Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Recognizing What Is Not Separation Anxiety

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These days, any “home alone” issue seems to be labeled “Separation Anxiety” (SA). To sort out what it is from what it isn’t, here are other reasons for problems unrelated to SA:

  • Breed Normal Behavior
  • Developmentally Normal Behavior
  • Opportunity
  • Inadequate Care
  • Random and Highly Variable Behavior in an Otherwise Calm-When-Alone Dog
  • Mislabeled Behavior

Breed Normal Behavior

Retrievers were bred to love to pick things up in their mouths. A retriever that chews is a normal retriever, just as a terrier who digs or barks is a normal terrier and a scent hound or Nordic breed that barks or howls is to be expected.

“Normal” is not to be confused with acceptable, wanted or unchangeable, it simply means it is not a sign of dysfunction.

Developmentally Normal Behavior

This category generally shows up at the beginning or toward the end of life. A young pup who is in the extra playful, extra mouthy, teething phase of things will grab and chew and yank and rip because that’s what pups that age do. Protecting them from themselves is as key as protecting your house from them.

Intact male dogs may do a number on your home if they see another male dog entering your yard or if a female comes into heat within sniffing range (and that range can be a mile or more). We recommend pet dogs be neutered; it just makes life easier for all concerned.

As a dog ages, hearing and eyesight can fade, the mind can drift and behavior can change. If your older dog who has been fine his entire life has recently developed a problem, please speak to your veterinarian before you get frustrated with your old friend.

Opportunity

Nothing mysterious here. Your dog likes to eat garbage. You leave the can out when you exit the house. Your dog tips the can and feasts. He’s having a perfectly nice time doing that, nothing the least bit anxious going on, any more than me picking off a brownie from a plate of freshly baked deliciousness cooling on the counter is a sign of anxiety. Nope – simply opportunity combined with desire.

Inadequate Care

A dog who urinates in the house when left alone for 12 hours is a normal dog. Some dogs can hold it that long, but could you? If you could not, would that make you someone with a behavioral issue?

Certain individual dogs and certain breeds need specific care. A young Weimaraner needs to run. If he doesn’t get a chance to run – daily – expect him to develop behavior “problems”; he has no other choice. He needs what he needs.

So, before you get frustrated with your dog, see if your dog has any reason to be frustrated with you. If his basic needs are not being met, that has to be addressed first and foremost. Once you have, then review his behavior. You may find that things improve to a nearly miraculous degree.

Random and highly variable behavior in an otherwise calm-when-alone dog

Here a dog who is usually calm starts having trouble. If this isn’t a medical issue, this may be caused by some new event happening outside the house. Frequent delivery trucks pulling up before the holidays, meter readers coming into your yard, a new cat lingering near your dog’s favorite window, a new neighbor with kids running around next door are all enough to get some dogs worked up.

Mislabeled behavior

This is a big category, one defined by simple human confusion. A dog who whines with excitement when he hears a familiar car pull into the garage or barks at guests when they leave isn’t exhibiting separation issues. He’s just excited to have you home or is confused about how to respond when people are leaving.

by Sarah Wilson

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