Separation anxiety is a lot more serious than the name implies.
A dog suffering from separation anxiety will become panicky every time he’s left alone, destroying things, howling or barking nonstop, and even urinating on your belongings. If it’s not addressed promptly, separation anxiety can lead to mental and physical deterioration.
Tonya Wilhelm from GlobalDogTraining.com believes separation anxiety is fixable, as long as you have a plan of action and are willing to put in the necessary work. Wilhelm is a dog training specialist, author and public speaker. She was recently voted as one of the top 10 dog trainers in the United States.
THK: What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
Tonya Wilhelm: Separation anxiety for dogs can be triggered by a variety of situations in a dog’s life. Change—such as an addition or removal of a family member, a new baby, a child going off to school or a family pet passing—is a common situation that can springboard separation anxiety.
Another common reason a dog may develop separation anxiety is a traumatic event occurring when the pet was left at home, such as a big thunderstorm, construction, fire or home robbery. Some dogs are sensitive to being left at a boarding facility, shelter, groomer or veterinarian’s office and the stress level is overwhelming. Lack of experience being left alone is another common reason a dog may develop separation anxiety. For example, if a school teacher brings home a puppy in the summer, but never teaches the puppy to be alone, when they go back to work in the fall, the puppy does not know how to deal with the work day.
THK: Are some dog breeds more prone to it than others?
TW: When I wrote [my book] Please Stay: Help For A Dog With Separation Anxiety, I scoured various research studies on separation anxiety. In those studies, there were mixed results. I think the bottom line is that any dog and any breed can develop separation anxiety. I feel the biggest factor is the dog’s personality and how they respond to situations such as change and stress. Dogs that are prone to be nervous, clingy or lack self-confidence are at a higher risk of developing separation anxiety.
THK: Are some dogs born anxious or is it something that develops over time?
TW: Currently there is a lot of research being done on fears, phobias and genetics. Although some dogs are born with more of a reservation or fearfulness, proper socialization can greatly reduce the risk of a dog developing phobias or extreme fears.
THK: Are there specific behaviors dog owners exhibit that can cause (or worsen) separation anxiety early on?
TW: Teaching a dog to learn to be alone for short and tolerable times is key. Provide the dog with a fun interactive toy, step out into the other room for two to five minutes and return. At other times, tell your dog “just a minute,” step out the door and return. A pet parent should keep comings and goings low-key (a quick goodbye and hello vs. a big ordeal).
Ignoring dogs when they are clingy or demanding attention, and rewarding them for laying quietly or playing alone with their toys, can help assist a dog in confident alone behavior.
THK: What are the most common symptoms of separation anxiety?
TW: Separation anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways. A dog may do anything including excessive barking, howling, pacing, drooling, shaking, elimination, vomiting, self-mutilation and escaping the environment. No two dogs have the exact same symptoms or degree.
THK: Is it common for dogs with separation anxiety to become destructive when the owners leave? Why is this?
TW: When a dog has separation anxiety, he is in a panic. He doesn’t know where he is going, but he just wants to go. This may show itself in the form of digging, eating door jams or window sills. He may also take to eating anything in sight, or root around in whatever is available. That excess energy from his stress needs to be relieved, and anything in the path is fair game.