I know I promised a post on training next, but I realized that will have to be one of the last posts because I need to set you up to succeed. You need all the tools in place before you should start training, and this topic, food toys, is an integral piece to Charlie's success, and one that needs to be well established in your own home.
When I first meet them, most of my clients either free feed their dogs (leave food down all the time), or feed their dogs twice a day, out of bowls. One of my first recommendations to all of my clients is to get rid of all bowls (at which point they tend to gasp and look at me strangely) and feed their dogs only during training sessions or out of food stuffable toys like Kongs.
That's Charlie with just a few of the interactive toys I have for him.
There are so many reasons to do this, all of which I won't go into, but the ones that are relevant for us include that it takes my dogs over an hour to destuff a stuffed, frozen Kong. The same amount of food, at room temperature, in a bowl, would be gone in a matter of seconds. That's HUGE when we're talking about SA dogs, for whom the most difficult time is approximately the first 30-45 minutes that you're gone. If you can engage him during this period, there's a much better chance that he will be able to ride the time peacefully and not fall into anxious, detrimental habits. I have found this to be too true with Charlie - if he's OK for the first 20 minutes or so, he's generally OK for the rest of the time I'm gone.
A secondary bonus is that it takes energy, both physical and mental, to destuff a frozen Kong. Just like the exercise I spoke about in the previous post, this is energy your dog is spending on constructive activities, and not on destroying your home, barking, or hurting himself.
A third bonus, which I only discovered later, is that the act of licking is very calming for dogs, so if they're forced to lick food out of a Kong for an hour, they'll be much calmer than if they hadn't (similar to receiving a massage or rubbing your own temples) and just eaten the same food out of a bowl. For this reason, Kongs can become great pacifiers for other stressful experiences, like veterinarian visits, trips, etc.
But, you say, my dog is SO worried about me leaving that he never touches his food until I come home.
Well, I say, we have to teach him how.
First, like I described above, all meals need to be fed out of Kongs (not frozen at first). If you feed kibble only, you can soak it in water to make it mushy to promote licking, if you feed a mixture of kibble and wet, you can mix the two, if you feed just wet, stuff it in, and if you feed raw, you can either cut up little pieces of whatever you would feed otherwise, or buy ground raw. I do not recommend using large pieces of raw meat for SA training because whole raw pieces of meat/bone/organ should always be supervised when eaten and not left with your dog unattended. Leave those chunks for days you'll be home.
At first, just get your dog used to eating out of a thawed, easily destuffed Kong while you're home. Set him up wherever you'd like him to eat it (crate, mat, bed, tether, loose, etc.) and let him have at it. You'll find over time that he'll get better and better at emptying the Kong completely (you can discard anything he doesn't finish, or put it in the fridge for the next meal). This is also an excellent way to teach a dog to settle on a mat, in a crate, or on a tether. It's a great preventative measure to take with puppies and new dogs, and even dogs without SA would benefit from it as well.
A huge part of my training protocol with Charlie was developing a huge desire for the Kong. I did this by putting him in a sit-stay on the couch in the living room, while I hid the Kong somewhere in the house (as well as a myriad other things to keep him company, but we'll get into that later) and making him wait until I was ready to leave before releasing him. What ends up happening is that he just can't wait for me to leave so I can give his release word and he can get his prize.
Did you catch that?
I used the Kong to get Charlie to want me to leave the house. Seriously.
Fortunately for me, Charlie's always had a huge love of food, and this wasn't hard to train. For dogs who are less food motivated, or don't love their Kong as much, try to add yummy bits of something special into the mix (liver, cold cuts, cheese, sour cream, peanut butter, brautwurst, etc. all work really well - get creative!), especially at the top and bottom of the filling. For these dogs, you will have to move more slowly when teaching love of the Kong so that they have time to develop a sincere adoration for the rubbery toy with all the food.
To do this with a dog who needs to learn to love the Kong, start when you're home and put your dog in a sit stay and place the Kong in plain sight. Wait a few seconds and then release your pup. Repeat this at every meal, gradually making it more difficult for your dog to find the Kong and making your dog wait longer for his release. If your dog doesn't know sit-stay, while you teach a stay, you can place the Kong inside a crate and make your dog wait on the outside with the door closed to build desire for the Kong.
At this point you can start introducing the second Kong. At first place it right next to the first Kong in a hard to find spot while your dog waits for his release. At every meal time slowly move it further and further away so that your dog has to go searching for it when he finishes his first Kong. This will help keep him busy for longer periods of time and turn on the hunting and seeking parts of his brain, which directly inhibit the fear and anxiety parts, which lead to destructive behavior (if you'd like more information on how helping him use his seeking instincts will help inhibit his fear, check out Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human where she explains in detail Dr Panksepp's "blue ribbon emotions").
Even though Emma doesn't suffer from separation anxiety or distress, she clearly enjoys eating out of her Kong and falls asleep shortly after finishing her meal. Your dog can have this important skill too!
Once you're at the point that your dog can wait for several minutes while you hide the toys, eat one, then go hunt for the second one, you'll be ready to start freezing the Kong to make it last longer. At first, just leave it in the freezer for an hour or so, to get your dog used to eating it cold. After a few trials of your dog happily eating his lovely cold Kong, you can leave it in the freezer for longer and longer durations until you can give him a fully frozen Kong and he doesn't skip a beat. Once you're at this point, the Kong will be ready for use in your training plan. Stay tuned for how to integrate it properly.
Although they're my favorite (I have more than 20 Kongs), Kongs are not the only food stuffable toy. There are so many on the market, it's nearly impossible to recommend or rate them all. There are many that cater to dogs who eat kibble, and other stuffable ones for dogs who eat gooey food like canned or raw. I recommend you buy as many as you can afford and get your dog familiar with how to use them. Each one has a different difficulty level and how long it takes your dog to empty it depends on your dog.
I also use a Nina Ottosson toy for Charlie. I would not recommend this for unattended use for all dogs because your dog can destroy the toys and swallow the wood or other pieces. This is a "know thy dog" scenario, where you should not leave your dog unattended with an interactive toy like this unless you're quite certain they won't destroy the toy or ingest the pieces once they've gotten all the food out.
Without stuffable toys, we would never have conquered the separation anxiety beast, so please be very serious when approaching this investment.
It may save you and your dog's life.
The next post will cover background noise, like the television, radio, or even specially designed music for dogs with anxiety.