Separation Anxiety

What IS Separation Anxiety?

By Allyson Tohme KCAI (WT)

Reprinted from the Newsletter of the Welsh Springer Spaniel Club (UK)  July 2014

(with permission of the Club and the Author) 


On the 15 June 2014, I attended a seminar on the above subject given by Nicole Wilde, hosted by Positive Animal Solutions at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford.

Nicole commenced by telling the story of her own rescue dog Sierra who was the reason she decided to write her book, “Don’t Leave Me!” because much of her behaviour was atypical and all the usual recipes that she had provided clients with on this subject in the past had not worked!

The first question she posed was “How do you know if your dog has Separation Anxiety? What is it?”

Unlike a lot of other conditions there is no medical test to determine whether or not a dog suffers from this disorder. The only tools we have are behavioural assessments which need to be conducted by qualified professionals who have the relevant skills, knowledge, ability, training and experience.

One of the key measures in identifying Separation Anxiety is to have the owner capture their dog on film in their absence, preferably more than once and for more than a few minutes or hours.

(Nicole stressed that it was vital that the footage was viewed together with the behaviourist as it can be very distressing for the owner to see this on their own).

Another key issue is to determine the duration and frequencies of the behaviour which has led the owner to contact a behaviourist; if it is only occasional rather than regular, it is unlikely to be Separation Anxiety.

She also stated that it was important to make an accurate diagnosis in order to differentiate Separation Anxiety from Isolation Distress. If the issue relates to being separated from a particular person this is much more difficult to solve than if a dog just does not like to be alone.

Separation Anxiety can also be categorised as mild, moderate or severe, depending on its continuity, intensity and persistence.


The most common symptom is destruction particularly around doors and windows (as the dog tries to access their owner) however damage alone is not necessarily a Separation Anxiety indicator. Some dogs are just bored, under exercised and/or insufficiently mentally stimulated.

Destruction, vocalisation, urination/defecation, pacing, panting, drooling, lethargy (depression), trembling, self-mutilation, escape attempts, self soothing, refusing to eat, vomiting and overly intense greetings are all symptoms of Separation Anxiety.

Although hyper attachment is a classic symptom, Nicole pointed out that not all dogs with Separation Anxiety are “Velcro” dogs.

If dogs vocalise, the whining/barking/howling will generally be interrupted by periods where the dogs stop and listen for the return of their owners in a very predictable and repetitive fashion.

Some dogs may engage in coprophagia which means the owner may never be aware of this behaviour although this may be opportunistic; for example some dogs feel safer eliminating in the absence of owners if they have been punished for inappropriate toileting.

The moisture left by drooling may be mistaken for urination however one of the key indicators is that dogs may often have wet fronts in the former and will often drink lots of water when it is available.

Although severe Separation Anxiety may prevent dogs from eating in the absence of the owner, in mild to moderate cases it does not. Dogs may also “self soothe” by  chewing things that smell like the owner, particularly items such as remote controls etc as this is a stress reliever.


It was not surprising to hear that genetics, abandonment/rehoming, and traumatic experiences could be factors in Separation Anxiety but perhaps aging was not one that many owners consider. Cognitive decline can also be confused with Separation Anxiety.

Many owners often choose to get a dog in the summer holidays and, having never left it alone during this period, inadvertently create the problem due to the huge contrast between almost full time presence to almost full time absence when school recommences.

Interestingly enough a study by Cornell University in 2001 identified that gundogs were more likely to be associated with Separation Anxiety disorders than any other group.


If dogs are fed a good quality diet they may exhibit less general, overall anxiety and avoiding corn (maize) which is low in tryptophan and substituting oats, rice or potato instead was tabled as a consideration. Although routine is helpful at first with a new/rescue dog, in order to build confidence, care has to be taken that by so doing owners do not create a dog that cannot cope with change.

Nicole stressed that management is the hardest part of the programme as the dog cannot be left alone at all whilst undergoing rehabilitation.

However the behaviourist cannot simply just say, “never leave the dog alone” without providing appropriate support.

Despite considering herself a very empathic dog owner, trainer and behaviourist Nicole admitted that she never realised the depths of despair that owners of such dogs could experience until it happened to her.

