What Is Separation Anxiety In Dogs?

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 8 August 2019

Separation anxiety is a condition that affects a lot of dogs.

There’s a good chance most dog owners have encountered separation anxiety to some degree.

Separation anxiety in dogs occurs when your canine is left at home alone.

The symptoms of separation anxiety include barking, howling, chewing, digging, defecting or urinating.

In some extreme cases, a dog suffering with separation anxiety could take drastic attempts to escape, risking serious injury.

Separation anxiety can occur before you even leave the house as your dog notes the tell-tell signs that your departure is imminent.

In an attempt to learn more about separation anxiety in dogs, we spoke to Malena DeMartini, who is an expert in the field.

Based in California, Malena has dedicated her career to finding better ways to treat separation anxiety in dogs.

Malena and her small team of experts have helped hundreds of families and dogs overcome this condition.

As someone with two Alaskan Klee Kai who suffer from separation anxiety, I wanted to speak to Malena to learn more about the canine disorder.

In the first part of our interview, Malena gives a clear definition of separation anxiety, which is a good starting point for dog owners to understand what exactly this canine disorder entails.

Part Two: Dog Separation Anxiety Myths And Misconceptions
Part Three: Should I Crate My Dog With Separation Anxiety?

Part Four: Do feeing toys help dogs with separation anxiety?
Part Five: How long does it take to break a dog’s separation anxiety?
Part Six: How to prevent dog separation anxiety
Part Seven: How To Help New Puppy With Separation Anxiety

How do you define separation anxiety to a dog owner?

Destructive chewing can be a symptom of separation anxiety (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Destructive chewing can be a symptom of separation anxiety (Photo: Adobe Stock)

When I talk to a dog owner who has a separation anxiety dog, the biggest message I initially want to get across is that this is a fear, phobia, panic about being left alone.

It might seem completely irrational to you because you’re like ‘I always come back’ but fears and phobias are often irrational.

How many people suffer from a fear of flying in a plane? The percentage of people who die in a plane is X but when you multiply that by 2,000, you get the percentage of people who die in car accidents. From an absolutely logical standpoint, you should be more afraid of driving than flying. The fear of flying, particularly the extent of panic that people feel, is an irrational fear. Just because it’s irrational doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel incredibly real and overwhelming to the person experiencing it.

While it may seem irrational to us, it absolutely isn’t irrational to the dog. It’s an involuntary response.

If someone throws a spider at me, I’ll scream and run in the other direction. If someone throws a spider at you, you might be like, ‘whatever’. Anxiety and fear are extremely important to address.

It’s so important that people understand the underlying welfare issue. The outward manifestation of separation anxiety – barking, chewing or urinating – is not what we are treating. We are treating the underlying separation anxiety issue. The outward stuff will fall away as we tackle anxiety in the process.

I go to great lengths to explain that to owners. If they don’t have empathy for their dog and what they’re going through, it’ll be much more difficult to take this prolonged and gradual step protocol and commit to some of the pieces in the process that are required to tackle separation anxiety.

What are the varying extremes of separation anxiety?

Bichon Frise lying down on the floor of her home, alone, waiting for her owner (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Bichon Frise lying down on the floor of her home, alone, waiting for her owner (Photo: Adobe Stock)

I love this question because it’s also myth busting. It’s so important for people to understand it. I’ll try to wrap it up in a small package.

Let’s take three people: Alice, Betty and Carol. Alice sees a spider and she screams and screams and that’s her outward manifestation. Betty sees a spider and her initial reaction is to pick up the largest object and hurl it at the spider. Carol sees a spider and begins silently weeping, walks out of the room, and texts her partner that she’ll be hiding until he comes home and deals with the spider.

If I were to ask you which of those three people is the most afraid of spiders, who would you say? Just because Carol’s outward manifestation looks quiet and demure, do we know if she’s experiencing less fear than the individuals who are screaming or hurling things at the spider? By observing the outward symptoms, we can’t determine who is the most distressed or worried.

People will often say the dog that is destructive is suffering with severe separation anxiety rather than the other dog that is whining, drooling or trembling.

