Preventing Isolation & Separation Anxiety

Isolation distress and separation anxiety are different forms of a behaviour problem that cause a dog to panic when left alone or without a particular person. Isolation distress is when the dog becomes panicked with being left alone and exhibits stress-induced behaviours, of which can be stopped by the presence of another person or dog. True separation anxiety is when a dog has an intense attachment to a particular person and is unable to tolerate their absence, whether or not another human or dog is present. They are in sheer terror when they are not with that person. Just like in humans, these panic attacks are illogical. It is very important to understand that this is not the same as boredom though some of the symptoms are similar, and unlike a little mischief when your dog is left alone, separation anxiety or isolation distress is the result of legitimate stress.
 

Both are serious emotional problems and are extremely debilitating conditions to deal with for both you and your dog. The good news is that you all have puppies with minimal life experience behind them so they haven’t had a prolonged period of exposure to the things that they dislike, such as being left by themselves. It is up to you NOW to prevent it from developing. A little bit of conscious effort now will benefit you and your dog a whole life time. I have seen some horrible cases of isolation distress and separation anxiety. One case I worked with the owner couldn’t even leave the dog’s sight for literally a second without it fretting. I also had another case where the dog chewed and scratched through a wooden fence all whilst making itself bleed only to jump off a 10 m high rock. Fortunately the dog was okay and even though it hurt the pads of its paws, it was so lucky it didn't do more severe damage. Trust me when I say how important it is to do these activities to prevent it from even occurring in the first place. YOU DO NOT WANT A DOG WITH EITHER CONDITION. Exhausting and emotionally draining doesn’t even begin to describe it. If your puppy does start to show any signs of either condition at any stage in their life, it is very important to immediately seek help from a qualified force free behaviourist. The longer you leave it the more sensitised (they become more sensitive) your dog will become, it will only get worse and take longer to treat and no your dog won’t just "get over it". The great news is there are lots of treatment options for these conditions and in most cases they are very successful but the bad news is that it takes time - most likely months to get to a manageable stage and longer still to overcome it.
 

Dogs by nature are social animals. Social dynamics are extremely important when it comes to the mental health of our domestic dogs. Canine species’ base survival instincts are rooted in a dependence on group living. On top of this, humans have selectively chosen and bred dogs for particular reasons the main one being for companionship. Their dependence, love of affection and attention is a result of us; we have created an animal that depends on a human throughout its entire existence. Funnily humans are also a social species by nature, which is of no coincidence that the human-dog relationship has succeeded and flourished over the years, it is mutually beneficial. Taking this into account, think of how significant dogs truly are having learnt to live with spending as much time alone as is expected of them during the course of their life as a house pet. Dogs are quite remarkable when you think of them this way.
 

As Isolation Distress and Separation anxiety is an irrational state of mind where the dog can’t think or behave normally, it generally causes your dog to engage in or do things that are unintentional and uncontrollable behaviours. This is not your dog being “naughty”. Generally the symptoms your dog is exhibiting are behaviours in an attempt to give them relief in some form. Your dog might do things in an attempt of self preservation (instincts that can be considered an expression of the typical adaptive survival mechanisms seen in all mammals e.g. human babies who cry when hungry), to self-soothe, or escape to safety. 
 

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety:

  • Chewing, digging, destruction - These behaviours don’t generally happen when in the presence of their guardian. The dog will destroy anything they find around the house as a means of relieving their anxiety. They use the destroying as a stress reliever. 

 

  • Excessive drooling, panting, pacing and sweat from their paws - If the dog has the face you will find that the excess body fluid is generally accompanied by a pacing behaviour. Some dogs walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern, others move around in circular patterns, but both are signs of the dog's agitation and discomfort over spending time alone.

 

  • Repeated barking, whining and howling - This kind of barking, whining or howling is persistent. The intensity cycles up and down. It is not triggered by anything except by being left alone or their main companions absence. The dog tends to perform this behaviour at or near an exit. 

 

  • Self-mutilating - when dogs lick or bite themselves excessively.
     

  • Inappetence - When the dog is by itself, it does not eat or drink. As soon as the owner comes back home, it starts to gobble everything, which frequently results in vomiting.

