Separation anxiety is one of the most common, yet most underdiagnosed behavioural problems in dogs. The clinical signs of excessive barking, whining, howling, destruction, self-mutilation, urination and defecation can take a significant toll on both dogs and owners. Luckily, veterinarians now widely understand separation anxiety, and there are treatment options available to manage this condition and improve quality of life.

Separation anxiety is distress experienced on separation from you as the owner(s). Anxiety is the “anticipation of future danger or misfortune” – Dr K Seksel. As dogs are social animals, it is normal for a puppy to become attached to their litter and then subsequently to the human family that becomes their home. Some dogs do not habituate to being without their owners and can develop significant separation distress. Some dogs may become destructive or vocalise if understimulated and not provided with opportunities to exercise physically and mentally. However, signs of separation anxiety become apparent when they are linked to the owner(s)’ departures or absences, when they cannot gain access to them and when they cannot habituate to their absences over time. These dogs are anxious and are not “acting out” or trying to spite their owners, they are having a hard time.

Some possible signs of separation anxiety can include:

  • A dug-up garden.
  • A torn-up house.
  • Neighbours reporting loud, repetitive barking, whining or howling.
  • You may also notice some signs of distress as you prepare to leave the house. Your dog sees cues that you are leaving (like picking up keys, putting on shoes or applying make-up) and begins to bark, scratch, pant, freeze or show other signs of being distressed.

If you notice any of these signs of separation anxiety, please speak to your veterinarian. Depending on the case they may refer you to a veterinarian with further qualifications in behaviour or a veterinary behaviour specialist.

Part of the treatment plan may include:

  • Medication and/or supplements to address the underlying anxiety.
  • Encouraging independence using positive reinforcement exercises.
  • Structured departures and arrivals which are low-key (calmly speaking to your dog, but not ignoring them completely).
  • Offering your dog long-lasting chews, food puzzles and feeding devices for your times away (if they will eat in your absence).
  • Continuing a program of physical and mental exercise and stimulation.
  • A program of desensitisation and counterconditioning to cues that hint that you may leave the home.