In Dog Behavior

As Austin trickles back to the outside world and our “new normal” – how is this going to affect your dog?  We want to help you and your dog transition back to Fido being home alone all day.  I think a silver lining to the Stay-At-Home Order was that people spent more time with their pets.  As much as we missed our daily dog walks them it made me happy to know they were bonding with their fur parent.  I’m sure Fido loved having his favorite person around ALL DAY!!

When you go back to the office your dog will have to adjust.  It will be harder for some than others.  Could behavior problems and depression result from you heading back to the office?  Possibly, which is is why I want to share two articles with you.  I have found that in most things in life a slow transition is best instead of cold turkey.  We are here for you if you want to add a few more dog walks during the day and then taper them off to help your dog with the transition.


The first article I would like to share was written by Pat Miller, the Training Editor at Whole Dog Journal.  She wrote Amicable Separation When Leaving Your Dog Again which discusses how to recognize and prevent separation-related behaviors (SRBs) – including separation anxiety, which is one particularly serious type of SRB.

The second article, Preventing Food-Toy “Fails”, by Eileen Anderson and covers the topic of food-dispensing toys and tools. She points out that some of these tools frustrate some dogs more than help them to fill their time in an enjoyable way. Anderson discusses ways to make sure that the tools or toys you use actually help your dog reach the food in a way that makes them feel rewarded, not annoyed.



Amicable Separation When Leaving Your Dog Again

Your dog has likely enjoyed having you home more than usual; here’s how to prepare her for being left home alone when you go back to work or school.

Have you been sheltering in place with your dog, courtesy of coronavirus? There will come a time when life goes back to the “new normal” and you’ll go back to work or school, and if you have a dog, you may be worried about how your dog will handle this. The internet is already flooded with articles predicting an epidemic of canine separation anxiety when our dogs have to become accustomed to being left home alone again. Are you ready for this?


Before we discuss whether or not you need to be concerned about this, let’s clear up some definitions. We’ve noticed that the more this issue is discussed, the less precise the language surrounding the condition seems to become!

“Anxiety” is the anticipation of unknown or imagined future dangers. With separation anxiety (SA), your dog anticipates bad things happening because you aren’t there. True SA presents as extremes of behavior: vocalization, destruction of household objects (especially door frames and confinement tools), self-injury, and sometimes soiling in the home by a previously well house-trained dog.

SA is a bit of a misnomer for a lot of canine behavior that frequently gets tagged with the dreaded SA label. There are many canine behaviors that we find problematic that occur exclusively in the owner’s absence. If they do not seem to be anxiety-based, and are relatively easy to manage and modify, we should call them separation-related behaviors (SRBs). We’d consider true SA to be a subset of SRBs.


Not all dogs will erupt with SA behaviors if their owners suddenly go back to work. If your dog has always been comfortable being left alone, she’s likely to be just fine when you go back to work, especially if she’s reasonably confident and well-adjusted.

On the other hand, it’s possible that even if your dog never had SRBs before, she is now so accustomed to your constant proximity that your departure could trigger an unwanted response, whether it’s SA or the emergence of other SRBs. You want to start right now, addressing it sooner rather than later.

Puppies are at greatest risk for SRBs when they are subjected to a sudden change to a home-alone lifestyle. While many new puppy owners take vacations or reduce their work hours in order to spend time with their new pups, we normally counsel new puppy owners to immediately begin a program of gradual separation to prevent SA. But right now, with so many new puppy owners sheltering in place, they may have skipped this important part of a pup’s early learning. Fortunately, it’s not too late to put this program into action!


With today’s easy access to technology, it’s fairly simple to determine whether your dog or puppy gets upset when left alone. Set up a cellphone or laptop computer to record video – or, better yet, use an app to link a camera to your phone – so you can see what your dog does in your absence. (Note: If you already know your dog already has SRBs and you know for sure it’s SA, you don’t need to do this; proceed directly to management and modification sections below.)

Next, initiate your normal departure routine, whether this entails crating your dog, confining her in a room or section of the house, or leaving her loose with full access to the entire house. If she has full access, set up your camera where you think she’s most likely to hang out. (You can always do another trial later if you guessed wrong.)

Now leave the house, following your normal departure routine. You only have to go far enough away that your dog thinks you really left. Watch your dog on your camera (or view the recorded video after you return). If your dog wandered around, then settled on her bed (or the sofa) and dozed off, you’re probably home free – although she could wake up and get bored later.

If your dog didn’t settle in fairly quickly, watch for signs of anxiety (pacing, panting, whining, barking, howling, digging at doors or windows) or boredom (walking around with purpose, looking for things to get into or chew, such as garbage cans, shoes, pillows, table legs, etc., without any obvious signs of stress).

Keep this first “home alone” session short – say, under 10 minutes. If you are using an app and can observe your dog via a live stream, return immediately if you can see that your dog is anxious; you don’t want to ramp up her stress levels.

If your livestream or video recording reveals that your dog is stressed about your absence, she does have some degree of SA, and you have work to do. If she’s doing inappropriate things but doesn’t really seem anxious, you also have work to do, on the easier end of the SRB range.


