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Decoding Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Impacts and Solutions



COVID-19 has been a blessing for many dogs. It has also been a curse.

When the pandemic began, media outlets reported a rise in dog adoptions as rescue kennels were cleared out. People forced to work from home headed to shelters and breeders, believing it was the ideal time to adopt that longed-for pet friend.

Dogs went to their new homes loving all the one-on-one attention they were receiving and 24-hour access, seven days a week, to their family members.

But then something bad happened (at least in the dog’s mind). Companies began calling their workforce back as they phased out the work-from-home option. Suddenly, dogs discovered they were no longer the centre of their new owner’s world and that they wouldn’t have companionship all the time. 

While many were able to take this in their stride, many COVID-19 pups (some from rescues already on their second or third home) were simply unable to cope with being home alone.

This has had a wide-ranging impact on both the owners and the dogs, some having already been surrendered back to rescues, making the issue of abandonment even more difficult for these dogs, and making them even harder to rehome in the future.

Why, why, why ???

In March 2020, University of Helsinki canine geneticist Hannes Lohi and colleagues published the largest study ever on canine temperaments, which found some breeds were more prone to certain anxious behaviours, including aggression, separation anxiety and fear.

Interestingly, the study found separation-related behaviours were most common in mixed breed dogs which were most likely to destroy, urinate or defecate when left alone. 





Wheaten Terriers were the most likely to vocalise, salivate or pant. The authors also state: 
“It is possible that the high prevalence of separation distress and other anxieties in the mixed breed dogs is caused by a poor early life environment and adverse experiences in life, as many mixed breed dogs in our data are likely rescues”.
They also found that “Separation related behaviour was slightly more common in male dogs” and while younger dogs had a higher prevalence to destroy or urinate when alone, vocalising, salivating and panting, along with other compulsive behaviours occurred independent of age. 

The full study can be accessed here

The Signs of Separation Anxiety: 

Dogs are affected by stress in different ways and not all the signs can be found in all dogs. 

The most obvious signs are excessive barking, whining, crying and howling that often lead to complaints from the neighbours followed by letters from the local council regarding noise infringements. 



Other dogs manifest their panic by frantic attempts to escape, sometimes to the point of self-harm, or destruction such as chewing or destroying floors, walls and doors, particularly around entrances, shredding furniture, and personal belongings. In worst-case scenarios, owners have come home to find laptops and other expensive equipment in pieces.

Others become anxious even before the owner leaves (after all, they know our departure cues so well), while some otherwise housetrained dogs are so petrified, they soil when you step out the door.

Less obvious signs, but still displays of underlying anxiety, might be lip licking, panting, salivating or drooling. Some simply freeze in place, others hide or cower, while trembling, shaking, pacing and digging are also common place.

Owners, who are the experts in their own dogs, should also watch out for tucked tails, wide eyes, ears pinned back and yawning.

The Impact on Households and Family Members:

Anyone who has lived with a dog with separation anxiety understands the stress and impact it has on the household. That’s because it’s significant.
  • Imagine being unable to leave the house without your dog freaking out, barking and destroying your cherished belongings.
  • Imagine the strain it puts on your relationship with your partner who wants to get rid of the dog because they’ve simply had enough. 
  • Imagine seeing the formerly good relationship you had with your neighbours utterly break down because they are sick of listening to your “out of control” dog barking and howling. 
  • Imagine that feeling of dread as you go to check the mailbox each day wondering if there will be a letter from the Council regarding a noise complaint. 
  • Imagine trying to find one excuse after the other not to meet up with friends, who seriously don’t understand why you can’t leave your dog home alone. Or not being able to pop down to the shops without a military operation to find someone to mind your dog. 
  • Imagine spending a small fortune on doggy day care and pet sitters or dog walkers so your dog doesn’t have to be by itself. 
  • And imagine feeling so, so guilty because the times you absolutely have no choice and must leave your dog alone, you know how scared they will be and the state of panic they will succumb to. 

That is how having a dog with separation anxiety can impact your life. 
You can no longer be spontaneous, you always need a plan, your friends don’t understand and your relationships becomes strained.

It’s no fun for you and it’s certainly no fun for your dog! 

Myths Busting:

Before we touch on the many myths surrounding separation anxiety, it’s important to note that not all dogs thought to have separation anxiety actually do have it

In fact, some have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) or Frustration. It’s not that they are terrified of being left alone, they just don’t want to be. They, understandably, want to be with us and when that is not an option, they may act out accordingly. Often this can be more easily solved by introducing an exercise and enrichment regimen to tire them out physically and mentally, among taking other desensitisation steps. 


Myth 1:

Oh, just let them bark it out
This has been common advice handed down for many years with a “they’ll get over it” attitude alongside it. Unfortunately, with true separation anxiety cases this is never the case and will not make one iota of difference.

Myth 2:

Give them a Kong stuffed with food to distract them: 
And yet, what happens when the food runs out? The dog potentially goes into a panic state or, alternatively, they are too stressed to touch the food in the first place, especially given that in a fearful dog the digestive system shuts down.

Myth 3:

Get another dog for company
Sadly, this is also not the case. While it can certainly help in some circumstances, eg the death of another dog, in most cases getting another dog is unlikely to help.