 

  • Urinating and defecating - Either because they are frustrated or because they simply lose their bowel and bladder control due to the stress they are undergoing. The dog is not doing this ‘to spite you’, as many angry dog owners claim; it is simply an involuntary reaction of the dog's body triggered by the fear.
     

  • Accelerated and difficult breathing -The dog has an open snout, the tongue sticking out, breathing quickly as well as loudly and, sometimes, can even choke. Remaining in such a state for a long period of time can lead to complete exhaustion.
     
  • Destroying house equipment - Dogs most commonly destroy things that are connected to the person who they are close to – beds, couches, books, bags, shoes, clothes or kitchen items, though they may destroy anything they find nearby or around the house . They often destroy areas near exits such as walls and floors around windows and doors with intense pawing, scratching or chewing.
     
  • Attempting to escape - The dog will do anything to escape from its confinement whether that is scratching or biting the door or wall, digging under the fence, gnawing through a wire fence, jumping or climbing over things, or trying to break through a window. All of them with the potential to cause serious injury.
     
  • Signs of anxiety when the owner is about to leave - The moment the dog notices the first signs of the owner leaving it starts to person some of the above mentioned symptoms. Some dogs become aggressive when the owner is leaving and do not let him/her leave from the door or gate.
     
  • Following the close person everywhere - Where the dog fears losing visual contact with their owner even for a minute due to prior experience of immense anxiety when their owner left. The dog will nervously follow the owner all around the house, checking whether he/she is about to go somewhere. The dog cannot relax and calm down, which exhausts it.
     
  • Hectic welcoming upon owner's return that takes time to fully calm down from - This kind of intense welcoming may occur even after a very short period of time in which the owner was gone.

 

A lot of these behaviours can be shown other ways and for other reasons and just because your puppy shows it does not necessarily mean separation anxiety or isolation distress. It is important to look at the symptoms happening in context of how, where and when they are happening. E.g. your puppy might be chewing on the dining room table chair when you are out as you haven’t left them with an adequate number of enrichments and they are just bored or using it to soothe the gum pain they are experiencing due to teething. If you are ever unsure it is always best to err on the side of caution and speak to a qualified behaviourist. 

 

Potential triggers of separation and isolation disorders to be mindful of:

  • Premature separation from a mother and litter-mates. Puppies should stay with their mother and litter until 7-8 weeks of age.

 

  • The experience of puppies being brought up in inadequate conditions, such as a shed, garage, separate room from that of their owners, or a crate, where they lack outside impulses. 

 

  • An owner living alone with the dog where the dog may have to spend extended periods of time alone when the owner is at work. It can also occur in dogs who live with an elderly person where it is the opposite and the dog is around the company all of the time except for when they leave the dog behind on rare occasions for a brief period (generally to go to the shops or the doctors).

 

  • Puppeting your dog too much and not giving them an opportunity to think and make their own positive decisions. As well behaved as they may be, you are creating a “always work for owner” mindset where they always need direction and to be able to follow instruction from their owner. Generally dogs raised under this mindset struggle to find inner self reward and contentment as they must always have reward and recognition from their owner. 
     

  • Experiencing a frightening experience such as a storm, broken window, item falling over, noisy renovations of a neighbours hours, etc, when they are home by themselves.
     

  • Adopting a puppy over a weekend or holiday and not preparing it for when everyone’s back-to-work or back-to-school. 

 

  • Trauma as a result of sudden abandonment due to owner surrender, break-ups of a family unit due to divorce or death.

 

  • Relocation to a new residence where everything is completely unfamiliar to the dog.

 

  • Any major changes to a puppy’s daily routine.

 

  • Unnatural isolation due to household dynamics like long working hours or the over-use of isolation as a punishment tool. Dog separation or isolation disorders can be provoked by putting a dog or puppy in isolation too frequently.

 

  • Inherent traits within the canine DNA that cause a dog to experience confinement as life-threatening.

 

  • Being left alone for the first time especially for too long without adequate preparation or exposure.

 

Things you can do to prevent it:

  1. Independence training: The owner does not react to any needy attention seeking behaviour the dog shows instead reward independence by letting them self reward themselves through an activity (refer to enrichments). Limit your puppy velcroing to you and following you around the house.
     

