Separation anxiety training : 3 reasons why we don’t use food for success!
Should we use food for separation anxiety training with our dogs?
Is the use of food during separation anxiety training a solution or a band aid on an open wound?
Having a dog suffering from separation anxiety is so upsetting, for both the dog and their humans. It massively impacts everyone’s quality of life, and can be so hard to manage. One of our first ideas when we want to help the dog feeling better about being left, is to give them food. It is also one of the first advice we can read on the internet if we search for online solutions.
Most of my clients also tell me it is part of the things they have already tried doing before asking for a professional dog behaviourist’s help. We will go over why leaving a tasty Kong or a juicy bone to your dog when you are going to work might not be the sacred solution all the internet is going on about.
As a little reminder, when talking about Separation Anxiety, I am actually more generally talking about Separation Related Behaviour that include ( among others) isolation distress, clinical separation anxiety Fear Of Missing Out type dog behaviour. I willingly leave out all boredom related problems that the dog can experience when left from this article because in this case, food might help a little.
1- Most separation anxiety dogs will be too stressed to eat when alone
Dogs who are experiencing distress when their humans are not present are going through the equivalent of a panic attack. To them, the fact that you are leaving means their life is in immediate danger, and the behaviour they are displaying is the expression of a genuine terror.
They are in survival mode and most dogs will be too stressed to eat the food you left for them. Would you go get a sandwich if you are in a house on fire before you try to get out/call for help? I know I would not.
Most of the time, the dog is not even capable of thinking about eating, since their main concern is how to get out of the life threatening situation they are in : their human(s) is gone, and they don’t know when they will be back to satisfy their primary needs.
We know their life isn’t at risk, that we are coming back but they do not. Once they don’t see you anymore, you might as well be gone forever.
They are depending on us for everything : feeding them, giving them water, taking them out to toilet, social interactions, etc… Us being gone can then mean that they won’t have access to all those anymore, which can be life threatening.
In separation anxiety training, we do not recommend using any food, and the first reason for that is that it is totally useless if the dog is too stressed to even take the food. If you leave out their absolute favourite treat but they don’t even look at it, it isn’t of any use, is it?
It is very important to understand that when dogs are experiencing distress when being left, they are feeling true terror.
The behaviour you are seeing is either an attempt to get out of the situation ( barking, howling to call for help, destroying your door to try to get out) or a sign that the fear is intense enough so they can’t control themselves ( soiling the floor, salivating, shaking, pacing, etc…) They are not trying to get back at you, they aren’t spoilt or poorly trained, they are afraid, and all the best treats in the world won’t make that go away. It is very natural to imagine that if we “reward ” them with food for staying on their own, it will help. I am terrified of spiders, and love chocolate cake. If you put a huge spider next to my face, trust me, you can give me all the best chocolate cake in the world, I’ll still totally panic, and very likely won’t touch your cake, I’ll be running as far as I can away from the spider.
In fact, when a dog refuse his favourite treat during an absence, it can even be an indication that the dog isn’t that comfortable with being left.
Some dogs will display very subdued behaviour when they are feeling anxious, and won’t make any noise. They could be less relaxed than you think they are when you are gone. If they are generally very food orientated and they don’t touch their favourite treat when you are gone, I would recommend watching them during absences through a camera, and if you are in doubt, I would reach out to a qualified / certified dog behaviourist who has a good knowledge about separation anxiety training.
2 – The dogs who do eat during absences will panick when the food is gone.
I have seen dogs suffering from separation anxiety who do eat when their person(s) is gone. They are too focused on the food to realize you are not there any more, and the second they don’t have any more food, trouble starts.
For those individuals, I wouldn’t recommend using any food during separation anxiety training. When training ethically with systematic desensitization, we make sure the dog is always comfortable with everything that is happening, and we want them to be aware that it is happening.
We start where they are, even if it means starting by getting them to be relaxed when you are just standing up from your chair. If they are already stressed when you do so, this is where the work starts. Then we can slowly and gently increase their comfort zone, and expose them to more difficult missions.
Using food while doing some separation anxiety training is showing a biased version of what the dog can do. As an example, if the dog is chewing something for 30 minutes, you might think they are comfortable for that period of time. But them, what happens the day the treat only lasts 20 minutes?
Does it mean you cannot leave food for your dog when you are going? Not really… It can be used as management in the context of an emergency if you absolutely have to go and don’t want to ruin all the progress already made.
Let’s say you need to drive someone to the hospital, and don’t have any other option. If your dog will be okay as long as busy chewing, you can give them a long lasting chew to minimize the damage and avoid them panicking + hurting the progress you have made during your separation anxiety training.
The most important thing to know about separation anxiety training is that from the moment you start, the dog can’t be left more that what they can handle : meaning, outside of training, you don’t leave your dog at all. Systematic desensitization is all about the dog never going over their threshold, and in the first phases of separation anxiety training, it is merely going out of the room you are in.
What good is doing your training if your dog doesn’t realize what is happening? By using food, we are not addressing the issue, we are masking the ” annoying behaviour “. I would call that putting a band aid on an open wound. It will help you in a very specific moment in case of an emergency but won’t last and address your real problem. Only a comprehensive separation anxiety training plan, made by a qualified professional will.
Your dog suffering from separation anxiety is, by definition, afraid to be left. The dog’s brain works with associations : positive, negative or neutral.
If every time you are taking a treat in the pantry, or preparing a Kong for them you are leaving shortly after, it is very likely your dog will associate you doing that to the fact that you are going to leave<
The fact that you are leaving is very scary for your separation anxiety dog, and getting the treats ready could very easily become aversive, because predicting something that is terrifying for the dog. Once that pattern is established in the dog’s mind, just opening the cupboard where the treats are could become something that makes your dog panick.
We all want giving a treat to our dogs to be something pleasant, don’t we?
I have been asked if it is ” bad” if the chews are always at the dog’s disposal, including during the absences. Theorically, no, because they are not taken out just for the purpose of keeping the dog busy while you are gone.
But as previously stated, if the dog is always busy eating/ chewing during your separation anxiety training sessions, there is not much of a point doing them, since the dog doesn’t really realize you are actually going.
For all those reasons, a qualified dog behaviourist, specialized in separation anxiety training won’t advise you to use any food during your training sessions.
If you ever are in doubt about whether your dog is comfortable or not during your absences, feel free to ask for professional help to make sure.
I am a certified dog behaviour consultant, specialized in separation anxiety training with the Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer program, by Julie Naismith https://julienaismith.com/work-with-julie/#pros, and I can help you teaching your dog how to be happy home alone, without using any food, with methods based on kindness and respect of the dog’s emotions. Click here to find out more about my separation anxiety training programs : https://dog-training.ie/certified-separation-anxiety-trainer/
Harmony 4 Paws – Lea Chevalier – SAPT