How to tell if my dog has separation anxiety?

How to tell if my dog has separation anxiety?

This is probably one of the most common questions I get asked, along with “how long will it take to fix my dog’s separation anxiety?”. If like many dog owners you’re spending hours trying to figure out if your dog really has this problem or not, I hope sharing a few of my thoughts on the topic might help you.

The short answer is, it can be hard to tell. As a clinical behaviourist, I approach behaviour cases by putting all possible explanations on the table, and then working to rule things out. This not only ensures a thorough approach, but saves time by making sure we don’t wander off down the wrong path!

When someone tells me they think their dog has separation anxiety, but they aren’t sure, these are some of the questions that come to mind:

  • What behaviours is your dog performing that makes you suspect separation anxiety?
  • Does the behaviour you are seeing only happen when your dog is alone?
  • Can you describe how your dog performs the behaviours?
  • What of your dog’s separation history can you share with me?
  • Do you know for sure what your dog is doing when you leave them?

Let’s take a more detailed look at why these questions are important to consider.

To assume makes an ass……

I actually don’t like this saying. After all we don’t know what we don’t know, and that doesn’t make us an ass, but it is a healthy warning about checking our assumptions.

Behaviours that present in separation anxiety dogs, are confusingly often the same behaviours that present for a great many other reasons. Barking when home alone might mean separation anxiety, but could also be socially motivated (can your dog hear the neighbours’ dog barking?), for fun (“Hey! You” Squirrel!) or out of fear (postmen may or may not be vicious killers, best scare them off to be sure though!). Destruction of furniture and other parts of the house can be motivated by anxiety, but a bored dog is just as capable of shredding couch pillows.

A good tip here is to list out the behaviours that make you think your dog has separation anxiety and then write down any and all possible explanations for these behaviours. As you work through the following questions you will likely be able to cross a lot of potential explanations off the list – but this is still an important exercise. Ruling things out is as valuable as ruling them in!

Home Alone 5: The House Party?

So, you’ve got some behaviours that are happening when your dog is home alone. Maybe the neighbours have told you your dog is barking sporadically throughout the day, or you’ve spotted him on the nanny cam chewing your skirting boards and attempting to liberate your recycling caddy from the cupboard under the sink. Does your dog have separation anxiety?

The next line of questioning for me is whether we see these behaviours when people are home, and if so do they look the same? In our efforts to train our dogs to be upstanding members of civilised society, we quite often prevent them from doing a lot of things they would otherwise quite like to do (counter surfing, bin raiding, barking at the mail man to name but a few).

If the behaviours exclusively happen when the owner is out, we might well be dealing with separation-related distress. However, we could also be looking at a dog that is taking the opportunity to engage in “fun” behaviours that they don’t get to do when fun police are home! Move on to the next section to see if you can tell the difference.

The devil is in the details

When trying to diagnose a condition as potentially life altering as separation anxiety, we need to drill down, get out the fine-tooth comb and then stick it all under the microscope to make sure we really are seeing what we think we are seeing.

So once you’ve got a list of behaviours your dog is engaging in when home alone, now you need to look at HOW they are doing them. In a nutshell, we are looking for “emotional affect”. Do they look calm and relaxed? Or happy and excited? Or do they look panicked? What do you think they are trying to achieve with the behaviours?

This is undoubtedly where most owners come unstuck, and need to go off and do a bit more reading and studying to build their confidence in understanding their dog. If you are doing this please look for science led, accredited sources (not “Pack Leaders”, Alpha theorists or people whose major qualification is having owned dogs “their whole life” – I have a good set of teeth but I am not a dentist and you certainly do NOT want me performing dental procedures on you).

When looking at how your dog behaviours, a good start point is studying them in situations when you know they are happy. How do they hold their ears? What is their tail doing? Can you see tension in their face and boy? You can also ask yourself what your dog does when they are calm and relaxed at home. Do they snooze on the couch? Play with their toys?

Separation-related behaviours in dogs are usually aimed at either reuniting the dog with the owner, or are side effects of the way stress affects the body. If your dog never toilets indoors when you are home, and when you leave they dash about then urinate – well this sounds like a stressed dog. If your dog tries to chew the door off the biscuit cupboard, this is more likely to be food/ fun driven than a sign of needing to get out and find you (these dogs usual destroy doors, windows, or walls around the exit point to the home). If your dog runs about whining, urinates and then tries the kitchen cupboard we might still be seeing behaviours resulting from separation distress though.

It can be tricky to sift through all the information, but writing it down and keeping records will help. If you do suspect your dog has separation anxiety, my number one priority would be to find a way to stop leaving them alone until you can come up with a training plan to help them.

Trauma creates change

Another tell tale sign of separation anxiety can be in the history of the dog. In my line of work I sadly see quite a lot of traumatised dogs that are being labelled as “bad” or “naughty”. As a scientist, I recognise that trauma can be as powerful in dogs as it is in humans. It not only shapes our personality and behaviours, it literally alters our biology and brain function.

What is traumatic to one individual, another may take in their stride so it can be tricky to decide whether trauma is implicated, however if your dog has been through any of the following (and fits the behavioural profile for separation anxiety), there’s a higher than average chance that SA might be the issue:

  • Transport from one country to another
  • Prolonged time in kennels
  • Rescue/ rehoming
  • House move or a member of the family leaving home
  • Death of a family member or companion animal

Why guess when you could know?

Finally, I do meet an astounding number of people who “think” their dog is “probably” okay when left alone, and yet more who have no idea when their dog’s separation anxiety started because they didn’t find any signs of anxiety and it was only when new neighbour complained about the barking that they got a camera and took a look at things.

I appreciate that it is a scary prospect, but knowledge really is power (at east with canine separation training), and we almost all have the technology at our finger tips to get a camera on our dogs and see how they’re doing when home alone.

We like the WYZE and EZVIZ cameras as they are cheap and easy to use, but there are literally hundreds of options. The cheapest and most available are your smart phone and laptop (or you current smartphone and an old one that has been gathering dust in a draw). If you can download Zoom/ Whatsapp/ Skype/ Facetime (or goodness knows what else), you can leave a camera on your dog whilst you pop out and take a look.

If you don’t get piece of mind, at least you will get information, and with the above tips hopefully a better idea of whether your dog is suffering from separation anxiety or whether something entirely different is going on!

If you’ve reached this far and you still aren’t sure, don’t feel bad, behaviour is complex! A qualified dog behaviour specialist like myself will be happy to help. Feel free to check out my website for more information.