Some dogs become extremely stressed when their owner leaves home. This separation anxiety expresses itself in behaviors like excessive barking and whining, and in destructive actions like scratching doors and walls and trying to escape from the house.
Like all other mental and behavioral issues, separation anxiety has both genetic and environmental causes.
Studies have found that small dog breeds are much more likely to experience separation anxiety (and many other behavioral problems like aggression, hyperactivity etc.) than large breeds. Some argue that this is because humans have bred small dogs for their "cute" and infantile appearances, and along with these traits come immature behaviors which we (mostly) tolerate because the dogs are just so darn adorable. In contrast, anxious and aggressive behaviors are not tolerated in larger dog breeds, because they're potentially very dangerous, and these behaviors and have been bred out over the centuries.
Environmental factors that may influence separation anxiety (for dogs of all sizes) include the amount of socialization to different sights and sounds during puppyhood, and amount of daily exercise.
A large, 2015 Finnish study found that "fearful dogs had experienced poorer maternal care and had been less socialized before the first three months of life." This suggests that appropriate puppy socialization during the first 12 weeks of life can help reduce the likelihood of adult dog anxiety disorders. The importance of puppy socialization could also explain why dogs that are abandoned or rescued from shelters are more likely to experience separation anxiety.
The same study found that dogs who have separation anxiety, and noise sensitivities, get significantly less daily exercise compared with dogs who don't have these anxiety problems.
The 2016 animated hit The Secret Life of Pets opens with an entertaining montage of scenes depicting how pets behave when their owners leave for the day. As owners say good-bye and head to work, closing the doors behind them, we see the Chihuahua who promptly urinates in the houseplants, the Pug who rearranges the furniture for a day of barking at squirrels, and the stately Poodle who secretly head-bangs to heavy metal music. And we meet the main character, Max the Jack Russell, who spends his day just sitting hopefully by the door, waiting with great anticipation for the return of his beloved owner.
Comedic though it is, there are elements of truth to many of these scenarios (except perhaps the head-banging Poodle.) In fact, dogs can get themselves into all sorts of trouble when they are home alone. For some dogs, being home alone signals a “safe” time for chewing furniture, getting into the trash, or sleeping on the bed they’re not allowed on when their owners are home. Extra energy, incomplete training, and/or boredom can lead them to explore these naturally enticing activities. From the dog’s perspective, chewing that wooden chair leg, eating those yummy thrown-away pork rinds, or curling up on the softest spot in the house make perfect sense and there is no “intent” on misbehavior. These dogs should be provided with increased enrichment and exercise. They should be crated when home alone to encourage them to be relaxed and to prevent them from getting into trouble. In the same way that parents restrict the freedom given to toddlers, while allowing older children gradually more independence when outside of their supervision, dog owners can gradually begin to leave dogs home alone in larger spaces in stages as they mature.
Before we attribute any of these home-alone canine capers to extra energy, curiosity, or boredom, however, we must consider that much of the problem behavior we see when dogs are home alone is indicative of something else altogether – separation anxiety. Behavioral indicators of separation anxiety including destruction, house soiling, and barking at windows, for example, when dogs are home alone. These can often be mistaken for mere nuisance behavior, yet they stem from different sources and must be treated differently.
Like The Secret Life’s Max, many dogs’ lives revolve entirely around their humans. When their humans are with them, the world is rich with food, belly rubs, walks in the park, and snuggles on the sofa. When their humans are gone, well, things can get pretty lonely. Dogs are a highly social species. In the wild, feral dogs often live in close proximity to each other with very little fighting and will spend time curled up near each other and share common food sources (typically village trash dumps). Pups from a very young age will reflexively whimper if separated from their mother, and these cries bring the mother to them so that she can carry them back to the safety of the nesting site. In the home environment, dogs seek out physical contact and affection from us throughout their adulthood - this is one of the reasons we love them so. Because dogs bond with humans as easily as they do with their own kind, we are in a sort of substitute parenting role and separation from us can be quite upsetting.
Written by Megan E. Maxwell, PhD