In last month’s article we looked at reasons some pets get anxious when left alone and at different types of anxiety. In this month’s article we’ll be looking at different types of distress and how to identify if your dog is showing signs of distress.

NOTE: I do want to add that this is by no means supposed to be a substitute for seeing your closest COAPE qualified behaviourist if you do suspect that your pet suffers from separation distress.
Instead I hope to help pet owners who may not yet have realised that their pets are having difficulty simply because their pets have not destroyed items or vocalised their distress when left alone.

Let’s focus more closely on the different behavioural responses to the PANIC system’s activation (introduction to CARE and PANIC systems discussed in last month’s article)

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the individual personality of an animal can influence how he expresses his emotional distress when left alone. 

For example - INTROVERTS tend to engage more in over-grooming or self-mutilation (which can become extremely addictive through the release of opioids) and EXTROVERTS tend to destroy things. 


The PANIC system has two parts:


This part has to do with grief. The origin of this system is the pain of isolation when the CARE system is interrupted and the emotional change from sadness to relief occurs. 
It’s important to note that learning can happen in this system and that any successful responses result in a feeling of relief, which makes the response more likely to be used in future. 

This part is where you have an animal who will experience a far more intense emotional response to social isolation (sometimes even terror, which of course results in almost no cognitive learning taking place) and in a feeling of intense relief when the animal utilises a strategy to ‘escape’ the source of the fear.  
Here we often see dogs who run blindly or will engage in intensely emotional behaviours such as digging, clawing, biting at doors and windows, despite the serious damage done to their claws, teeth or gums.  

Like any other subject in animal behaviour, it’s always important to be 100% sure of the dog’s or cat’s emotional state at the time when he is engaged in the problem behaviour. 

This is vital to accurately assess the level of emotional and behavioural arousal. By watching and interpreting the dog’s behaviour and body language, your behaviourist will be able to make an accurate deduction about what’s happening from an emotional point of view. Having footage of your pet engaging in the problem behaviour is incredibly beneficial, so take a video.


Most Common Body Postures & Behavioural Responses to Social Isolation (i.e loneliness):



I’m going to include the most common ‘negative’ emotional responses to social isolation. When evaluating your dog’s behaviour, always remember that there are grades of intensity to anything.

Your dog may be mildly unhappy about your spouse leaving but may be completely incapable of functioning when you leave (particularly if you’re the primary caregiver).
The stronger the bond between a person and a pet, the more intense the emotional response can be.  Keep in mind that there are other factors that can influence how distressed a dog may get when left alone.

FOR EXAMPLE - if you added a puppy to your household when you had an older dog, the pup may grow up being absolutely fine with a human leaving (since he has the company of the other dog).  But if something should happen to the older dog and the now adult dog is experiencing isolation without his companion, he may suddenly start to exhibit signs of separation distress.  That’s why we always encourage people who attend puppy classes to let their dogs spend time alone away from each other, with a yummie chew toy to keep themselves occupied with, as it fosters a sense of independence that allows the dogs to learn to cope when not physically with another dog or human.


Signs your dog may be suffering from separation distress:


THE VELCRO DOG: If your dog tends to follow you around when you’re home, it should raise a warning flag. Now of course, not every dog who follows his owner around suffers from separation distress, but it is something we do see in most of the dogs who fit the profile.  If your dog is a velcro dog (i.e. glued to your side even when you go to the bathroom), it’s likely that he or she is strongly bonded to you and may experience distress when left alone. 

It’s never this easy to identify an over-attached dog. Some dogs who suffer from separation distress may not give a hoot where the owner is when the owner is home, as long as they can check in on said owner every now and then.  

Bottomline - when left alone, they tend to be really unhappy!  

THE ATTENTION SEEKER: If your dog is constantly seeking reassurance or comfort from you in the form of having to sit against you, sleeping on your feet, pawing for attention, needing your undivided attention, it’s also possible that your dog may not cope well with being left alone.  

Not all dogs who suffer from separation distress are only bonded to one person – many are fine as long as there are people around, ANY people. There are others who cope well provided they have access to their safe space (usually the inside of the house).  

THE SILENT SUFFERER: Some dogs are separation sensitive, and they tend to not exhibit any signs of this until they are left alone, when they will lie by the door, not moving, waiting for their owners to return. 

Others may experience a loss of housetraining and may eliminate in the house, so if you come home to a puddle, don’t dismiss it as an accident.  

As mentioned, you do also get dogs who will inflict damage on themselves, instead of on the environment. These are the guys who will lick non-stop or who will chew themselves for some comfort.  

THE DESTROY AND HOWL GROUP: These dogs will vocalise in distress. The tone of the howl can be quite telling, as can the type of bark if the dog is barking. A monotonous “woof – woof – woof…………woof – woof – woof” can actually just be a boredom bark, where the dog has nothing to do and simply sits and woofs to pass the time.  

Generally speaking, most of your separation vocalization will occur shortly after the owner’s departure, and before the owner’s anticipated return, with sessions in between. 

But if a dog is just woofing in one tone all day long, the dog either has a confirmed strategy that works in his mind (if I sit here and woof every three seconds, my owner will eventually return) OR he is doing it because he’s bored and it’s something to do. 

THE UNRESERVED DOG: If your dog is angry with you for leaving, he may target his rage on the last place he saw you, or on items that smell like you. 

These are the dogs who tend to rip up doorways, carpets or your shoes when you leave them alone.  And of course, they look really angry and will often try to stop you from leaving if you start to get ready to depart. Some use their bodies – they get in the way, they refuse to get out of doorways or your car, and others can resort to using aggression to stop you from leaving. 



This is a tricky one – if you have a dog who tears up magazines, couches, clothes or any other random items he can get his teeth on, he may actually not be anxious when you leave him alone, but rather delighted to have unsupervised access to all those fun things (OR he may be bored)

If your dog simply doesn’t seem to care when you are getting ready to leave, looks happy when you’re going, and of course is exhausted or fast asleep upon your return - you can easily test to see if he’s truly experiencing distress.

  • provide him with an assortment of chew toys e.g. stuffed Kongs or his regular favourites that he can safely chew on.
  • scatter his food / treats around the house for him to search, find and enjoy. 

The tell-tale sign of true distress is that the dog is usually too upset to eat, therefore if yours is merrily guzzling down anything yummie he can find, it’s unlikely that he’s too worried about your departure.

It can be difficult to monitor your dog to see what he’s like when you’re not home, but a remotely accessed baby cam can do wonders here. 

If you decide to set up a camera, please don’t put it within reach (as most electronic recording equipment is expensive and you don’t want your dog to chew on your camera while you watch from the other end)



At the end of the day, if you’re unsure about your pet’s emotional response to being left alone, please don’t hesitate to ask for advice – because prevention is always better than cure.  

Keep a look out for part 3 in the series where I’ll cover what can be done to prevent separation distress. ‘Till next time!

Karin Pienaar
Animal behaviour guru, Karin Pienaar, has been working in the field of animal behaviour and behaviour therapy in South Africa since 1997. She completed her Diploma in Animal Behaviour in the UK, through the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) and is a qualified Practitioner member of the COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists & Trainers (CAPBT) in the UK and South Africa.
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