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(Roger Caras)

Canine Separation Anxiety:
The Dog Who Cannot Be Left Alone

by Leslie Larson Cooper, D.V.M.
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

(reprinted with the permission of the author)

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Separation anxiety in dogs is characterized by disruptive behavior when left alone, due to distress at being separated from the person or persons to whom it is attached.

I. Common behaviors associated with separation anxiety
  • Destructive behavior.
  • Excessive vocalization.
  • Inappropriate elimination.
  • Attempts to escape confinement.
  • Anorexia, depression, "sadness".
  • Inactivity.
  • Psychosomatic disorders, for example, diarrhea, bloody stools, vomiting, and excessive licking of haircoat.

II. Characteristics of separation anxiety which help make the diagnosis

  • Problem behaviors occur only when the dog is separated from the person(s) to which it is attached, either when they leave the house, or if the dog is physically separated from them at home.
  • Dogs may exhibit signs of distress before the owner's departure.
  • Dogs may show an exaggerated greeting response when owner returns, and may shadow the owner's movements when home (Velcro dogs).
  • Separation anxiety may occur when the dog is left with other dogs, cats, or even with other humans.
  • Dogs often engage in separation responses within a short time after the owner's departure, although there are variations.

III. Factors reported as possible causes for separation anxiety

  • Return to normal routine after a period of prolonged contact between pet and owner.
  • Change in household or routine.
  • Moving.
  • Pre-existing noise phobia.
  • History of adoption from humane society or pound, or found as a stray.

IV. Treatment of Separation Anxiety

  • "Tone down" greetings and departures.
  • Sit-stay program to increase independence at home.
  • Counterconditioning to pre-departure cues.
  • Gradual desensitization (departure training). Use novel "cue" such as Kong toy stuffed with food, or other long-lasting treat, to be used only when dog is alone during a training session.
  • Anti-anxiety medication.

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Last revised: 11/2009