  2. Reward a minimum of 10 calm, cooperative and controlled behaviours: your puppy naturally shows through every single day. “You’re subtly, painlessly shaping a dog who enjoys making you happy and seeing you pleased. A dog who trusts that you and he are on the same side, working together, not in opposition. A dog with this perspective will work more willingly to learn from you and to follow your rules. Sincerely, enthusiastically, and actively appreciate every good thing that your dog does - at the time it happens, when possible. It doesn’t matter how small that good thing may seem to you. Actively, sincerely, enthusiastically thank your dog for every move in a positive direction.” - Julie Cantrell
     

  3. Doggie decompression: This is where the owner implements regular calm down periods to teach your puppy to spend time by themselves and it is good while their owner is present, but separated from them with the use of a barrier or tether. Implementing and enrichment here can help to positively associate alone time.

    a. Erecting a baby gate in the doorway or threshold of a hallway, bedroom or another living area to create a confined space where a dog or puppy can comfortably spend time nearby and within sight but separated from their owner. It is also to help control them from following you into every room however they always must be able to see you.

    b. Setting up a puppy playpen or exercise pen where a puppy can comfortably spend time nearby and within sight, but separated from their owner. 

    c. Tethering puppy to a piece of heavy furniture where they can comfortably spend time nearby and within sight, but separated from their owner and unable to follow them around in the room or within touching distance.

     

  4. Changing the meaning of departure rituals: Dogs are excellent at picking up patterns of behaviour. Most dogs with isolation distress/separation anxiety begin to panic and stress even before the person has walked out the door. Dogs are very good at recognising the rituals you consistently do before leaving the house. Because these actions predict that you will be leaving them alone, the actions, themselves, become scary. We call these actions “Pre-Departure Cues.” The good thing is it is very easy to prevent these rituals from turning into a departure cue for your puppy. To do this you must  perform the activities that are associated with leaving but don't actually follow through with them. You are teaching your puppy that these items or activities have no meaning associated with them E.g. pick up keys from the bench and move them to another bench, put on shoes and then sit down to watch a movie, pick up your handbag and make dinner, have your alarm go off on the weekend  like it would on a work day but role over and turn it back off again, walk to front door and touch the door handle and return, open and close door but don’t actually leave instead return to previous activity, etc. Incorporate these into your everyday life and do different ones multiple times a day. The goal of this is to have your puppy unaware that these rituals are linked to departure and alone time.
     

  5. Start by being away for small periods of time and increase: E.g. Leaving your puppy in another room while you go to the toilet, letting them have designated alone time even when you are at home in another area to you, ducking down the road to pick up some groceries, going to get petrol, etc. If you do know you are going to be away for a long period of time when you bring your puppy first home organise for a dog minder or a family member/friend to drop by to break up your puppy’s day or see if they can go to their house for part of the day. When they are old enough to venture outside a dog walker is a great option to break up the day or going to doggie daycare (as long as they enjoy it) a day or two is a great way to break up the week for your pup.
     

  6. Basic manners training: Teaching a sit or drop-stay while you walk away.
     

  7. Mat targeting: We cover this in Foundations Class.
     

  8. Occupy their mind: Provide plenty of enrichment for your puppy to do when you are both home and away. Ditch the food bowl if you can and make them work for their food. A mentally tired puppy is a content puppy, they don’t have the mental energy to rationalise why they don’t like being left alone.
     

  9. Initially, never leave your puppy without anything to do: even if you are disappearing for such a short period of time (e.g. to have a shower). As their confidence and independence build you won’t need to do it for when you are disappearing around the house, only when you're going out.  Your puppy must always have something to do when you do leave. Never let them fixate on you walking out the door. Teach your puppy that when you leave good things will appear. Give the enrichment to your puppy a couple minutes before you walk out the door so they are really preoccupied in it as you gather your last few things before actually walking out the door.
     

  10. Leaving and returning gestures: Do not make a big deal of either. When you leave, don't make it drawn out and heartfelt. Don’t over pat them or show excessive amounts of affection. I generally don’t even say goodbye to my dog as I don’t want her to even focus on the fact I am leaving. I give her an enrichment and tell her a safe phrase like “I will see you soon” or “I will be back soon”. When you return home avoid going and giving your puppy attention straight away. Also avoid excessive and dramatic attention and affection. E.g. If you come home with groceries, put all of the groceries away first before you give your puppy a quick pat.