Is It Separation Anxiety or Isolation Distress?


Separation Anxiety is one of the most challenging behavioral issues to address, but please do not lose faith. Much progress and, most commonly, remedy is possible.

Defining Separation Anxiety vs. Isolation Distress

It is important to assess your dog’s symptoms and body language.

Separation Anxiety

Renowned veterinarian and Applied Animal Behaviorist, Karen Overall, defines Separation Anxiety as “A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone.”

In Separation Anxiety, a dog is stressed when a specific person to which they have bonded is absent. No other person will be of comfort to them. They become hyper-vigilantly stressed until that specific person returns.

Isolation Distress or Anxiety

Isolation Distress or Anxiety is different from Separation Anxiety. There are other people the dog can be with anxiety-free, while the owner(s) is away. This still means the dog cannot be left alone, but can thrive in a familiar environment with known people as company.

Panic Disorder

Remember, animals live in the moment. They are not being destructive or difficult on purpose. They are truly anxious, will usually shows displays of anxiousness within ten minutes of being alone and need your help to change the causes of their panic[2]. Changing this will take work on your part, but commit to it and you will see progress in their quality of life and your own.

Symptoms range from nuances to extreme and can include:

  • Destruction of the environment or themselves in attempts to channel their anxiety or escape the space they are in.
  • Vocalizing - mild to extreme whining, barking or howling.
  • Inappropriate elimination in an otherwise house trained dog.
  • Excessive salivating, drooling or panting.
  • Pacing or standing statue still.
  • Suspension of drinking or eating.
  • Shaking or trembling.
  • Crating Difficulties - great difficulty with or refusal to be crated or confined.

Whether your dog suffers from SA or Isolation Distress, they can present similarly. The dog will go over their Stress Threshold and become inconsolable. This can present similarly to a human having a full blown panic attack. Picture a claustrophobic person stuck in an MRI machine or elevator. Other dogs have lower levels of “distress” when left alone or separated from familiar people, but the dog’s fear is real, regardless, and needs to be addressed.


  • Studies show[1] that providing your dog extra comforts or affection in their daily life does not cause or make worse either form of distress seen when they are left alone. So, go ahead. Allow them to sleep on your bed if you wish, treat them with affection or celebrate either birthday if you want.
  • Comforting your dog when they are distressed about anything will also not increase their condition. You cannot reinforce fear. It is an emotional state not a purposeful behavior your dog is displaying.
    • Preventing your dog from experiencing distress in the first place is most important. This is called, “Management.” This decreases their negative association with your absence and allows you to practice leaving them in measured, systematic steps with controls in place.
    • In the context of separation distress modification, It is helpful, when you do return from a practiced absence, to do so in a neutral, calm fashion.
  • Dogs with separation issues do not “get over it” or grow out of it on their own. In fact, left untreated, this very real behavior disorder usually intensifies over time. So, please dismiss any advice to let your dog “bark it out” or just get used to being alone on their own.
  • Your dog is not being stubborn or needy in their behavior displays. Your dog is not in control of their response to your absence. The anxiousness they are feeling is an emotional state, not a purposeful decision to be in distress. They are genuinely anxious. 
  • Though tempting, it is rare that getting a second dog will relieve your dog’s separation issue. The fallout from doing so can be devastating; you may end up with two dogs in distress, the one copying the other’s anxious behavior. You will need to still manage your anxious dog when the other inevitably will need to be separated from them for vet care, when they pass away or other unforeseen circumstances.
  • Increasing your dog’s exercise level, generally or before absences, is not the fix to this problem, though it can be  helpful in some situations. Mental stimulation is just as important for all dogs and especially dogs with this behavior.
  • Providing feeding toys such as stuffed Kongs and other long lasting treats before exiting will only serve as a distraction until the item is finished or your dog may not engage with them at all due to stress.
  • Preventing the panic behaviors via the use of items such as bark collars, a more heavily reinforced crate and other ill advised, old fashioned ideas will do harm and not change your dog’s underlying emotional state of anxiety. They will cause further behavioral issues.

What does work? Counter Conditioning and Desensitization! We need to change your dog's underlying condition with methodical modification over time, working at the dog’s pace and per their individual needs.

Interestingly, studies are indicating there is a large genetic component to Separation Anxiety issues and other anxiety disorders in dogs. Because of this, speaking with your vet about behavior medication support options, while working on this behavior, can be very beneficial.

So be supportive of those you know who have a dog with this debilitating disorder. They are going through a very real and difficult time and need your understanding. If your dog is suffering with separation anxiety or distress, take comfort in knowing that this is one of the most heavily researched areas in dog behavior right now, and there are knowledgeable professionals with access to the latest data who can help guide you.


[1] E. A. McCrave states “…there was no association with spoiling activities such as allowing the dog to sleep on the owner’s bed, feeding the dog from the table, or taking the dog on errands.”
McCrave, E.A. 1991. Diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety, 21:247-255

[2] …[T]he degree of anxiety displayed by some dogs [with separation anxiety] is consistent with the diagnostic criteria for panic attacks and other more serious psychiatric disorders in people, some of which are accompanied by intense physiologic and cognitive symptoms of fear and discomfort[6].
Schwartz, Stefanie. “Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 222.11 (2003): 1526-1532.

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