presence of a family member and stranger, owners can better understand their pet’s attachment style and identify potential issues, such as separation anxiety.

During the stranger test, a dog is placed in a room with its owner and an unfamiliar person. The owner leaves the room, and the dog’s behaviour is observed. A securely attached dog will display signs of mild distress when the owner leaves but most dogs should be able to calm down and potentially interact with the stranger.

When the owner returns, the dog should greet them warmly and resume typical behaviour. If the dog shows excessive distress, inability to calm down, or extreme clinginess upon the owner’s return, it may indicate an overly intense attachment and potential separation anxiety.

Key Points:

  • The stranger test is adapted from Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiment.
  • The test assesses the strength and quality of the attachment between a dog and its owner.
  • A securely attached dog will display mild distress when the owner leaves but should calm down and interact with the stranger.
  • Excessive distress or clinginess during the test may indicate separation anxiety in dogs.

Tips for Managing Separation Anxiety in Dogs

  • Prevention is Key: Taking steps to prevent separation-related behaviours from developing in the first place can save you and your dog a lot of stress. Early socialization and gradually introducing your dog to short periods of separation can help them build confidence and resilience.
  • Create a Safe Space: Designate a comfortable area for your dog to retreat to when you’re away. This could be a crate, a separate room, or a designated spot with their bed and toys.
  • Exercise and Mental Stimulation: Ensuring your dog gets plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation can help alleviate anxiety and minimise separation-related behaviours. Check out our article on Enrichment Activities for Dogs.
  • Training and Desensitisation: Gradual desensitisation to your departures and arrivals, as well as training your dog to associate positive experiences with your absence, can help reduce separation-related behaviour’s.
  • Seek Professional Help: If your dog’s separation-related behaviours are severe or persistent, it may be time to consult a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer for guidance and support.

Overcoming Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation-related behaviours in dogs are a complicated and multi-layered issue that can create hurdles for both pets and their owners. By comprehending the root causes and employing effective management strategies, you can support your canine companion in overcoming these challenges and cultivate a robust, affectionate bond that endures through time.


Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Key Takeaways: Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs

  • Separation-related behaviors in dogs reflect their response to being away from owners or companions, often seen as anxiety, restlessness, or destructive actions.
  • Early socialization, understanding attachment needs, and proper training can prevent or reduce separation anxiety.
  • Signs of separation anxiety include excessive vocalization, inappropriate elimination, and destructive behavior when alone.
  • Attachment theory highlights the emotional bond dogs form with their owners, which can manifest as anxiety when the owner is absent.
  • The stranger test, adapted for dogs, helps assess the attachment level and potential separation anxiety by observing the dog’s reaction to owner absence and return.
  • Creating a safe space and providing physical and mental stimulation can help alleviate separation anxiety symptoms.
  • Gradual desensitization to departure cues and professional help for severe cases are recommended approaches.
  • A strong, secure relationship is crucial for managing separation anxiety, fostering a long-lasting bond between dog and owner.

About me

Jim Gillies, a Certified Dog Behaviourist and Trainer in Glasgow with over 10 years of experience, prioritises canine well-being through modern, science-backed methods. Handling 4000+ cases of 1-to-1 behaviour training, Jim is fully accredited, insured, and recognised for addressing various behavioural issues including aggression, separation anxiety, and more. Jim holds qualifications in level 5 (merit) Advance Diploma Canine Behaviour Management and level 6 Applied Animal Behaviour. Explore his insightful blog and podcast, sharing expert knowledge on dog training and behaviour. Certified by the IAABC, Jim’s expertise makes him a reliable choice for addressing your dog’s needs.

Contact information

Should you have any questions about this article, feel free to contact me on:

  • Email: jim@cbtdogbehaviour.com
  • Mobile: 07864029933

Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs

FAQ on Separation Anxiety

What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety in dogs, also referred to as dog separation anxiety-related behaviours, encompasses a range of emotional responses and coping strategies that dogs exhibit when temporarily or permanently separated from their owners or companions.
What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
Causes include inadequate socialisation, over-attachment to guardians and pet parents, previous negative experiences, and breed predisposition.
How can I recognize signs of separation anxiety in my dog?
Signs include excessive vocalisation, destructive behaviour, indoor elimination, escape attempts, and pacing or restlessness.
What is the attachment theory in relation to dogs?
Attachment theory, originally developed for human relationships, can be applied to the bond between dogs and their guardians. Dogs tend to form strong emotional connections with their human caregivers, and a securely attached dog feels safe in their guardian’s presence. Overly intense attachment can lead to separation anxiety.
What is the “Stranger Test” in dogs?
Adapted from Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiment, the stranger test evaluates the attachment between a dog and its owner. It observes the dog’s behaviour in the presence of a stranger, especially when the owner leaves and returns. Excessive distress or clinginess during the test may indicate the dog has separation anxiety.
How can I manage and prevent separation anxiety in my dog?
Prevention through early socialisation and gradual introduction to separation is key. Creating a safe space, ensuring regular exercise and mental stimulation, training and desensitisation, and seeking professional help are also effective strategies.
Why is it important to understand separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation-related behaviours can create challenges for both dogs and their owners. By understanding the causes and implementing effective management strategies, owners can support their dogs in overcoming these challenges and foster a strong, lasting bond.
What’s the significance of the attachment theory in understanding and treating separation anxiety?
The attachment theory highlights the strong emotional bond between dogs and their guardians. A securely attached dog feels safe with their guardian, but overly intense attachment can lead to severe separation anxiety.
Are certain dog breeds more prone to develop separation anxiety?
Yes, some dog breeds are more susceptible to separation anxiety-related behaviours due to their genetic makeup and inherent temperament.
What should I do if my puppy separation anxiety is severe?
If the dog with separation-anxiety-related behaviours are severe or persistent, it’s advisable to consult a veterinarian or a certified dog behaviourist for guidance and support.

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