It’s much easier to use management for separation-related behaviors that are triggered by boredom or a lack of supervision than those caused by true separation anxiety. Both prognoses can improve immensely from increased enrichment and exercise. (A tired dog makes for a happy owner!)

Scent work is excellent for tiring most dogs – it’s very fulfilling and can easily be done indoors. (For more about teaching your dog games that utilize his nose, see “Everyone Nose That,” WDJ September 2019.)

Other options for indoor exercise and enrichment include playing with a flirt pole (kind of like a toy on a fishing pole), a ball pit, or snuffle mat (a textured mat with kibble or treats buried in the fabric, requiring the dog to sniff and lick to find and eat the food). Good games include round-robin recalls (where two or more people call the dog and reward her for each arrival), indoor fetch, or indoor parkour using household items such as laundry baskets to jump in and out of, broomsticks to jump over, and chairs to crawl under. (For more details, see “Winter Woes and Wags,” December 2019.)

Physical management for SRBs may include crates and exercise pens to keep your dog confined and out of trouble, or doors and baby gates to keep her confined to dog-proofed areas. Of course, if your dog or pup isn’t already accustomed to confinement, this means teaching her to love being in a crate or pen. (See “How to Crate-Train Your Puppy,” November 2014)

Once trained, keep crating times reasonable; a young pup can last only a couple of hours before needing a bathroom break, and adult dogs, even if they can go eight to 10 hours, should also get a break halfway through the day (see “Crate Problems and Great Solutions,” October 2017).

Dogs with true SA usually do not crate well. They often panic and can injure themselves badly – even die – in their desperate attempts to escape. If your dog displays anxious body language when you watch the video feed, the management program for your dog will likely need to include medication in addition to modification efforts.

Some veterinarians are unfamiliar with behavior-modification drugs and dosages. You can ask yours to do a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist, or consult directly with a veterinary behaviorist yourself. You or your vet can find a list of certified veterinary behaviorists at


Here’s the goal: A dog who is just as relaxed and comfortable with being home alone as she is with humans in the house.



Whether you do or do not see evidence of SRBs during the video test, you can use the following procedure to increase the likelihood that your dog or puppy will be fine when you go back to work.

The more anxious your dog is about your departures or absence, the slower you need to take this process. If she starts to become stressed, continue working at that step until she can stay relaxed, or back up to a previous step and work there longer. Your goal is to help her be comfortable when she’s separated from you, whether or not you’re in the house.


  1. Start with your dog resting – on a bed (tethered if necessary), in a crate, in an exercise pen, or behind a baby gate, with you standing next to her.
  2. Tell her “wait,” count to five, feed her a treat.
  3. Tell her “wait,” take one step away, return, feed her a treat.
  4. Tell her “wait,” take two steps away, return, feed her a treat.
  5. Continue increasing the number of steps. Starting at five steps away, sit down in a chair within your dog’s sight and read a book or magazine for a minute or two, increasing the duration of your minutes away with each successful repetition. Continue to increase the duration of your time away from your dog (within her sight) up to 30 minutes, until she calmly rests while you read or talk or otherwise occupy yourself.
  6. Continue to increase the distance between you and your dog until you are able to step out of the room without a reaction from your dog. Pause briefly, then immediately return; initially, you will decrease the duration of the time you are away from your dog because you are now out of sight.
  7. Set up your camera again. Gradually increase the distance between you and your dog and the duration of your stay away from her until your dog stays calm even when you are away for longer periods of time. Add other “leaving cues” into the process, such as opening and closing doors, putting on coats, starting the car, etc. – watching her video the whole time. If she starts acting stressed or getting into “trouble” when you leave her, back up and slow down.

As long as your dog was not displaying signs of true separation anxiety, you can also leave her with any kind of enrichment and/or food-dispensing toys to help her stay happy and busy while you are gone. (To make sure these toys help improve your dog’s behavior, rather than increase her anxiety, see “Preventing Food-Toy Fails,” on page 6.)Incorporate these toys into your “separate in place” protocol once you are routinely staying out of her sight for more than several seconds.

Dogs with true SA tend to lose interest in food when they are stressed, so you may not be able to use food toys with them at first, until you eventually get to the point that they are truly calm and relaxed when you are out of sight.

When it’s time for you to go back to work, remember that the more you continue enrichment activities, the easier it will be for your canine pal.

Now go hug your dog (if she likes being hugged) – and stay safe and well!

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She and her husband live in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Miller is also the author of many books about positive reinforcement training. See “Resources,” page 24, for information on her books and classes for dog owners and trainers.

Preventing Food-Toy “Fails”

Toys that dispense food are often recommended (even by WDJ!) to help occupy a dog, preventing boredom and anxiety. Here’s how to make sure the toy doesn’t increase his distress

There is an ever-widening variety of food-filled puzzles, food-dispensing toys, and “slow feeding” dishes for dogs on the market. Many trainers (and this publication) frequently encourage owners to employ these tools to engage doggie brains and to help dogs occupy their time, especially when home alone. However, not all food-dispensing toys are suitable for all dogs! Some, in fact, might frustrate and annoy your dog – or ratchet up his anxiety. So let’s take a closer look at these tools, in order to help you find some that your dog will unequivocally enjoy.

