Separation Anxiety in Dogs

July 18, 2011

The term gets tossed around casually, but separation anxiety is a very serious matter. True separation anxiety is your dog’s panicked response to being left alone. The results–including the destruction of your belongings and the deterioration of your dog’s mental and physical health–can be devastating.

Separation anxiety is very different from misbehavior. It’s a misconception that when your dog digs up your prized orchids or urinates on your favorite rug, he’s seeking revenge for having been left home alone. The best-case explanation for such behavior is that he’s bored, and the worst is that he’s in a state of serious panic. But the good news is that, with effort, separation anxiety is treatable.


Separation anxiety can result from suffering a traumatic experience, such as a major earthquake or becoming lost in unfamiliar surroundings. Sometimes the death of a person or another pet in the household can trigger the onset. In many cases, no single event causes it–some breeds are simply genetically predisposed.

What the problem looks like

Separation anxiety almost always includes one or more of the following behaviors when you’re not at home:

  • Destructive behaviors, such as chewing pillows or furniture, mutilating plants, or relentless scratching at doors and windows
  • Constant barking, whining, or howling
  • Urinating or defecating indoors
  • Intense, persistent pacing
  • Attempting to “escape” a room or crate to the point of self-injury
  • Physiological responses, such as dilated pupils or excessive panting

Disorder versus misbehavior

Not all unwanted behaviors qualify as separation anxiety; in fact, most do not. If you come home to find your dog chewing on your old house slippers, in all probability he simply finds the activity enjoyable and uses your absence as a chance to gnaw away, uninterrupted. Or he may just be bored.

Several factors indicate that the problem is serious:

  • The behavior occurs every time you leave.
  • The behavior occurs only in your absence.
  • Anxious behaviors begin even before you go. For example, your dog knows that when you put on your jacket, you’re about to leave the house. The minute you reach for your jacket, he begins pacing and howling.

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