Do Feeding Toys Help Dogs With Separation Anxiety?
Dog enjoys tasty treat in a kong (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on August 08, 2019
Exclusive

Have you ever attempted to use a feeding toy to soothe your dog’s separation anxiety?

If so, you’re not alone. I’ve tried this with my Alaskan Klee Kai.

It could be leaving treats in their create to entice them into their “safe place” or filling a kong with peanut butter in the hope they’ll be distracted as I make a quiet exit.

Unfortunately, it isn’t long before I start to get notifications on my phone from my dog camera that my Alaskan Klee Kai are barking. Unsurprisingly, the live stream shows the toy and treats discarded as my dogs enter into a panic about my absence.

Separation anxiety is a canine disorder that can be distressing for dog and dog owners alike. No-one wants to see their precious pup in panic mode about being left at home alone.

The condition can manifest itself in a number of different ways, including excessive barking, howling or whining, destructive chewing or digging, and defecating or urinating inside the home.

I’m sure a lot of dog owners who have canines who struggle with separation anxiety have attempted to distract their dog with a tasty treat or a fun toy as you prepare to leave the home.

However, as we know all too well, our dogs are incredibly perceptive and can pick up on the tell-tell signs that you’re about to leave and some unwelcome alone time is on the horizon.

In the hope of getting a better understanding of the upsetting canine disorder, I spoke to renowned dog separation anxiety expert Malena DeMartini.

In the fourth part of our interview, we discuss whether dog owners should use toys and treats when attempting to tackle the issue of dog separation anxiety.

Part One: What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Part Two: Dog Separation Anxiety Myths And Misconceptions
Part Three: Should I Crate My Dog With Separation Anxiety?
Part Five: How long does it take to break a dog’s separation anxiety?
Part Six: How to prevent dog separation anxiety
Part Seven: How To Help New Puppy With Separation Anxiety

What are the simple steps dog owners should think about [with regards to separation anxiety]?

A dog patiently waits for owner to return (Photo: Adobe Stock)
A dog patiently waits for owner to return (Photo: Adobe Stock)

This could be a very long answer and I could go on for hours as to how to proceed. There are a few basic things I want to point out. I’ll start with a couple of things that I don’t want people to feel so reliant on.

The first one is going to be a shocker to many. It’s the most commonly recommended starting point for separation anxiety: give the dog some kind of interactive feeding toy.

Much like crates, please know that I am the first to shout from the mountain tops that you should reward your dog frequently in life, and food is by far one of the most efficient and effective means of reward.

However, with separation anxiety, many people say give your dog a feeding toy and leave for a set amount of time and build from there. I completely understand the logic of this but there are a few pitfalls to consider.

Firstly, there’ll be a lot of dogs happy with a feeding toy but the moment the owner steps out, the food is dead to the dog. They won’t touch it. We call it separation anxiety anorexia. In that situation, it’s not offering the purpose we thought it would.

Secondly, for those who are trainers, it’s very easy to create an antecedent arrangement that is predictive of something bad. If I give a hand signal or say sit, the dog sits, and the dog gets a reward. In separation anxiety treatment, people often reverse the training order which we know can be troublesome. In other words we say, “here’s a yummy food item, goodbye”, and we walk out the door. What is the arrangement there? The food item predicts the yucky thing rather than the other way around.

It’s shocking to me how easy it is to poison food or a feeding toy when training like this.

If every time I pull out that red beehive thing that has tasty stuff inside, I leave within a few minutes, that thing predicts scary stuff. Whether it takes a day or two or three to create the association, we often times get dogs that see the toy and that’s the moment they start to get upset or scared.

We don’t want to create any departure queues that are married to food.

Lastly, some dogs may be happy to chew on their feeding toy even after you have left. You leave and you come back before the dog has finished with the feeding toy. If that’s the case, how do we progress past the feeding toy?

If I give a dog a feeding toy and he chews on it, what should we expect when the food is gone, is he going to forget his anxiety and just take a nap?

I always tell people that it may not be noticeable – in some dogs it is – that dogs can and will eat while still feeling anxiety. When the food is gone, the outward manifestation comes to the fore. I personally can be anxious and cry but still eat a bowl of ice cream!

The process of desensitization

Yellow Labrador in his crate (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Yellow Labrador in his crate (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The bottom line is we have to use the specific process of desensitization.

The dog has to essentially become bored with our comings and goings.

In the beginning, those comings and going could be opening the door, step out, count 1,2,3 and step back inside. The dog could be like ‘OH MY GOSH…. You’re back!”.

After some repetition, your dog will be like, ‘oh goodness, they’re doing that stupid thing again where they go and come back. I don’t care’. When we get to that point, that three seconds becomes, say, 10 seconds, which then becomes something like a minute [and so forth].

That’s the really small basic chunk that is the key element of desensitization and it is the gold standard for working with separation anxiety.

Who is Malena DeMartini?

Malena DeMartini is an expert in separation anxiety in dogs. With nearly 20 years of experience working exclusively on separation anxiety, Malena has encountered hundreds of cases. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Malena continues to be innovative to find better ways to treat the condition and support clients.

What is Malena DeMartini’s background in separation anxiety?

In 2001, I was doing all manner of behaviour work – everything from aggression to recalls and so forth.

Very early on, I got my first separation anxiety case. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a very green trainer so I don’t know if I should take this on’.

The dog owner said she had talked to seven different dog trainers and all of them had refused to take her on so she didn’t know what to do. I said I wanted to be fully transparent with her and that I do understand the principles of separation anxiety but I haven’t done it before. So I said I’d help her but if I was in over my head, I’d call someone else.

We worked on the separation anxiety with her dog Guinness. After a short bit of time, we were very successful with his separation anxiety. Word spread like wildfire that I had success with a separation anxiety dog so I started to get a ton of referrals. People didn’t like working with separation anxiety.

The second case I took crashed and burned. From that point forward, I set out to research, trial and error and was very transparent with every client, letting them know that I didn’t have the perfect solution but I’d work with them in every aspect to make progress.

It went on for several years as I learned what works and what doesn’t work. Over time, I found a successful direction to go. It quickly became my passion! But I do always say that separation anxiety chose me, I did not chose it!

Further information

If you would like to learn more about Malena, you can visit her website malenademartini.com.

Do you suspect your dog is struggling with separation anxiety? Malena is offering helloBARK! readers the chance to avail of a special discount code for her online self-paced course for dog owners. For more information, contact [email protected]