Separation Anxiety in Dogs

How to tell separation anxiety from boredom and other problems, and what to do about it.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
7-minute read
Episode #53

Be Realistic About What You Can Do

When you and your consultant discuss the plan for your dog, try to be realistic about how much time and effort you can put in. Behavior modification for separation anxiety is effective but can be laborious, and one study found that guardians did best with the simplest, least time-intensive plans. (3)

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

We don’t quite know what causes separation anxiety. Often, it crops up after a move or a drastic change in schedule. For this reason, dog trainers and behavior specialists often advise clients to include time alone in their puppy or dog’s normal routine. Separation anxiety is commoner among dogs adopted from shelters--but are they anxious because they did time in a shelter, or did their former owners give them up because they had separation anxiety? It’s commoner among dogs owned by single people, but maybe dogs in large households spend less time alone, so their problems are masked. Are male or female dogs more prone to separation anxiety? Depends on which study you read.(4) As I’ve said more than once in these articles, behavior is complicated and hard to understand – beware those who tell you they’ve got The Answer.

My own guess is that separation anxiety has deep evolutionary roots. Wolves, of course, live in stable, family-based groups. Feral dogs generally don’t, but the species didn’t part ways all that long ago. Dogs are obviously sociable and strongly bonded to their human companions. They also depend completely on us, but have no say in our comings and goings. What a surprise it would be if they didn’t get worked up about the situation from time to time!

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1. Probably most commonly prescribed is Reconcile (or the generic fluoxetine). But of course medication has to be tailored to the individual animal.

See Simpson, Barbara Sherman, et al. 2007. Effects of Reconcile (fluoxetine) chewable tablets plus behavior management for canine separation anxiety. Veterinary Therapeutics 8:1 (Spring), pp. 18-30. This was a placebo-controlled, double-blinded study with 35 participating veterinary clinics and 242 dogs, a high number for a behavioral study. All that is terrific. However, it was funded by Lilly, the manufacturer of Reconcile. Please note, I am not saying the study is a bad one. It’s hard to get government funding to study medication for animals, and I would rather have a well-done manufacturer-funded study than none at all!

2. The best basic guide for guardians is Patricia McConnell’s pamphlet “I’ll Be Home Soon!” (McConnell Publishing, 2000).

3. Takeuchi, Yukari, Katherine A. Houpt, and Janet M.a Scarlett. 2000. Evaluation of treatments for separation anxiety in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217:3 (Aug. 1), 342-45.

4. For the preceding discussion, I’ve drawn mostly on the following sources: G. Landsberg, W. Hunthausen, and L. Ackerman, Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, 2nd ed. (Saunders, 2003), pp. 258-267; Bradshaw, J.W.S., et al. 2002. Aetiology of separation-related behaviour in domestic dogs. The Veterinary Record 151:2, 43-46; Flannigan, Gerrard, and Nicholas H. Dodman. 2001. Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 219:4, pp. 460-466; Horwitz, Debra F., “Separation-Related Problems in Dogs,” in Debra F. Horwitz, Daniel Mills, and Sarah Heath, eds., BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (British Small Animal Veterinary Association, 2002), pp. 154-163. There are many other scholarly publications and journal articles on the subject.

Dog Igoring Food image from Shutterstock


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).