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I frequently hear dog owners saying they need help with their dog's separation anxiety after coming home to a half-eaten couch, accidents in the house, or ripped-up blinds.
But are those common dog behaviors actually because of separation anxiety?
It's important we diagnose what's really behind your dog's feelings and what behavior problem - especially with true separation anxiety since it requires specialized treatment to support your dog successfully. Often, what's going on turns out to be common dog behavior problems that still require training effort but are less complex and likely have a quicker path to success for pet owners and your pups.
How to tell why your dog is exhibiting this behavior and if it really is separation anxiety
Start by ruling out separation anxiety. I go into more depth on how to do this in the video below, but start with these four steps...
Step #1. If you're seeing destructive chewing & other destructive behaviors...
Answer these questions:
- Is your dog getting enough physical exercise?
- Is your dog getting enough mental exercise or possibly bored?
- Is your puppy teething? (Chewing can be, sometimes annoyingly so, normal puppy behavior. Obviously not a factor for adult dogs.)
When it comes to destructive chewing, dogs can find it entertaining if they're bored or have extra energy with no constructive outlet whether we're home with them or not.
If you suspect this is what's happening with your dog, add more good, sensory-full (sniffing!) walks. When indoors, a chew toy or enrichment puzzle can be a soothing, enriching way to engage your dog any time.
(But not the answer for solving true separation anxiety... more on that later.)
What destructive behavior looks like with separation anxiety
Typically if your dog does have separation anxiety, destructive behaviors and dog chewing issues are more likely to be directed at parts of the house related to exits (doors, etc.).
With separation anxiety, in some cases a dog might even injure himself or herself while frantically trying to get out of the house.
Step #2. If your house-trained dog is having accidents in the house...
Answer these questions:
- Did your dog go outside for a good potty break right before you left?
- Are you sure your dog is 100% house trained in all other circumstances?
If both of those are a yes, you'll want to visit your vet to be sure your dog doesn't have a GI issue or other health problems that could be causing the accidents.
Step #3. If you're using a crate or confinement while away and your dog shows unhappy, "undesirable" behavior...
Answer this question:
- Does your dog happily hang out in the crate all other times except when home alone?
If not, your dog could have confinement anxiety - a separate issue from separation anxiety. Some dogs have both, other dogs have only one (and other dogs have neither, of course).
How to find out if your dog has confinement anxiety only
We'll want to find out if it's confinement anxiety and not separation anxiety which you can test by setting up a camera (a home security cam or your phone or laptop), leaving your dog unconfined but staying nearby so you can pop back in. If your dog is comfortable, you have your answer - it's not separation anxiety. For your dog, it's about confinement in a crate or other confined space.
Step #4. If your dog is barking, "redecorating" your house, etc...
Answer these questions:
- Does your dog show rather common dog behaviors like repeated barking only when home alone or at other times when your attention is elsewhere?
- Do you notice excessive barking consistently when your dog is home alone or just in response to outside stimuli?
Trying to get your attention with all sorts of antics is fairly normal behavior for dogs who feel the need to be the center of your attention at any given time. If you've noticed these rather natural dog behaviors not only when your dog is home alone, but also when you're involved in a business conference call, etc., it's your dog's way of saying, "hey, look at me, play with me, chase me for your expensive shoe...!" (Simpler and one of the relatively common dog behavior problems to address vs separation anxiety.)
Okay, but tell me more...
If your dog barks while home alone, we'll want to find out if that's in response to external distractions such as someone walking by, a delivery to your house, or the ding of the elevator if you're in an apartment. Many, maybe even most dogs bark at these types of distractions to some degree. If this is causing your dog's barking, count it among pretty normal dog behaviors and not an indicator of separation anxiety.
Again, some kind of camera with sound will be your indispensable detective tool. And if excessive barking without separation anxiety is an issue, that's something we can work on in other ways.
How to rule in separation anxiety...
If you've run through all the factors that could rule out separation anxiety and you still suspect that is what's happening with your dog, the best way to understand the situation is to set up a camera and watch and record your dog.
- Set up a camera you can watch in real time (again, a home camera tied into your phone or two-phone or laptop-phone streaming that records for later analysis/sharing with a trainer). Place it where you can view your dog as well as the windows/door in the exit area.
- Plan to be away but very close by for up to 45 minutes. BUT MOST IMPORTANT - be ready to come back immediately at the first sign of distress from your dog.
Most dogs with separation anxiety will usually begin to show signs of serious stress/panic anywhere from the minute you walk out the door up to 30 minutes later, so if you make it to 45 minutes with your dog being comfortable, it's likely you're not dealing with true separation anxiety.
What to do if your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety
If your dog's behavior does show signs of distress, after you go immediately back to comfort your dog, make a note of the amount of time you were away to better understand your dog's threshold. That's your baseline to know the length of time your dog is comfortable alone - and a critical piece of information to share with a CSAT or Veterinary Behaviorist as you begin to work with your dog to feel safe and secure during alone-time.
A CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) or a Certified Veterinary Behaviorist is recommended as your best partner with you & your dog since they're trained in the specific complexities of treating separation anxiety successfully and positively.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you know how to rule separation anxiety in or out for your dog, let's get into 5 separation anxiety "tips" you should never listen to and why. Continue to the next Separation Anxiety guide here or jump to other step-by-step guides in the Anxiety Channel and learn how to help your dog stay calm outside of the house or learn what to do if your dog is barking at visitors in your house.
Hop over to the Anxiety Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Environment Anxiety, People Anxiety, Crate Anxiety, or Understanding Anxiety.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!