Separation Anxiety – the home alone syndrome

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Some of the sweetest dogs in the world have separation anxiety. These dogs are a joy to be with and love their owners unconditionally. We sometimes call them Velco dogs because they are so attached to their owners – practically joined at the hip. The problem comes when their owner leaves to go somewhere. When alone – and only when left alone – these dogs get stressed to the point of sheer panic and act out in certain ways that owners find difficult to accept. Doors can get damaged, micro-blinds torn down, furniture trashed, and there’s often distress barking that can drive close neighbors crazy. Some of these dogs get so scared they have accidents on the floor – so owners come home to find an unpleasant surprise waiting for them. As bad as this situation is for the owner, it’s probably worse for the dog – and in their heart of hearts, most owners recognize this adding their guilt and remorse into the equation.

Separation anxiety is an extremely common condition. The overt, diagnosable condition affects some 15-17 percent of the Nation’s 70-80 million dogs but many more dog are silently miserable or stressed when left. An English study showed that 80% of dogs left home alone have increased stress hormones – some of them suffering in silence rather than acting out their angst and frustration. One key sign of these more stoic sufferers stress is that they will not eat until their owners comes home – showing so called psychogenic anorexia. Greetings in either case are usually over the top as they greet their owners as if they never expected to see them again. Something can be done to help these poor dogs cope and below I will describe the steps we take to make their time alone more tolerable. First let me list the signs of separation anxiety so that owners can recognize and appreciate them for what they represent.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

  • Following the owner from place to place
  • Pre-departure anxiety
  • Vocalization* (barking, howling, or whining) (in about 70 %)
  • Destructive behavior when left alone* (in about 60%)
  • Pacing and panting
  • Houdini syndrome (will escape from anything or injure themselves trying)
  • House soiling when alone* (in about 30%)
  • Salivation (severe cases)
  • Psychogenic anorexia
  • Exuberant greeting

Having at least three of these signs – including one or two of the cardinal signs (asterisked) is grounds for a diagnosis of separation anxiety.

What to do about it

  1. Make leaving a happy occasion – act upbeat and provide the morning or evening meal at this time. Lay out all kinds of fun, food-filled toys and various other treats – Kongs laced with peanut butter, spray cheese, liver paste, and then frozen make good long-lasting food. Treat hidden around the place encourage the dog to track them down by sense of smell and then enjoy a tasty reward at the end. Also provide chew toys enhanced with attractive odors, such as vanilla, anise, or hunting lure odors (e.g. deer scent, grouse, pheasant, or even fox urine). You only need add a minute trace of the odor attractant because dog have such a good sense of smell. If you can smell it, you have probably added too much! Remember, not all dogs respond to all odors so pick ones that are attractive to the dog in question.

  2. Make the home alone environment as enriched and user friendly as possible – the food, food treats, and odor-enhanced toys will already be around. Between them they will appeal to dogs’ sense of taste, smell and touch. That leaves their sense of vision and hearing unaddressed. To appeal to the latter, leave them in a room with a view. An accessible window or glass slider fill the bill. Make outside as busy as possible by providing a bird feeder outside the window. Where there’s a bird feeder there will be squirrels. Alternatively or as well, leave on the TV tuned to a suitable channel – or employ DogTV (see DogTV.Com). For sound, either leave the radio on a classical station or arrange to have a CD of bioaccoustic music playing. Through a Dog’s Ear is an example of an appropriate CD that provides soothing sounds. Note: DogTV already has bioaccoustic music as part of the package. Now all 5 of the dog’s senses will be appealed to during your absence.

  3. When you return – greet the dog calmly (“Hello boy, how’s it going”) and then immediately pick up all the goodies you left down. There’s no snacking once you’re home. Even the meal you put down should be picked up – though the dog can be fed its next meal (half its daily rations) an hour or so after your return when all is calm. Note: If the dog insists on not eating when you are away, he will be on half rations – which causes him to become progressively hungrier the more days he refuses to eat. When hunger overcomes fear you’re half way home.

  4. Independence training – basically teaching a dog to stand on his own four feet! The only time you can train a dog is when you’re with him. Start with a few 5-minute sessions in which your dog is required to be separated from you – perhaps in the same room at first. Provide him a comfy bed to lie on a give him a milk bone – or some such so he knows he’s not in trouble and say “You have to stay” – giving a stop sign (open hand). If he insists on getting up and coming to you, use a tether or kiddy gate to make your instruction work. Gradually increase time and distance apart as you meet with success at each stage. Also, require him to sleep in a dog bed in your bedroom – as opposed to in your bed – and move the dog bed away from the side of the bed incrementally until he’s some distance from you. You will be teaching him that he can tolerate life without being right next to you.

As well as independence training, you will be reorganizing his life so that not all good things happen to him when you are with him. When you are with him he has you and your attention – but when you’re not there he has all this fun stuff to do. I think the analogy of one of those games at the airport where you operate a grab arm to seize a toy in a glass case and try to deliver it to a chute so you can get it is a good one. Many of the things you are providing him in your absence are things he might have gotten when you are at home – like his morning meal, for example. Now with the new plan, that good thing will only be available when you are not. That evens out the day so he has you when he has you – and lots of other fun stuff when you are unavailable. Think about it as evening out the roller coaster ride of his emotions. Your leaving will no longer represent nothing to do and the sound of silence or a ticking clock. Also, your return will not be associated with hysterical joy and a hearty meal but a matter of fact address and the end of the food fest. One last things, separation anxiety can still be a tough condition to deal with – especially if severe. In these cases mood stabilizing mediation ca get you to where you want him to be quicker and reduce his level of stress during the retraining program – and that’s nothing to sniff at – for you at least!


Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

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