Aetiology of separation-related behavior in domestic dogs

Two studies of separation anxiety in border collies and labrador retrievers

source: J.W.S. Bradshaw et al
Veterinary Record vol 151 no 2 July 13 2002
starts p 43, 4 pages long

Some dogs may show separation anxiety by howling, and/or destroying furniture, especially objects that smell of the owner, or that are near where the owner left the house. Dogs may also eliminate, and even mutilate themselves. Some 15% of dogs are thought to suffer from this condition, and it has been seen as possibly linked to rescue dogs, and dogs of mixed breeds are thought possibly more vulnerable. Rescue dogs are more likely to be mixed breed dogs. Whether or not behaviourists see cases depends a lot on how owners react, rather than how severe the case is, so these two studies look at a general population of dogs, rather than cases reported by owners to behaviorists.

The first study looked at 17 border collies and 23 labrador retrievers from when they were born to 18-months-old. Their social experiences were examined, especially their relationships with their owners. Information came from owners and breeders. The second study used information from dog walkers stopped in three locations in southern Hampshire. Information was collected on 105 dogs, with 11 of these later excluded, since they were never alone. The median age was four years, with the oldest being 18-years-old, and the youngest 3-months-old.

The labradors showed more separation anxiety at three and six-months-old, but the collies and labradors showed similar results at 12 and 18-months-old. 13 Labradors of the total sample of 23 had problems with separation anxiety that lasted over one month. Destructive dogs destroyed objects at exit and entry points. Interaction levels with owners and breeders did not affect the likelihood of separation anxiety developing. Dogs with most social referencing, or a varied social experience, at age six-months to nine-months-old appeared to be less likely to develop separation anxiety. However, dogs with very extensive social referencing at age 3-months were more likely to develop problems when they were between six and nine-months-old.

The problem was found in 29% of the dog walkers' dogs, or 27 of 94. Barking, destructive behaviour and howling were the most common problems, with three dogs reported to be defecating or urinating, and two reported as showing self-mutilation. Eight dogs showed more than one problem behaviour. Six owners had sought professional help. There appeared to be no link between neutering and whether a dog showed this behaviour, or between whether a dogs was a pedigree or mixed-breed, and separation anxiety. Rescue dogs did not appear to be more affected. Males were three times as likely as bitches to show current separation anxiety, and two thirds of bitches had never had the problem, while this applied to only a third of males.

This sex link was not found in the longitudinal study, however, both studies found the problem to be more common than the previously estimate of 15%. Rescue dogs do not appear to be more vulnerable, nor do mixed-breed dogs, though the number of mixed-breeds was quite small, with only 18 dogs. Previous studies may have found rescue dogs apparently more vulnerable because owners of rescue dogs may be more attached to them, so more likely to seek help. Mixed-breed dogs may also be left home alone more.

The message from the longitudinal study seems to be that separation anxiety can be prevented if dogs are given a wide social experience at between some five and 10-months-old. Very extensive social experience in younger dogs appears to have the opposite effect. However, this may be because the puppies may come to expect a lot of varied social interaction, and suffer when they get less varied and less frequent interaction. Pups do need varied interactions, and a socially rich environment, and the problem of separation anxiety can be avoided if they continue to have a varied interactions after they have had their vaccinations and have gone to their new homes from the breeders. It is also worth letting puppies learn to be separated from humans.