If you think about humans, there are so many people who are stoic when they do a speaking event but throw up when they walk off stage. Just because they looked brilliant in the moment, doesn’t mean they’re not suffering. There is a reason we have the term invisible disorders for a lot of people. We don’t know what people are suffering on the inside.

We have to be very judicious about saying one dog has more separation anxiety than another dog for a couple of reasons.

If we defined severity level by outward symptoms, and I said, ‘wow, that dog destroys stuff all day, or screams all day’, and we say that dog is more severe, but if your dog paces and whines but she doesn’t really bark or destroy things, we say, ‘she’s pretty mild’.

It would be logical to most of us to say that the ‘mild’ dog will move through the separation anxiety protocol more quickly and more easily but the ‘severe’ dog will have a potentially long and tedious protocol. That would be a logical deduction based on the labels. But what we’ve found over the many years and the hundreds of dog that we’ve seen is the outward appearance or manifestations of their anxiety has zero relationship with the ease or difficulty of success.

Some of the most severe looking dogs zoom through protocol and some of the more mild appearing dogs could take months and months to make progress. There’s no reciprocal relationship between the outward display of the dog and how quickly or easily the dog will be successful.

It’s important to remember that the outward display of the dog’s anxiety is not an indication of how easily or quickly a dog will make progress in their separation anxiety training.

So I urge you to think about it – do we really know what the degree of severity of the internal state of the dog is based on outward appearance?

For someone reading this interview with a dog who has a mild outward appearance (with regards to SA), how can you tell if your dog is suffering with separation anxiety?

It’s slightly nuanced but it’s easy with time to be able to discover it.

When we assess a dog with separation anxiety wherever on the spectrum they appear to be falling, it’s really great to be able to take a mental snapshot or video of what a dog’s baseline body language looks like – in other words what does the dog look like when people are home.

For example, a dog may snuggle on the couch, it might go for a drink of water, it may chew on a toy. This is what the dog typically looks like. We can then do a video assessment when the dog is alone. We’ll compare those videos side by side. The body language that we see during alone time comparative to the baseline body language is one way to discern if this dog is simply experiencing frustration or boredom versus a dog who is experiencing distress.

In my opinion, if we observe some distress, personally I’d want to help the dog feel better about alone time. Any dog that is anxious or upset however different the baseline versus the alone time could use our gentle support through training. I’d want to improve the dog’s quality of life when left alone because we know that experiencing anxiety is very uncomfortable and can also be physiologically and/or psychologically damaging, particularly over time.

Who is Malena DeMartini?

Malena DeMartini is an expert in separation anxiety in dogs. With nearly 20 years of experience working exclusively on separation anxiety, Malena has encountered hundreds of cases. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Malena continues to be innovative to find better ways to treat the condition and support clients.

What is Malena DeMartini’s background in separation anxiety?

In 2001, I was doing all manner of behaviour work – everything from aggression to recalls and so forth.

Very early on, I got my first separation anxiety case. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a very green trainer so I don’t know if I should take this on’.

The dog owner said she had talked to seven different dog trainers and all of them had refused to take her on so she didn’t know what to do. I said I wanted to be fully transparent with her and that I do understand the principles of separation anxiety but I haven’t done it before. So I said I’d help her but if I was in over my head, I’d call someone else.

We worked on the separation anxiety with her dog Guinness. After a short bit of time, we were very successful with his separation anxiety. Word spread like wildfire that I had success with a separation anxiety dog so I started to get a ton of referrals. People didn’t like working with separation anxiety.

The second case I took crashed and burned. From that point forward, I set out to research, trial and error and was very transparent with every client, letting them know that I didn’t have the perfect solution but I’d work with them in every aspect to make progress.

It went on for several years as I learned what works and what doesn’t work. Over time, I found a successful direction to go. It quickly became my passion! But I do always say that separation anxiety chose me, I did not chose it!

Further information

If you would like to learn more about Malena, you can visit her website malenademartini.com.

Do you suspect your dog is struggling with separation anxiety? Malena is offering helloBARK! readers the chance to avail of a special discount code for her online self-paced course for dog owners. For more information, contact [email protected].

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