What Causes Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety, defined as a fearful response when a dog is separated from someone it is attached to, is a common behavior problem in dogs but is rarely seen in cats.  The most common complaints from owners of dogs with separation anxiety are destructiveness, house soiling, escape attempts from the house or yard and/or excessive vocalizations when the dog is left alone. 

Because the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs and the circumstances that produce it resemble separation anxiety in children, it has long been assumed that separation anxiety is the result of a hyper-attachment of the dog to the person.  In support of this hypothesis is the observation that many of these dogs follow their owners around and are reluctant to let them out of their sight.  Someone once referred to these dogs as “Velcro® dogs.” 

Recent data call this hypothesis into question.  Researchers at the University of Georgia* compared dogs with separation anxiety and those without in a standardized attachment test when at home but separated from their owners*.  The attachment test looked at the behavior of the dog when the owner comes and goes from an unfamiliar room and when strangers come and go from the room. 

The study found no differences between dogs with separation anxiety and those without the problem, either in the attachment test or in their behavior after the owners were gone from home.  The separation anxiety dogs showed no more attachment than did the normal dogs.  They didn’t spend any more time near their owners in the strange room, and didn’t show distress behaviors when the owners left the room.  When observed home alone they showed no more time near the door the owner left from than dogs without separation anxiety. 

It’s always difficult to interpret studies that find no differences between groups, but the data suggest that the problem may not be an over-attachment problem.  It’s important to know whether over-attachment causes separation anxiety because this can influence the way the problem is treated. 

If separation anxiety is due to over-attachment, some experts have recommended that owners ignore their dogs for long periods of time and never respond to the dog’s requests for attention or interaction.  Our experience with clients that follow this advice is that it just makes the anxious dog even more anxious.  This would make sense if the problem isn’t due to over-attachment but instead has some other cause.   In addition, removing a dog’s means of communicating with his owners and to ask for what he wants decreases his control over his environment and can lead to more anxiety and stress.

How we conceptualize a behavior problem and what we think causes it can greatly influence how we try to resolve it.  This study points out how important it is to remember that, in the absence of data, what we think is the cause of a problem is merely a working hypothesis that is always subject to change. 

*Parthasarathy and Crowell-Davis, 2006.  J. of Veterinary Behavior 1: 109-120.

Want to learn more about the causes of separation anxiety and how to manage "home alone" problems?  Then grab our programs designed for both pet owners and pet professionals.

"Managing the Home Alone Dog" is the 2 disc CD recording, including notes of our tele-webcast for professionals working with these problems.

"Helping the Home Alone Fido"  is specifically designed for dog owners, and helps you determine whether "home alone" unwanted behaviors are due to separation anxiety – or not AND what you can do about them!

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