Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer, as kids, parents, grandparents, and other relatives get together for one last hurrah before the fall. The eve before the first day of school, kids tend to come down with a sudden case of the blues, lamenting the carefree days of no homework and constant playtime with their pets. However, Dr. Nick Dodman of Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts suggests this effect isn’t limited to people — dogs get the back-to-school blues, too — suffering from separation anxiety.  

Twenty percent of the nation’s 80 million dogs have separation anxiety, according to Dodman, citing studies, but for senior dogs that number is around 29 to 50 percent.  Dog owners Dianne Larson and Larson’s son, Tanner, of Santa Clarita, Calif., have seen this firsthand. Since Tanner has started school two weeks ago, 1-year-old Ruby, a black Labrador, searches for Larson’s son when he is gone. "She stays in his room. If his door is closed, she will whine to get in," Larson told The Associated Press. “If the dog isn't in Tanner's room, she's at the front window watching for him.”

The side effects of children going back to school for dogs include howling, barking, or whining (70 percent), destroying objects (60 percent), and having accidents from being so upset (30 percent). In more extreme cases, separation anxiety can lead to the dogs scratching doors, damaging blinds, or tearing curtains in their anxiety. “There will be an exuberant greeting when you do come home, one that can last several minutes and be completely crazy, then the dog will run to the food bowl,” Dodman told the AP, describing other side effects.

Although this health condition does exist, there is no conclusive evidence that shows exactly why dogs develop separation anxiety. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) believes the loss of an important person in the dog’s life, or a change in schedule, family, or residence can actually trigger the anxiety. This suggests the back-to-school blues is triggered by a change in schedule from summer dog days to school days for young owners. Working families are now required to leave their dog alone for six or more hours at a time, which might lead to the development of separation anxiety because of this specific change.

Anxious dogs may not only feel lonely at home, but nearly half are susceptible to developing noise phobias. For example, if a dog is in an empty house when a storm hits, they can easily panic. Insecure dogs may also become “velcro dogs” because they become clingy and follow their owners everywhere.

Behavior modification techniques can help cure a dog’s separation anxiety. Dodman suggests trying to break this bond by discouraging the dog from following you around the house, and teaching how to stay put in one room while you’re in another — this is known as independence training. When it comes to dealing with back-to-school-induced separation anxiety, it’s best to make the departure of children to school a happy time with toys and treats to ease their anxiety. Starting the routine before school begins is an effective strategy that allows the dog to easily assimilate to the new schedule.

If Fido’s condition doesn’t improve with Dodman’s tips, he suggests seeing a veterinarian to see if it’s a symptom of other underlying health issues. According to the ASPCA, medical problems that bring on separation anxiety include: incontinence, medications, submissive or excitement urination, incomplete house training, urine marking, juvenile destruction, boredom, and excessive barking or howling. Dog owners and doctors should make a treatment plan that requires patience, consistency, and praise.