How common is separation anxiety?

By Rachel Casey | dog, puppy, behaviour, separation, home alone, early, training, survey, research

 

A number of owner surveys have been carried out by researchers to identify how many dogs show signs of separation problems. Owners were asked a range of questions to find out if their dogs destroyed or chewed items, barked, howled, whined or soiled the house when they went out. They were also asked whether any of these behaviours occurred when they were in the house, as these signs can only be described as separation anxiety if they ONLY happen when dogs are left home alone.

These surveys revealed that between 13% and 18% of owners reported that their dog had problems when left, and a further 11% had done so in the past. 

However, it is even more worrying that these surveys only reveal the proportion of dogs where owners know about their dog’s behaviour. And because these behaviours occur when owners are out, it’s likely that there are many more!

Other research has used remote video recording and physiological indicators of stress to see what dogs actually do when they are left alone in the house. These studies suggest that the proportion of dogs where owners are aware of the problem may be the tip of the iceberg.

For example, researchers at Bristol University conducted a pilot study of 40 dogs in the south Bristol area and found that most of the dogs filmed showed some behavioural signs of anxiety when left alone. In fact only five of the dogs were relaxed! Thirteen dogs (34%) showed obvious signs such as howling, or running between the window and door. Even more (18 dogs or 47% of those analysed) had a less obvious response to being left alone, but showed subtle behavioural signs of anxiety and a change in physiological indicators of stress. Two of the dogs in the study were excluded because they were out of sight of the cameras for most of the time.

The broad finding of this studies has been to identify four types of response in ‘home alone’ dogs:

  1. Some dogs are fine, and show no behavioural signs of anxiety nor increase in cortisol when left alone. Some of the dogs in this group fall asleep, but others may play with a puzzle feeder or gnaw on a chew toy.
  2. Some dogs show obvious ‘problem’ behaviours when left – those normally defined as separation anxiety. These dogs may bark, howl, toilet, or be destructive when left.
  3. A proportion of dogs that are filmed do not show behaviours that might traditionally be called separation anxiety, because they are not likely to be ‘problematic’ for owners. However, they are very active when their owners go out, perhaps running about between different rooms and looking out of windows, often interspersed by periods of listening for sounds of their owners’ return.
  4. Another group of dogs are particularly interesting, and might be called ‘inactive anxious’. Dogs in this category might spend a lot of the time that they are alone relatively inactive, even lying in their bed. However, they show clear behavioural signs of anxiety: they may be tense, alert, watching the door or listening for sounds outside. They also show subtle behavioural signs such as licking their lips, whining, panting, salivating or trembling.

More research is needed, but the results of this study are pretty worrying for our dogs: over 85% in this population has behavioural and physiological signs of stress when left. That's a big welfare issue, and something that Dogs Trust Dog School aims to address!