Separation Anxiety

Domestic dogs, like other canids, are a social species.  Attachment behaviors are important for maintaining social contact.  Similarly, isolation and separation distress (i.e. anxiety) are important for reuniting group members (Horwitz, 2000).  Because dogs consider their human family to be their social group, it is not surprising that separation distress in dogs is one of the most common behavior problems for which pet owners seek professional help.

Signs of separation distress in dogs can include excessive vocalization, restlessness, urination, and drooling.  These signs can occur while their human family members are preparing to leave the home or while they are away.  Ironically, however, it is the human family members who frequently exacerbate separation distress in their dogs.  Departure cues are a good example of this.

Departure cues are those activities that people conduct in preparation for leaving the home.  They might include turning off the television, putting on their shoes, grabbing their keys, and loud or hastened speech.  Most people have at least a half of a dozen of them and to dogs, those activities are routine and reliably predict their humans' upcoming departure.

Unbeknownst to pet owners, each departure cue can have a cumulative effect on their dog's distress by creating anticipation, even if their dogs do not display separation distress during this time.  In fact, by the time dogs display observable signs of distress, pet owners have already missed the window of opportunity to address their dogs' discomfort.

Addressing separation distress in dogs requires a three-pronged approach, involving the human processes for leaving the house and returning to the house; as well as at-home behavior.  Any behavioral plan that does not address all three of these areas is incomplete and wholly inadequate.

Horwitz, D.F. (2000).  Diagnosis and treatment of canine separation anxiety and the use of clomipramine hydrochloride (clomicalm).  Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association: Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 107-109.