Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Diagnosing Separation Anxiety and Its Severity
In practical terms, diagnosing separation anxiety is a two-step process. Once you have ruled out such things as a house-training problem or under-stimulation/lack of exercise as the underlying cause, you need to assess the severity level of the anxiety. To gather the information you need you must discuss the dog’s history with the owners (more on this later). Some typical questions might include: Is the dog anxious all the time or can he be calm when the owners are home but in another room? Will the dog eat a simple meal if the owners walk out of view? Does the dog also have severe noise phobia? You will also need to observe the dog yourself, and I recommend that you use video to get the up-close look you need for a diagnosis. I’ll discuss various taping technologies later, but if newer technology isn’t an option, even the simplest video camera will do to capture some of the body language and activity the dog is displaying.
Note: Many owners haven’t left their dog alone for a long time because they know how bad the dog’s separation anxiety is. In these cases, use your judgment about whether or not to create an absence just for the sake of baseline video documentation. If the severity level is extreme, I prefer not to, but if it’s an open question, keep the absence brief, at most 30 minutes.
Let’s look at diagnosis in a little more detail by reviewing the symptoms of mild, moderate and severe cases.
In milder cases, dogs may present with pacing, whining, intermittent barking and chewing in the absence of the owners and somewhat excessive greetings when they return. The emphasis here is on the intermittent nature of the barking or whining. The dog may whine, bark or even break into a bit of a howl for a time, but will then sleep or settle. After a time, the dog may resume vocalization again, but the fact that he is able to settle for brief periods places the dog in the mild category and bodes well for prognosis. Note also that the chewing is quite mild. Typically these dogs are not even chewing at points of entry, but rather chewing on a shoe that was left out or maybe their bedding. No feats of great destruction here, often just some nibbling on an item that carries the familiar scent of the owner. While you’ll often see an excited greeting upon the owners return with these mild cases, it is nothing like more moderate to severe cases. Mild-case separation anxiety dogs may leap about and even vocalize a bit when their owners return, but the key thing to notice is how quickly the dog is able to settle back down once the owner is present. Usually it takes under a minute, or at most two, before the dog is acting normally again. Remember, even non-separation anxiety dogs can be awfully excited to see their owners returning after an absence.
An important note about mild case dogs and a distinction I would like to make clear: Most mild cases do not involve a hyper-attachment to one individual. This distinction means that the dog may be labeled as having isolation distress rather than separation anxiety. In other words, the dog can be left with any ol’ warm body, rather than having to have a specific person be with him at all times.
Nibbling on shoes, familiar scent items or bedding, rather than causing major destruction at entry points when left alone, is common in mild cases.
The majority of cases a trainer is likely to encounter fall into the moderate category. Many of the symptoms are different than in mild cases. The first thing I typically witness is anorexia. Moderate case dogs, when presented with tasty goodies while alone, will commonly not consume them. Having said this, anorexia does not have to be present in order for the dog to be considered moderate to severe. I see many separation anxiety questionnaires that ask if the dog will consume food when left alone and if that box is checked “yes,” then the dog is ruled not to have separation anxiety. Don’t make this mistake. Many dogs eat voraciously when left alone and still have serious levels of separation anxiety. Just consider anorexia a common symptom and note it as one that puts the dog into the moderate category.
In the moderate category, barking is usually close to constant rather than intermittent. There are few breaks in the vocalization and no times where the dog just relaxes or sleeps. Additionally, the destruction you’ll see here is considerably worse, usually at points of entry and carried out with more determination. One thing of note about dogs in the moderate category is that many of the symptoms are involuntary. By involuntary, I mean bodily functions are not under the dog’s control, such as panting, elimination and sweaty paws. You’ll also see an increase in severity of some of the symptoms discussed in the mild category, such as the excessive greeting behavior. Moderate case dogs may have considerable difficulty calming down after the owners return and may display quite wildly when the owner walks through the door. This is not just the usual “happy to see you” routine, but screaming, body hurling and other shenanigans beyond the norm, possibly lasting for ten minutes or more without reprieve. Finally, you may also see shadowing/following from dogs in the moderate category. The owner can’t get up to get a glass of water without the dog jolting from a deep sleep to follow, and many owners can scarcely use the restroom alone. It’s not uncommon to see a bit of this in the mild cases too, but in moderate cases it’s more noticeable. Note that the dog may have just one or all of the above listed symptoms to be considered moderate separation anxiety.
Moderate case dogs are hard enough to watch, but severe case dogs are downright painful. In this category, the first symptom to look out for is self-mutilation. You’ll often see the dog licking or chewing himself, typically on the forepaws and occasionally on the rear paws or the tail tip or base. This condition, called acral lick granuloma or acral lick dermatitis, requires medical attention and is among the more serious in the realm of separation anxiety symptoms. Another severe symptom you might see is escapism. I count this as severe because dogs often do great harm to themselves in the process of trying to escape. I have seen broken teeth and nails, severe lacerations and maimed eyes. Clearly, all sorts of bodily harm can result when dogs break windows or doors, bend crates or scale fences in their attempts to escape. The destruction you’ll see in these cases is significant, which not only puts fiscal hardship on the owners but is dangerous for the dogs.
The involuntary symptoms of severe case dogs are worse as well. Some dogs suffer with diarrhea to the point where they can’t keep weight on and can become severely dehydrated. Severe vomiting can lead to aspirated pneumonia. You might see excessive salivation, with the dogs leaving pools of drool behind, and you may witness dramatic shedding, a phenomenon often called “blowing one’s coat.” The barking and howling you’ll hear at this stage is truly panicked and often causes problems with neighbors or homeowner associations. By far the majority of cases in the severe category require pharmacological support.
Often in separation anxiety cases, a dog experiences anxiety due to his body producing a surge of cortisol and other stress chemicals. If the owners’ absences happen regularly, the anxiety is almost constant and the chemicals remain in the body continually, preventing the dog from ever truly relaxing. In such a heightened state of fear and anxiety, it’s very difficult for dogs (or humans, for that matter) to learn relaxation, and the rate of progress with these dogs is much slower if at all evident. Note that the dog may have just one or all of the above listed symptoms to be considered severe separation anxiety.
Assessing Separation Anxiety Severity
Mild chewing (i.e. bedding)
Mild excessive greeting
Moderate excessive greeting
Extreme excessive greeting
Some shadowing owner
No key owner attachment
Excessive water consumption
Having an overview of symptoms that range from mild, moderate and severe can be useful to see the progression.
Becoming familiar with the different degrees of severity of separation anxiety allows you to set up your treatment protocol accordingly. It can also help you determine whether or not you’re willing to take on a particular case—you might be comfortable working with mild and moderate cases but not the severe variety. One final important thing to note: the level of severity doesn’t always mean the case will take longer to resolve. Occasionally, mild cases move along at a snail’s pace with resolution taking months, while severe cases might progress at almost miraculous speed. Typically, though, progress happens as you would expect, with mild cases resolving more quickly and severe cases taking longer and being more complicated.
Destruction activity can occur quickly in severe cases. Here Norman destroyed a freshly painted door in well under an hour.
Destruction can also lead to self-harm. The dog who chewed on the door and dug at the floor bloodied her gums and nails.
Acral lick dermatitis is a very serious symptom. The anxious dog may lick and chew on himself excessively. The self-mutilation shown here is above the tail although is often seen on the forepaws.