Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Interactive Toys and Equipment
Owners don’t need to buy a great deal of equipment to begin separation anxiety treatment, but a few key items are necessary. The equipment required is of two types: 1) something that will allow you to create a confinement area while maintaining the dog’s ability to see his surroundings, and 2) toys that the dog enjoys which can help him remain occupied and calm, creating a positive association with the confinement area while getting used to it during the initial brief absences.
Baby gates / x-pens
Baby gates and x-pens can be a necessary tool in treating separation anxiety in that they permit you to confine the dog both in your presence and out of your presence. If your clients will be buying a new baby gate, tell them to get one that can be left up permanently, meaning one that easily opens and closes like a door rather than one you have to step or climb over every time. Baby gates don’t have to be hard-mounted (screwed into the door frame), but can be pressure-mounted, a distinction that can make a big difference for clients who rent rather than own their home.
Another thing to recommend is that your clients get the least noisy gate they can find. X-pens can make a lot of clanging noise and tend to startle some dogs, making the trigger for leaving that much more poignant. Great alternatives to the noisier gates are now on the market—some are downright stylish and fit into many types of home décor. Finally, make sure the door or swinging panel of the gate is easy to open and close (for the owner, not the dog!). A one-handed mechanism is nice; so is a gate that can open in both directions, though that isn’t a necessity.
Once the baby gate (or x-pen) arrives, make certain the dog doesn’t become afraid of it. Ask the owners to spend a day or two with the baby gate installed but open at all times to get the dog accustomed to its presence without the gate predicting anything. When the dog seems completely comfortable, instruct the owners to close the baby gate while the dog and the owners are on the outside of the baby gate with a few treats or a Kong on the inside of the confinement area for a while. You are essentially baiting the dog to want to go into the confinement area which isn’t yet a confinement area as far as he is concerned. After the dog is amped up about going in to get his goodie, have the owners let the dog in while leaving the gate open, but not enter with the dog. A simple exercise, yes, but a great way to start building positive associations to the confinement area (more later on confinement area desensitization and counter-conditioning).
You can see from this picture that a nice baby gate which opens and closes like a door is preferred. Also notice that it is set up in a central, comfortable location like the living room or kitchen.
Toys, wonderful toys
Every dog has his preference when it comes to interactive toys. Some prefer toys they can mouth at, others toys they can paw at. Each dog can handle different levels of frustration, and as you are dealing with dogs who have an anxiety disorder, it’s important not to push them to experience too much frustration as this can occasionally worsen anxiety. The solution to choosing the right one is to observe what the dog enjoys and prefers versus what he seems indifferent to. This way you can make the most of whichever interactive toys you end up using.
Interactive toys that work well in separation anxiety confinement training are Kongs and/or treat dispensing balls such as the Squirrel Dude, Bobs-A-Lot, Tricky Treat Ball, Kong Wobbler and numerous other variations. You probably have your own favorites; the dogs you work with might, too. Take time to interact with the toys and the dog in question. Many dogs take to the toys immediately, quickly figuring them out on their own and getting rewarded with goodies. But others don’t know how to solve problems, most likely because they have never had to. Those dogs give up in mere moments, even on the easiest setting. The resulting helplessness in turn feeds their anxiety disorder. Your job is to teach the dog how to enjoy problem solving and further learning skills. Learning skills are integral to confidence building and empowerment, and most separation anxiety dogs are sorely lacking such skills.
These are just a few examples of the many toys and chews that are available to use with dogs when associating the confinement area with wonderful stuff.
Why food toys?
A question you will hear a lot is, “My dog won’t eat when left alone anyway so why are we working on all these interactive feeding toys?” The answer is the interactive feeding toys will be used in such a way to create a positive association with the confinement area. They also serve as great confidence builders for many dogs. While you are still in the house, the dog can learn to love the confinement area, connecting it with all his favorite goodies and playtime with interactive feeding toys. Understand, though, that you are not teaching dogs to eat when left alone, but rather to relax when left alone. The interactive feeding toys are simply used as a positive association tool.
While it may seem odd to the owner, once the dog has begun to relax in the confinement area, you need to begin to allow the feeding toy to run out of food to evaluate the dog’s reaction. If the dog has access to food while alone, it may mean that the dog hasn’t really been desensitized to being alone but merely been entertained for a bit. Running out of food in the interactive feeding toys and learning to relax in the confinement area is thus a key to this beginning stage. I often hear from trainers that they have gradually worked up a dog to 45 minutes of alone time while he’s eating a Kong, but when the dog runs out of food he starts barking. A better strategy is to have the food run out after a shorter period of time and then return to the dog a couple minutes later. The time for this work is early on, so the dog can learn to relax without a food toy.
Kong stuffing can become a work of art. There are numerous recipes that can be found on the Internet that include everything from peanut butter, cream cheese, baby food, bananas, canned food, chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, and the list goes on. Get creative!
It does not need to cost much
If your clients are on a budget, any of the items mentioned can be substituted for less expensive or free stuff. Baby gates, for example, can often be found at Goodwill stores or at garage sales or on Craigslist. And while you can buy a plethora of interactive toys that make separation anxiety training easier in pet stores and online, with a bit of imagination owners can create alternatives. Old yogurt containers filled with goodies with the lid tightly affixed and holes punched randomly throughout can substitute some of the expensive treat balls. Cheap tube socks can be knotted up with biscuits inside or morsels of food can be tucked away in cardboard boxes to be shredded during absences and easily disposed of later. Be mindful of dogs known to ingest parts of toys, of course. Safety comes first.