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What causes separation problems in dogs?

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« What causes separation problems in dogs? » | This article presents pet owners with an update about what animal behaviourists and veterinarians know about separation related problems in dogs. 

 

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  • This blog is intended as a source of general information for pet owners. It does not constitute specific veterinary advice towards a particular medical case. If you are concerned with a particular aspect of your pet’s health, please, book a video appointment to talk with a qualified veterinarian.
separation problems in dogs
Separation related problem in dogs can manifest through destructive behaviour and vocalisation among others signs

What are separation problems in dogs?

In 1999, a scientific study titled « Behaviour patterns and time course of activity in dogs with separation problems. » [1] was published. This study investigated patterns showed in 20 videos of dogs understood to have separation related problems. This means those dogs exhibited certain behaviours once their owners had left them home, alone.

 

This study uncovered four types of observable behaviours, defined as the following:

  1. exploratory behaviour
  2. object play and predatory behaviour
  3. destructive behaviour
  4. vocalisation
It was noted that problem linked with elimination (defecating/urinating) was only found once and indicated that the behaviour exhibited by those dogs, when separated from their owners, related to the level of arousal. Behaviourists could not establish a significant distinction between a destroyer and a howler, although they found that object play was significantly linked to destructive behaviour.
 
The authors concluded that separation related problems in dogs were caused by frustration and were not the consequence of disobedience or boredom. In other words, the research explained there was a correlation between the level of frustration expressed by the dogs and the extent to which they were dependent on their owners.
 
Since the condition significantly affect animal welfare, it is important for animal behaviourists, veterinary practitioners and pet owners to keep track of what causes separation related problems in dogs. Results obtained from research in this field allow to refine the clinical management of those dogs suffering from separation related problems. 

How do animal behaviourists explain the situation?

The explanation provided in the study mentioned above, suggested a pattern such as displayed in the picture below: 

separation problems in dogs explained
  • Furthermore, a study involving 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety was published in October 2014. The study is titled « A descriptive study of 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety » [2] in which behaviourists made the following observations:
  • some breeds of dogs were more affected by separation anxiety than others
  • the condition seems to involve male dogs in majority
  • signs reported by owners were vocalisation, destruction and « excessive motor activity » (i.e.: pacing, circling)
  • majority of dogs affected belonged to families composed of two adults (or adults with children)
  • majority of the dogs were sourced from breeders and lived with the owners since they were a puppy

The following year, in 2015, a new study titled « Influence of owners’ attachment style and personality on their dogs’ (Canis familiaris) separation-related disorder » [3] emerged, which surveyed 1,508 dog owners. The researchers tapped on previous findings of theirs and that of others. They suggested that separation problems in dogs is a consequence of the dogs having an insecure type of attachment style to their owners. 

 

This comes in opposition to a theory called the « hyper-attachment » theory. It means that contrary to other dogs who will use an object to reassure themselves, whilst the owner is away, dogs with separation related disorder will not. Additionally, they will not rapidly return to a normal behaviour once the owner is back.

 

On this occasion, behaviourists uncovered that « avoidant owners are less responsive to the dog’s needs and do not provide a secure base for the dog when needed. As a result dogs form an insecure attachment and may develop SRD (Separation Related Disorder) ». Avoidant owners are defined upon the assumption they  « may refuse the attachment behaviour of their dogs especially in stressful situations ».

 

The authors did not exclude that other explanations could also be considered, such as (cited):

 

  • insecure dog owners might see their dogs differently than secure owners, thus they might find their dogs more problematic
  • owners’ own insecure attachment might influence the choice of the dog breed as well as the decision of getting either an adult dog or a puppy
  •  the study did not consider a series of parameters such as breed, genetic predisposition to stress, presence of other dogs in the household or training experiences of the dog
Further to this research, the first author released a new study in 2019, titled « Attachment styles in dogs and their relationship with separation-related disorder – a questionnaire based clustering. » where the main finding supported « the theory that owners’ attachment an caregiving style might affect the dogs’ attachment style and SRD status ».

What does the most recent study suggest?

Last year, in January 2020, a new article reported additional insight on separation related problems in dogs. The study titled « Developing diagnostic frameworks in veterinary behavioural medicine: disambiguating separation problems in dogs » was conducted by researchers from the School of Life Science of the University of Lincoln (UK) and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Lisbon (Portugal). [5,6]

 

The authors point out that separation related problems in dogs are not attributable to a diagnosis but a syndrome. They explain the difference between both terms: « diagnoses are widely used in both human and veterinary medicine to describe the nature of a condition; by contrast, syndromes in the human field are collections of signs that consistently occur together to form a characteristic presentation which initially do not have a known cause.« 

 

Additionally, they stipulate that dealing with separation related problems in dogs should take the form of a specialised approach, instead of being grounded in generalisation and « opinions ». 

 

Their study led to define distinctive clusters with their associated signs: « Beyond this, it is for the clinician to use the information described in the preceding sections to make a clinical judgement as to which cluster or sub-cluster a subject is most likely to belong to, given their presenting signs. While this remains partly clinical judgement, there is now, at least, an evidence base from which to draw. We will describe this process precisely in a future publication that will focus on the application of this framework in a clinical setting. The specific behavioral profile of the individual and its putative psychological basis will determine the precise treatment programme offered to an individual. »

 

The researchers are carrying further studies which they hope will allow them to « develop not only more effective treatment but also more effective prevention programmes. »

what causes separation problems in dogs
Dogs looking by the window

Separation problems in dogs: sources and readings

[1] Lund JD, Jørgensen MC. Behaviour patterns and time course of activity in dogs with separation problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci. (1999) 63:219–36

 

[2] Storengen LM, Boge SCK, Strøm SJ, Løberg G, Lingaas F. A descriptive study of 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety. Appl Anim Behav Sci. (2014) 159:82–9

 

[3] Konok V, Kosztolányi A, Rainer W, Mutschler B, Halsband U, Miklósi Á. Influence of owners’ attachment style and personality on their dogs’ (Canis familiaris) separation-related disorder. PLoS ONE. (2015)

 

[4] Konok V, Marx A, Faragó T. Attachment styles in dogs and their relationship with separation-related isorder – a questionnaire based clustering _ Elsevier Enhanced Reader. Appl Anim Behav Sci. (2019) 213:81–90

 

[5] de Assis LS, Matos R, Pike TW, Burman OHP and Mills DS (2020) Developing Diagnostic Frameworks in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine: Disambiguating Separation Related Problems in Dogs. Front. Vet. Sci. 6:499

 

[6] Additional resource on root causes of separation anxiety in dogs

 

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