Updated: Jun 7
One of 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.
Counter-conditioning 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 counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning is one of the tools used in behavior modification training for dogs, and 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 of him, 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 using a treat to lure 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 for resolving separation anxiety
There are several reasons why it isn't a good idea to use food and chew toys as part of dog separation anxiety alone training.
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 eat as a reaction to being stressed, it’s common that a dog who’s feeling anxious will be unable to eat. When extremely stressed, most dogs will ignore a food toy; separation anxiety is over-riding their appetite.
Stress eating can mask anxiety
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. In many cases the food isn’t actually changing the emotion, but covering it up. This is similar to the stress-eating people do to mask the actual problem causing the stress. (Once the pint of ice cream is finished, the stress comes flooding back!)
Additionally, if you have a dog with separation anxiety who is able to work on a food stuffed Kong, it can interfere with your training. Your criteria for absence training should be zero anxiety from the time you walk out the door to the time you return. With each successful departure, you slowly increase the duration of your absence. But if the stuffed Kong is masking the anxiety, is the duration of your absence truly indicative of what the dog is capable of handling? Most likely the true amount of time your dog has coping skills, is the amount of time after your dog has finished working on the Kong. So, if your dog spends 15 minutes working on the Kong, and doesn’t display anxiety until 5 minutes after completion, it may look like your dog can cope with a 20-minute absence. But if you were to leave without giving a Kong, your dog may only be able to cope with a 5-minute absence.
Counter-conditioning order of events
Another problem is how counter-conditioning 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 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. That sequence was food followed by the trigger (noticing the other dog.)
Once I realized my error, 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. This ensured that the correct counter-conditioning sequence was followed of the trigger (noticing the other dog), followed by delivery of the food.
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 before you leave you give your dog a food puzzle toy or chew toys for separation anxiety, 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 such as a Kong 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 frozen food stuffed Kong. The dog’s separation anxiety most likely will not be counter-conditioned, but it will give you an additional 15 minutes of anxiety free time.
There is research showing that 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 for counter-conditioning, along with desensitization, was shown not to have an impact on the treatment success, when compared to desensitization alone. 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 would like help with putting together a desensitization training plan for your dog, and being coached through the process, I would love to work with you.
As a certified separation anxiety trainer (SAPro), I can offer you the support and expertise that will help you and your dog!
Check out my process, pricing and packages! All training is conducted virtually and I can work with clients located anywhere in the United States!