Separation Anxiety: The Great Imitator, Part 1

By Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB

Clients often tell me that their dog has separation anxiety. When I ask them what exactly their dog is doing, the answer varies widely. This is because there are many different causes of behaviors that mimic the signs consistent with separation anxiety. Sometimes pet owners may not actually know what their dog is doing when alone. They come home to find their plants knocked over with dirt scattered everywhere, or the neighbors start complaining about their dog barking. Many of the root causes of these behaviors are not at all associated with anxiety and require very different treatment plans from that of anxiety. That is why correct diagnosis is essential.

So what is separation anxiety?

In the United States approximately 15-20 percent of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. This is a behavioral problem in which dogs show signs of stress when their owner or favorite person is not present. Signs of stress can include panting, pacing, salivating, destruction (especially of the door the owner exited through), urination/defecation, vocalization (barking, whining, howling), self-trauma, and sometimes even escape in which the dog may injure himself.

How is separation anxiety diagnosed? 

Have you ever wondered what your dog does when you are away at work? The one key diagnostic tool to confirm separation anxiety is videotaping your dog home alone, as long as it is safe to do so. The behaviors associated with separation anxiety usually begin within the first 15-20 minutes of your dog being alone, so less than 30 minutes or so of videotaping is usually necessary. With the development of technology, videotaping is easier than ever and if you do not have a phone/camera/computer that records video, or a video camera, chances are you know someone that does. You can even set up a live webcam so that you can monitor your dog home alone and return before he destroys anything or injures himself.


Aggression is one cause for behaviors that may be mistaken for separation anxiety. Dogs with territorial aggression vocalize in response to their triggers (people, dogs) passing by and approaching the house. They may even become destructive, chewing and scratching door frames or window sills during aggressive episodes. See my blog on aggression for more information:…


Boredom or play/exploratory behavior is another cause of destruction when home alone. I commonly think of this when dogs younger than one year of age present to me for separation anxiety. A video tape reveals that these dogs are calm, but destructive. They may destroy the couch or papers left out, but not usually the door the owner exited through. These dogs should be left in “dog-proofed” areas where they cannot get to items to destroy. Increasing enrichment is also important. Mental stimulation is just as important as physical stimulation. Ways to accomplish this when you are gone include taking your dog to doggie daycare (I recommend interviewing first to make sure it is a good fit before enrolling your dog), hiring a dog walker, and leaving your dog home with long lasting treats that he can safely eat (bully sticks, food-dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter Kongs, everlasting treat balls).

Long lasting treats and toys can be rotated so that they continue to peak your dog’s interest (e.g., don’t give the same toy every day). Make sure to first try the treats/ toys when you are home to make sure your dog consumes them in a safe manner and does not swallow large pieces which can lead to a stomach blockage. For recipes to make the Kong more enticing visit the website: When you are home, engage your dog in positive reinforcement training, agility or other fun classes. Walks as well as using a bike springer to attach your dog’s leash to your bike ( help to tire your dog out so that destructive behaviors are less likely to occur when left alone.

Stay tuned to future blogs as we continue to explore more causes of behaviors that may imitate separation anxiety

***This article was written by Meredith Stepita, DVM DACVB and originally posted June 2, 2015 on Psychology Today’s Blog – Decoding your Pet. 

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