The Psychology of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Updated: Mar 29
"Separation Anxiety" (SA) in canines is a stress-related disorder, specifically triggered by being left alone or separated from an attached owner or canine friend or littermate.
There are many origins, causes, effects, and solutions to separation anxiety that we will explore throughout this article. It is important to understand that whilst your dog may not be struggling with SA, it is a problem that can arise seemingly out of nowhere. However, there are some things you can do to minimise the risk of this happening. So keep reading!
The Causes of Separation Anxiety:
Whilst there is something to be said for the role that genetics and breed-related predispositions play in dogs that develop separation anxiety, it is normally a problem that develops over time or in specific sets of conditions. Separation anxiety is a learned behaviour that generally originates in the owners, not giving the dog time to learn to be independent.
SA is common in cases such as:
- Dogs that live with owners that work from home
- Dogs that live with owners who are retired or not working
- Rescue Dogs that have been moved from house to house or shelter to shelter and have been habitually separated from those that form a bond with them
- Dog's that are left in kennels when their owners go away for a holiday
Jean Piaget's work in child psychology taught us about cognitive development in children. Lucky for us, some of what he learnt can be directly applied to canine psychology. Specifically, the studies conducted on "Object Permanence".
It was discussed in detail in an article written by Thomas R. Zentall and Kristina F. Pattison and published in October 2016, titled, "Now You See It, Now You Don't: Object Permanence in Dogs", that a dog's ability to understand the permanence of an object is the same as a 1-2-year-old child.
What does this mean? Throughout studies conducted on object permanence in canines, it was found that dogs can track an object when they couldn't see it, but only under certain controlled situations. For example, a treat was placed inside an airlocked container (so they couldn't smell it) and put inside a bucket on a rotating plank, with an empty bucket on the opposite side. The plank was then rotated 90 degrees. In almost all cases, the dog could track that hidden object as it moved, even though they couldn't see it.
When applying this to separation anxiety, when you leave your dog alone in a room, they can generally track where you are until they no longer understand places that you could exist in. For example, they may understand that you are in the driveway or down the street because they are familiar with the possibility for you to be there, but they will not understand your existence outside of those conditions. This psychological understanding causes your dog to react when you leave the house or sometimes go to another room that they may not be allowed into, like a bedroom.
This is why it is critically important for you to train your dog to feel confident and independent when left alone because they actually feel and understand themselves to be alone when you leave them.
Similarly, if separated in the same room, where they can still see you, the anxiety stems from their worry that you may soon leave to a place where they can no longer track where you are. An example of this is a friend holding the lead while you walk into a shop or pick something up off the ground. They feel that once you pass them to another person or tether them somehow, they will not be able to get to you to follow where you are. This is why dogs with separation anxiety will follow you around the house for seemingly no reason. It is because they do not have the ability to follow you mentally.
Identifying Separation Anxiety
It is generally pretty simple to identify if your dog may have separation anxiety problems. There are a few tell-tale signs that something may be wrong:
- Incessant barking or whining when left alone
- Excessive Chewing/Mouthing when left alone
- Repetitive pacing back and forward
- Attempting to escape a room or chew a lead etc.
There are many more than those listed above, but generally, the behaviours are similar to those above. If you notice your dog doing these things, it's time to start training it out of them, don't wait until it's too late.
Fixing Separation Anxiety
When assessing the psychology of SA, the solution becomes a little bit easier to understand. If the dog struggles to understand your presence when you are not visible, you must teach them to understand that you will return in a way they can comprehend shortly, so the exercise goes as follows. Starting with 5-minute intervals, leave the dog by themselves, either in a crate, on a lead, or in a room by themselves, such as a bathroom. For only 5 minutes, put them in that place and ignore them. Do not give in to whimpering or whining, barking or chewing, do your best to ignore them. If you must go back to them, you go back and correct them with a nice strong low voice and then leave them alone again. Remember, it is best to only go back to them when they are calm and quiet. You don't want them to learn that whining and doing unwanted behaviours will result in you coming back to them; this will only make things worse for you. When you go to get them back out of the room or off the lead etc., ignore them, it should not be a big deal, and you have not come to "save them", be calm, open the door and turn and walk away. As they feel confident staying by themselves for 5 minutes, up the time to 15 and see how they go, and so on until they are comfortable being left alone for long periods of time. Don't rush and expect they will be fine at home for 8 hours a day by themselves automatically.
You can also help yourself and your pup by being proactive and making your dog feel confident in general. The best way to do this is to socialise them with as many things as you can think of in a very controlled and calm way in your home. Such as introducing them to the vacuum cleaner, first turned off, and then turned on at the other side of the room, and then slowly walk the dog towards it on a lead until they are so confident they no longer pay attention to it. As their confidence level improves, their reliance on you will drop. Make no mistake, they still need you to provide for them, but you do not want them to rely on you to feel confident in general.
Separation Anxiety is a stress-related disorder that arises when your dog is scared; they will soon not be able to or can no longer track where you are in relation to them. It is something that dog's with no prior issues may develop if put in the wrong circumstances.
You will start to notice your dog presenting unwanted behaviours such as crying, chewing, barking, lunging etc., when they start to develop a separation anxiety issue. If you notice these things, you must start training it out of them as soon as possible so that the problem does not get worse. Consult a trainer if you need to.
Since separation anxiety is learned, it can also be unlearned, so taking the time to train the dog to feel confident and independent when left alone is very important. You do this by leaving them alone for increasing intervals of time and correcting them if they act in an unwanted way.
The Bonnies Team hopes that this information proves helpful, and as always if you have a question, feel free to send us an email or give us a call through the contact details on the bottom of the homepage of our website.
I hope you learnt something! Written by: Christian Bonney - Bonnies Trainer Thanks to those involved in the following references: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/ulterior-motives/201802/dogs-and-object-permanence