Myth 4:

Throw your dog in a crate
While this may be appropriate for dogs not suffering from separation anxiety (provided they are properly crate trained and have no problem being in one), confinement is far more likely to heighten the anxiety of a dog who does have this disease.

Myth 5:

Your dog is just being naughty
This is definitely not the case! Dogs with true separation anxiety are in a panic. Fear is based on emotion and we all know how incredibly difficult it can be to control our emotions. Imagine how hard it is for your dog.

Solutions & Treatment Protocol for Separation Anxiety:

Firstly, any diagnosis should start with a vet consultation to rule out any other underlying medical conditions, particularly for older dogs who may be showing the first signs of canine dementia.

Treatment of separation anxiety involves gradual desensitisation to the owner leaving the dog alone. It is done in such small increments that the dog does not notice, then steady increases in the time the owner is on the other side of the door.

To treat a dog with Separation Anxiety, it is imperative that absences are managed. This means there must always be someone home with the dog, or that the dog is placed in day care, with a pet sitter or walker, a family member or a friend, during the times there is no choice for the owner to leave the house. 

This ensures that throughout training the dog remains “under the threshold” it can cope with, without reacting. It’s important to keep in mind that every time the dog goes over its threshold and goes into a panic, it only confirms to the dog that it had every reason to be in a fear state in the first place. 


That is why it is advised a camera be employed so the owner can watch the dog for signs of distress while they are on the other side of the door and ensure they return before there is an issue and the panic sets in.

Some extreme cases may require medication while the training is ongoing to enable the dog to think clearly and absorb the exercises, however, this needs to be talked over fully with a vet. Also, keep in mind that every dog is an individual and it can often be a case of trial and error in terms of types of medication and dosage before striking the right one for the dog.

Five Quick Tips:

1. Manage absences while training is ongoing. If you must leave your dog alone try to find a family member, friend or pet sitter to be with them. Alternatively, try a doggy daycare.

2. Buy a camera so you can watch your dog when you are out.

3. Ensure your dog has been exercised before leaving the house.

4. Ensure your dog has had plenty of mental stimulation and enrichment before leaving the house.

5. Be patient and understanding. Your dog is in a state of fear and panic. They can’t help feeling this way and they don’t want to either.

Case study: Victoria Whitbread & Spoodle Teddy

Spoodle Teddy was an anxious pup
Photo by Victoria Whitbread
Victoria was overjoyed to get her Spoodle puppy, Teddy, earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic crisis first hit. 

Because of the lockdown she was able to spend a great deal of time with Teddy but whenever she left him in his playpen to shower or went out the front door, she noticed how little he could handle being separated from her. 

Teddy would wail and cry the entire time he was in the playpen, wouldn’t settle at all and would eventually work himself up to a terrible state. 

During this time, she received advice to leave him for an hour and let him cry it out with the expectation he would settle after a while. This was not the case and Victoria believes, in hindsight, that, in fact, it only made things worse. 

By the time she reached out to us, Victoria was at the point where she couldn’t leave the house without taking Teddy with her.

Anxious Spoodle Teddy couldn't be
 left alone - Photo by Victoria Whitbread
She took him everywhere she went or left him with a friend if she couldn’t do so. 

She describes feeling like a prisoner in her own home. She also felt bad having to ask friends and family for their help. 

“It was one of the hardest times of my life, feeling guilty if I had to leave him alone knowing he was going through a lot of stress and anxiety with me being gone but not having a choice if I had to go out for 10 minutes,” she says.

We put in place our training protocols to help Teddy overcome his anxiety and gradually desensitise him to Victoria’s absences in such small increments he hardly noticed. Victoria reports that after a week working with Ruff Diamonds, she noticed a massive improvement with Teddy.

“It was a slow process at the start because his baseline for my absences was so low but after a few weeks it started gaining in time. I felt such a relief being able put the bins out,” she says.

“I am now up to 2.5 hours, which may not sound like much, but I know he is a happy puppy being at home when I do go out now, he doesn’t cry or tear the place apart and just lays on the bed sleeping.

“I can now go to the shops or sit at a 
cafĂ© for hours knowing he is happy, and I can finally get my life back and work on my business again.” 

Written by Vanessa Jones from Ruff Diamond Dog Services, September 2020 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).


About the writer

Vanessa Jones with her Malinois, Big Bertha (left) 
and Chase (Photo supplied)
Director Vanessa Jones has a certificate as a SA (Separation Anxiety) Pro Trainer, is a Canine Behaviour Practitioner and has a Diploma in Canine Behaviour from the renowned International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour (ISCP.Dip.Canine.Prac), a Canine Myofunctional Therapist (dog masseur), Small Animal Nutritionist and Small Animal Naturopath (Dip.NatSA). 

You can contact her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SeparationAnxietyInDogsDecoded or email her.

Separation Anxiety In Dogs Decoded is a specialist division of Ruff Diamonds Dog Services: they help solve your dog's separation anxiety, rebuild your relationships and get your life back!

Training takes place remotely (online), meaning it doesn't matter where you live in Australia or New Zealand, they can still help treat your dog's separation anxiety with tailored one-on-one and step-by-step guidance which is easy to understand and implement. 

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