Updated: May 5
One my dogs is very fearful of strange dogs coming near him. At the age of 9 years you most likely wouldn’t know it if you saw us walking past other dog walkers, because this is something I’ve worked on with him since he was a puppy. When Quinn was younger he decided that the best defense was a good offense, and would growl, lunge and snap as the other dog approached.
Counterconditioning for dogs
One of the ways I worked on this issue was to pair the approach of the other dog with food. This is called counterconditioning. Counterconditioning works when you take a trigger that elicits a negative emotion, and change that emotion by repeatedly pairing the trigger with something that makes the dog feel good. In Quinn’s case it was food. Over time he started to see other dogs as less threatening, and while he still doesn’t like dogs coming within a few feet, he is fairly non-reactive when we go for a walk or a hike.
So far I’ve written a number of posts about helping dogs with separation anxiety learn to be comfortable when left alone. What you may have noticed is that in none of those posts do I talk about using treats in the training process.
As a trainer who uses positive reinforcement dog training techniques, I am a huge proponent of using treats to train behaviors. From teaching sit by luring a dog into position, to tossing a toy containing a treat to teach my dog to run agility obstacles ahead of me, food is a big part of how I train dogs to do many different things. So what’s different about separation anxiety training?
When we train a dog to do something we want the dog to be motivated to perform the behavior. Food is a great option for this type of training because most dogs are engaged by food. As I mentioned earlier, we use desensitization exposure therapy to work with dogs who panic when left alone. Our goal with home alone training isn’t to teach the dog to do something, but rather to help them learn to feel comfortable when the owner is absent. But can’t the use of food help to do that?
Why food isn't a good choice in behavior modification training for dogs with separation anxiety
The dog may be too stressed to eat
Many dogs that exhibit anxiety when separated from their owners won’t eat in that situation. While a lot of us humans eat as a reaction to being stressed, it’s common that a dog who’s feeling anxious will be unable to eat.
However, some dogs with separation anxiety will eat when their owners are gone, so it would seem like it should be a good idea to pair the owner’s absence with food to change the dog’s feeling about being alone. But many times dogs are eating as a stop-gap to deal with their distress. Once the food is gone, full blown anxiety floods in, and panic ensues. The food wasn’t actually changing the emotion, but actually covering it up. This is similar to the stress-eating people do to mask the actual problem causing the stress.
Counterconditioning order of events
Another problem is how counterconditioning works. In order for the process to be productive the trigger has to be presented to the dog first, followed by the food. When I worked with Quinn on his fear issues with dogs, I was careful not to pull out the food and deliver it to him until after he had already noticed the other dog in the distance. I made the mistake early on of pulling the food out when I first noticed the dog so I could be prepared as soon as Quinn saw it. Unfortunately that was a mistake in the process since pulling treats out ended up being a cue for Quinn that another dog was approaching. He started to react when he saw me grab treats, even before he saw the other dog.
Much like the problem I caused for Quinn by bringing food out before he noticed the approaching dog, in separation anxiety training the problem is being able to coordinate the timing of food delivery. Remember that in counter-conditioning the trigger comes first, followed by the good thing. So, if you give your dog a food puzzle toy before you leave, you most likely aren’t counter-conditioning the absence because the food should happen after the absence has already started. Even worse, handing your dog the food toy is a signal to the dog that you’re about to walk out the door, and can end of being a cue that you’re about to leave, causing the dog to become anxious at the presentation of the food toy.
But what about the devices on the market that can dispense treats remotely, some even with an app on your phone? This would seem to be the perfect solution to the problem of using food for counter-conditioning with dogs suffering from separation anxiety, since you can set it up to deliver the food once the owner has already left. However, the anticipation of food being unpredictably dispensed from a machine will cause many dogs to become overly stimulated and obsess over the machine. Remember that we want the dog to learn to be relaxed and comfortable when home alone, so the use of these devices goes against our goal.
Food as a management tool
While using food to treat separation anxiety isn't going to cure it, there is a way that it can be useful in certain circumstances. If a dog has progressed far enough in separation anxiety training that they can be anxiety-free for a period of time, a food stuffed puzzle toy can be given in order to extend that time for management purposes. So if you are confident your dog can be left for 30 minutes, but you need to run an errand that will take you 45 minutes, you could use a food puzzle toy to buy you that extra time.
Desensitization by itself has been proven to be the most effective technique used in behavior modification for dogs in treating canine separation anxiety. Using food isn't the best cure for dog separation anxiety. Food is best reserved for training our dogs to perform behaviors, or resolving other types of emotional issues that can easily be set up to have food delivered after the trigger.
If you're in need of help resolving your dog's separation anxiety and want some help I would love to help!