In my blog about Guinness the dog (“From Auspicious Beginnings to a Hard-Won Solution,” May 13, 2015), I mentioned the use of interactive feeding toys as part of working with separation anxiety — and it inspired a fair number of questions from readers. I’d like to expand a bit on the topic.
Most how-to articles on separation anxiety advise leaving a long-lasting food item with the dog during absence rehearsals. These trainers see it as comfort food. This approach offers quite a few benefits, but for most dogs, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. So before you embark on this path, investing hours of hard work for both you and the dog, consider the pros and cons.
When Food Works — And When It Doesn’t
The topmost benefit of leaving food is the positive association the dog gets about being left alone: People departing means something fabulous to eat. With many dogs — mostly those who don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder — this tactic works well. These dogs may even act as though they’re ready to kick you out the door to get their delectable goody-stuffed toy.
For separation anxiety dogs, however, this tactic presents a host of problems. Many dogs with separation anxiety won’t eat when left alone — a phenomenon commonly referred to as “alone-time anorexia” — although that’s not what I’m most concerned about here. Even some separation anxiety dogs learn to love their interactive feeding toy, and the anticipation of getting it when left alone can be of value by easing the transition. Many separation anxiety dogs, however, quickly recognize the toy as just another cue for a scary absence and learn to dislike the appearance of the food item. For these dogs, one might call it “discomfort” food. Yet an even greater problem exists.
A phone call I often get from trainers, veterinarians and potential clients goes something like this: “I have been working so hard on this dog’s separation anxiety and we have finally reached leaving him alone for 30 minutes, but now we are stuck. Do you have any suggestions?”
I already know what the answer to my next question is going to be as I ask, “What seems to be happening around the 30-minute mark?” The common answer is that the dog is running out of food in the feeding toy and is then starting to panic or vocalize or display whatever separation anxiety signs he may have.
It is a heartbreaking conversation I must have with the callers at that point, because I know they have worked hard to get to that 30 minutes and, essentially, they need to start over. What they have achieved is a dog who has learned to eat when left alone — or, more precisely, is distracted when left alone — but who has not yet learned to be relaxed about simply being alone. Until the dog can be OK with being alone without needing a distraction, we really can’t say the separation anxiety protocol has been successful. This statement is pretty shocking to hear for most people.
A case in point was Dudley the flat-coated retriever. After reading a lot on the Internet and consulting with a trainer, Scott began work with Dudley. He started by stuffing a Kong toy with food and leaving for 3 to 5 minutes, and Dudley did well (although not all anxiety-afflicted dogs would be able to handle this duration of time or even eat food). At the recommendation of his trainer, Scott stayed with that time frame for a few days and only increased to 10 and 15 minutes by the fourth day or so. By days 6 and 7, he was leaving for a bit longer than 15 minutes, and he noticed that Dudley got a little agitated when he started running out of the treat in the Kong. Scott was concerned, but the trainer had a solution: Freeze the Kong and also give him a long-lasting bully stick.
Over the course of two weeks, Scott and the trainer devised a plan to slowly — by their estimation — work up to a 45-minute absence. Dudley seemed to hum along successfully. When they determined that Dudley was doing well enough to be left for a short dinner absence, Scott returned home to hear barking as he drove up the street and entered to a scratched-up door. What had gone wrong? Dudley had apparently run out of his food at some point before Scott arrived home, and without it, his anxiety skyrocketed.
Scott and the trainer tried to continue the training, but two things hampered it: First, Dudley was now wary of the Kong and bully stick, so the anxiety onset seemed to happen earlier in the process. Second, Scott had lost faith that this approach might eventually work, because he saw that once out of food, his dog was no longer OK alone.
Most practitioners, like Dudley’s trainer, rely on some sort of food item to condition a dog to being left alone. While I won’t say this is an entirely wrong practice, I want to point out that it typically doesn’t address the issue of what happens when the food distraction is gone. Do we then expect the dog to curl up and go to sleep just because he has finished eating? Has the dog suddenly learned the skill of relaxation? After finishing the food item, faced with immediate alone time, many dogs return to their state of panic. That is the problem we need to address.
It is easiest to teach a dog to accept alone time from the beginning of a protocol rather than after he has been hooked on a food toy. Once a dog has successfully learned to relax without distractions for an appreciable amount of time, by all means we can and should choose to introduce a feeding toy, but then we know for certain that the dog is not relying on the food as a diversion.
Changing the Habit by Increments
Guardians may feel panicked themselves when faced with the idea of working on separation anxiety without using food. So start small. Beginning with small increments of alone time, without a food toy, helps get the dog over the initial hump of not having a distraction; it also can yield the most lasting results. Just know that when I say small, I mean tiny. We can start with even 1 second — essentially, the guardian leaving and immediately returning — and create a series of repetitions of this activity. This repetition will lead to the dog eventually getting bored with all the brief comings and goings. Once bored, those 1-second absences can stretch to 2- or even 5-second absences, and the repetitions can proceed at the increased duration.
One of the reasons why trainers and guardians alike feel overwhelmed by the idea of not using a feeding toy is that these beginning increments are so minuscule, humans don’t feel like they’re making any real progress. In reality, though, these tiny absences are building a solid foundation that allows for true relaxation in the dog rather than the false appearance of relaxation in a dog who is temporarily distracted by a food item.
Scott and his trainer had pushed ahead too quickly with Dudley and got stuck relying on a food toy. When I started working with Scott and his dog a month after he had left him for dinner that night, we backed up, started with second-long increments and no food toy, and ultimately built up to 4-hour absences. It took us a few months of training to get to that duration, but running out of a food toy was never an issue.
As trainers, we regularly work with food as reinforcement for desired behavior, so it truly feels strange not to use some sort of edible reward or feeding toy during training. I have found, however, that straight desensitization is incredibly powerful in separation anxiety cases. Time and time again, I have seen dogs realize success through the process of systematic desensitization. I urge you not to get stuck or create a false sense of security, as so many trainers and guardians do, by providing “comfort” food. Perhaps if we more accurately called it “distraction” food, we would rely on it less.