As with many 'behaviour problems' the signs of SRB are usually defined by those behaviours which are a problem for owners. These include behaviours such as howling and barking which owners might hear as they leave or return, or which neighbours could complain about. Destruction, chewing or toileting are also common signs of SRBs that owners find on returning home. In some cases SRB is apparent because the dog has damaged itself, for example by scrabbling at a door or indoor kennel and injuring his or her paws. Owners might also sometimes notice if their dog has drooled excessively whilst they were out.

However, because SRBs by definition only occur when owners are out, other signs are unlikely to be noticed.  The only way to really know how dogs respond to being left home alone is to remotely video record them.

At Bristol University we have done a number of studies using remote recording of dogs: most recently for the Channel 4 documentary "Dogs: Their Secret Lives". We have also measured whether dogs showed a change in the stress hormone cortisol, measured in their saliva, when they were left alone. The broad finding of these studies has been to identify four types of response in ‘home alone’ dogs:

  1. Some dogs are fine, and show no behavioural signs of anxiety nor increase in cortisol when left alone. Some of the dogs in this group fall asleep, but others may play with a puzzle feeder or gnaw on a chew toy.
  2. Some dogs show obvious ‘problem’ behaviours when left – those normally defined as SRB. These dogs may bark, howl, toilet, or be destructive when left.
  3. A proportion of dogs that are filmed do not show behaviours that might traditionally be called SRBs, because they are not likely to be ‘problematic’ for owners. However, they are very active when their owners go out, perhaps running about between different rooms and looking out of windows, often interspersed by periods of listening for sounds of their owners’ return.
  4. Another group of dogs are particularly interesting, and might be called ‘inactive anxious’. Dogs in this category might spend a lot of the time that they are alone relatively inactive, even lying in their bed. However, they are vigilant: watching the door or listening for sounds outside. They also show subtle behavioural signs such as licking their lips or showed facial / postural indicators of anxiety. They may also whine, pant, salivate and possibly tremble or shiver.

 Anxious looking dog

Dogs’ responses to owners leaving the house

How a dog behaves when their owner is leaving the house might also give an indication whether he or she is worried about being left alone. Dogs are very good at learning the cues which reliably predict when something bad might happen. If they are worried about being left alone, they will try and work out which particular circumstances allow them to identify that their owners are going out.
Most of us are creatures of habit, and have a particular routine that we follow before leaving the house. This might include, for example, putting on a particular pair of shoes, a coat, picking up a bag and keys before heading for the door.  The earliest indicator which differentiates between “my owner is going out without me – oh no!” and “my owner is taking me with them – yay!” might be quite subtle and early in the morning routine. Once dogs identify reliable predictors of being left alone, they start to show signs of anxiety as soon as they spot these signs. This might include behaviours such as following their owner around, panting, seeking attention or lying across the doorway.

Response to owners coming home

An excited greeting when owners return home is not necessarily an indicator that a dog has SRB. Most dogs love their owners and are pleased to see them, even if they are not worried about being left. Dogs with SRB might only start to eat treats that were left when owners went out, once owners come home again. This might be an indication of a dog being too worried to eat when left alone, and would be an indicator that video recording the dog home alone would be worthwhile.

In some cases, dogs are anxious about their owner going out, but also become worried when the owner returns home. This arises where they have been told off, for example for toileting or destroying furniture.

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