Owners need to be prepared to go through some short term pain for long term gain. Both the behaviourist and the owner need to work closely together to identify opportunities where they can take the dog along with them, eg cafes, shops etc. Dogs often do not exhibit the same anxiety when left in the car (where it is safe to do so) as they do at home. The car often triggers the knowledge that owners will never be gone forever and absences are short.

Pet sitters are often a short term answer, either professionals or family members/friends. There may also be a “stay at home” person who would love the company of a dog during the day or, who would like company for their own dog (provided of course that you have first established that both dogs are social).

There are now specialist day-care facilities available for dogs where many dogs with Separation Anxiety can feel comfortable or even kennels which offer day boarding.

As in all situations owners have to consider “force majeure”; for example visits to the doctor/dentist/hospital and this is where grooming salons may come in; most grooming sessions take at least an hour, sometimes considerably longer (depending on the breed/coat) and it might be an idea to save up the money or appointments for just such occasions!

Another technique which may be of use is the “Fake em out” scenario where, if dogs can be separated from owners visually, a recording of the daily routine when present can be played during short absences. Care must be taken using this method that other cues do not override this eg the sound of the car being driven away and thus some preparation may be needed the day before by say parking it a distance away from the home etc.

Alone Zone

Whilst crates may be a very good option for some (for short periods only) they may be contraindicated for those dogs which self mutilate/try to escape. Plastic models can be safer than wire crates and some dogs who pace may be better when confined as it prevents them building emotional arousal.

Baby/dog gates may need to be stacked, have vertical bars or fitted with fabric or Lucite sides so that they cannot be scaled and some dogs do better in the garden or with a dog flap (if your garden is safe and secure) as they find small rooms too confining.

If leaving a scented item or a treat/food dispenser with the dog, ensure that this is also practised when the owner is in the home otherwise this can be a predictor of absence. The same applies to music, radio, television.

Some dogs may prefer to use food dispensers which require them to disperse some energy as opposed to lying down and de-stuffing a Kong™.

Remote monitoring

Nicole went through a wide range of options available on the market which provide the opportunity for owners to observe and monitor their dogs in real time as well as recorded images; including i-cam, Skype, VueZone and DropCam, but new ones are entering the market regularly.

She cautioned delegates on the use of remote controlled cameras and, if relevant, having the sound “muted” on computers etc so incoming calls cannot be heard; both of which can spook anxious dogs.

Behaviour Modification

Some dogs are not bothered by departure cues; however others may need to undergo a programme of desensitisation. Physical and visual separation exercises need to be undertaken firstly whilst the owner is in the house.

One of the side effects of leaving valued items with dogs when you leave (eg stuffed Kongs™) is that removing them on return may trigger resource guarding issues in some dogs.

Feeding before departure can maintain stable blood sugar levels which may help in reducing anxiety and owners needed to be aware that a link between Separation Anxiety and Thunderstorm Phobia has been identified in some studies.

Pharmacological Intervention

Nicole emphasised that various issues needed to be weighed prior to considering the use of drug therapy. Is the dog an appropriate candidate? What are the owner perceptions? Which drug is best? When the dog is suffering severe emotional/ physical distress, and perhaps the owner is in danger of losing their home due to the consequences of their dog’s behaviour, treatment with the appropriate drugs may be the only option. These would, of course, only be prescribed by Vets working in tandem with the behaviourist or by veterinary behaviourists.

Complementary therapies

There are many which may be of assistance including Alpha-casozepine (Zylkene in UK) and  L-Theanine (Telizen); Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP), Anxiety Wraps, Thundershirts, music, Flower Essences etc.

Separation Anxiety Myths

  • Separation Anxiety is caused by sleeping in owner’s bed
  • Dogs with Separation Anxiety are always “Velcro” dogs

  • “He’ll get over it”

  • You must ignore your dog

  • Your dog won’t eat if stressed

Will getting a second dog help?

Acquiring a second dog may or may not help. In order to determine whether or not this might be beneficial Nicole suggested fostering a dog to ensure improvement, if any, was not solely a temporary phase owing to the novelty of having a new companion which might wear off!

Books (listed alphabetically by author)

  • Dogs Home Alone    by Roger Abrantes.
  • Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs     by Malena DeMartini Price.
  • I'll Be Home Soon    by Patricial McConnell.
  • Separation Distress and Dogs    by James O’Heare.
  • Don’t Leave Me    by Nicola Wilde.


  • Separation Anxiety: Both Sides Now   By Nicole Wilde.