Separation anxiety and behavioural problems can occur in dogs when they are left home alone
Dogs are social creatures that have evolved to live with humans. It isn’t surprising therefore that unwanted behaviour sometimes occurs when a dog or puppy is left ‘home alone’. However, whilst it is often assumed that the problem behaviour is triggered by ‘separation anxiety’, this is not always the case. It is therefore very important that the reason for the unwanted behaviour is clearly identified for each individual.
What sort of problem behaviour is typically seen?
The most commonly reported separation problems in dogs are excessive barking or howling, eliminating indoors and damage to the house or its contents. Dogs may also show physical symptoms such as excessive salivation, or compulsive behaviours such as pacing or excessively licking themselves. Most start to show the problem behaviour as soon as the owner has left, but others may not do so for some time or may start to feel distressed as soon as they realise the owner is about to go out. They may then try to stop them leaving, perhaps by blocking their access to the door or – rarely – by becoming aggressive.
What causes separation anxiety or other problem behaviour when a dog is left alone?
Dogs may show unwanted behaviour when alone for a wide variety of reasons. For example elimination may be an involuntary reflex reaction due to separation anxiety. However, it may also occur because the dog isn’t properly house trained and so eliminates if he is caught short whilst the owner is out. It may be due to a urinary tract infection or another medical problem that makes the dog need to eliminate more often. In geriatric dogs it may be due to declining mental faculties resulting in confusion about when or where to eliminate.
Separation anxiety and other problem behaviour when a dog is home alone may occur for a wide variety of reasons
Destructive behaviour when left alone, such as when the dog scrabbles at a door or window, may be caused by the dog trying to follow the owner due to separation anxiety. Alternatively, the dog may chew out of boredom or may cause damage whilst trying to get to something he wants. It also isn’t uncommon for a dog to spend a happy afternoon raiding the cupboards and fridge when left alone in the kitchen, but to settle perfectly happily if left in a room where there is no access to food. This is more a case of ‘whilst the cat’s away….’ than emotional distress.
Vocalisation may also have multiple causes. Dogs vocalise to communicate and may howl or bark for prolonged periods due to separation anxiety. However, they are also likely to bark if someone approaches the property and they are trying to guard it. It therefore can’t always be assumed any barking or howling is triggered by emotional distress at being alone.
Even where the unwanted behaviour is triggered by emotional distress, this may arise for different reasons in different dogs. Some dogs appear to become overly attached to or dependant on their owner. These dogs seem genuinely distressed at being separated from them. In other cases the distress may be because the dog didn’t learn to feel comfortable being alone as a puppy. He may then become distressed the first time this happens, such as when a family member returns to work or a doggy (or feline) companion dies. Some may bark and scrabble at doors out of frustration because they want to accompany the owner on their adventure into the wide world outside. In a few cases the unwanted behaviour is triggered by something happening when the owner is out that makes the dog scared. This can then lead to the dog becoming fearful whenever they are alone in case it happens again.
How do we know what is causing the separation anxiety or other problem behaviour?
Webcam recordings of the dog’s behaviour when no-one is there can be very revealing
Finding the causes for separation anxiety (or other problem behaviour) requires a careful assessment of what is happening when the dog is both with people and alone. Video recordings of the dog’s behaviour when no-one is there can also be very revealing.
For example if a dog causes damage to doorways as soon as and every time the owner leaves, this is likely to be due to some kind of emotional distress. Observation of the behaviour will show if it is due to anxiety or frustration, and the dog’s history will reveal if it’s due to lack of familiarisation as a puppy or over attachment. If the behaviour doesn’t occur until much later, is directed to household contents and occurs in a young or under exercised dog, it is more likely to be boredom. If the behaviour is intermittent, video recordings may reveal certain triggers for the behaviour, such as when bins are collected in a dog with a phobia of lorries.
Most puppies can be taught to accept being home alone
How can we prevent separation anxiety and other separation problems in dogs?
Most puppies can be familiarised to being home alone if they are taught to gradually accept this when they are very young. Other problem behaviours can be prevented by teaching your dog to prefer being outside when he wants to eliminate and making sure he has plenty of exercise, stimulation and companionship.
Top tips to help familiarise puppies to being home alone
- Start by leaving when your puppy is tired, well fed and has just been out into the garden
- Place your puppy in a safe area such as his crate or a puppy proofed area of the house
- Give your puppy something engaging e.g. a new toy, or a food item such as a Kong with a small amount of food inside
- Leave calmly but don’t sneak away – it is important that your puppy knows you have gone
- Initially leave for just five minutes. Make sure you are somewhere your puppy cannot hear, see or smell you
- Come back after the allotted time regardless of what is happening e.g. barking or whining
- If your puppy is quiet he can be greeted immediately
- If he is making noise ask him to ‘sit’, then give attention when he obeys. If he doesn’t yet know this command just wait for him to be quiet then greet him. Don’t ignore him for long periods as this is punishing
- Repeat 3-4 times a day. He should quickly stop being concerned by you leaving and settle to his toy or food item
- You can then start to increase how long he is left for. Start by increasing this by five minutes at a time, up to 30 minutes, then by 10 minutes at a time up to an hour. Each increment should be repeated 3 or 4 times. As the duration he is left for goes up the frequency can reduce
- Even puppies that live with another dog must learn to be alone
How can we stop this behaviour?
If prevention hasn’t worked then the method of correction will depend on the cause. For example if indoor elimination is due to a lack of house training this can be rectified by teaching the dog to prefer to be outside to eliminate using similar methods to those used with puppies. If the dog is being destructive due to boredom this may be helped with toys, improvements in overall exercise and stimulation or reducing the period of time the dog is left alone. However more complex problems may require a tailored treatment package developed specifically for your dog’s needs by a specialist in this area. If your pet is showing problem behaviour when left alone then discuss this with your vet. They will be able to rule out any underlying medical problems and, if necessary, refer you to a suitably qualified behaviour expert.