Be prepared, however: I’m going to discuss some common problems with food toys through the lens of behavior science; it’s going to get mildly technical. But if you don’t want to waste your money on toys that gather dust or get thrown out because you didn’t realize that your dog needed your help to learn how to interact with them successfully, or because the toys had features that made them frustrating or scary to your dog, read on!


The most common problem with food toys is that the dog doesn’t have the skills to get the food and the owner doesn’t understand how to teach him.

Many food toys come with no instructions for introducing them to the naïve dog. For instance, toys that have a cavity that can be filled with food, such as Kongs, are assumed by most consumers to be easy and fun for dogs to use. The marketing materials lead them to believe this, showing dogs chewing, licking, and batting around full toys to dislodge the food and even playing with empty ones. However, if the toy is initially presented at its most difficult level, which is often what’s shown in advertising and demo videos, many dogs can’t be successful.

The “recipes” found for these toys on the internet are often elaborate and challenging, with fillings solidified by melted cheese or freezing. Special biscuits can be purchased for some toys that can’t be shaken or rolled out and require the dog to crush the whole toy or saturate the food by licking before getting anything out.

When an owner presents a challenge like this to a new puppy, or even an inexperienced, well-fed, or timid adult dog, the animal will often sniff at the toy, perhaps poke it with its nose or lick it for a while, then give up. Then the owner may say, “Well, my dog doesn’t like food toys,” and also give up.

Let’s look at what behaviors a dog needs to succeed at using one of these toys. They might include licking, chewing, pushing with the nose, picking up, carrying, dropping, shaking, batting with the paws, or securing the toy with the paws while performing some of the other behaviors. These are normal dog behaviors, but that doesn’t mean that every dog will know how to use them in a given situation. With some more difficult toys, they must be performed in a certain order.

As when training any behavior, owners need to start dogs at a level at which they can easily succeed and experience extremely attractive consequences. The dogs should be able clearly to see, hear, and/or smell the food and get some of it right away. Cavity toys can be filled loosely with small, high-value treats, so that any movement by the dog is likely to immediately produce something the dog loves. The opening can be smeared with peanut butter or meat puree to encourage licking.

The difficulty can then be increased slowly as the dog refines the physical skills to extract the food.


There can be problems in this area as well, when the consequence of the behavior is either not reinforcing or, worse, scary.

A dog who is used to getting kibble for free in a bowl may not be motivated to dig slightly wetted and frozen kibble out of a toy. He may have the appropriate behavioral skills, but the consequence doesn’t merit the effort. This problem is relatively easy to prevent or fix: add some higher-value morsels and start off easier, as described above.

One problem that is not so easily remedied is when an unpleasant consequence comes instead of, or along with, the food. A hard plastic toy may bang against a wall, startling a sound-sensitive dog. (Fortunately, there are a few treat-delivery balls that are made of soft plastic.)

A toy with electronics may beep or ding or move in an unexpected way. If one of these stimuli precedes the delivery of the food, it is the most immediate consequence of the dog’s behavior. If it happens regularly, it may come to serve as a conditioned reinforcer, predicting the arrival of food (like a clicker does). Or, worst case, it may scare the dog so much that he doesn’t find the food worth the risk.

Dogs who are sensitive to noises may not recover from this. Some may attempt to get the food without so much motion, and their movements will become careful and inhibited. Some will refuse the toy altogether.

One of my dogs became extremely frightened of the noise that the Manners Minder (a.k.a. the Treat & Train), a remote-controlled treat dispenser, makes when it jams. She initially loved this device and using it actually added value to any treat that was inside. But while most of the time the consequence of her nice behavior was a treat (positive reinforcement), sometimes it was a horrible grinding noise that would cause her to back away wide-eyed and then refuse to return (positive punishment). I’ve stopped using this device with her until I can take the time to counter-condition her response to that noise.

Take care in selecting toys for sensitive dogs, and experiment with them before giving them to the dog.


Here’s the technical part. Remember that the smallest units of behavior we can analyze are antecedents (stimuli, events, or parts of the animal’s history that set the stage for a behavior), behaviors (anything animals do that can be measured), and consequences (stimuli or events that immediately follow a behavior and influence its future strength).

Behaviors and consequences are often easy to observe, but antecedents can be more subtle. One type of antecedent is a cue: a stimulus or condition that communicates to the animal that certain behaviors will be reinforced (or punished). Some toys accidentally present cues that are not in keeping with how they are designed to be used.

The Manners Minder (also sold under the name Treat & Train) was among the first remote-controlled treat-dispensing devices on the market. It enables a handler to deliver treats to a dog at a location that is up to 100 feet away – perfect for certain training applications. However, some dogs are afraid of the devices.

For most food toys, the cue that food-seeking behaviors will be reinforced is the presentation of a loaded toy. As the dog interacts with a kibble toy, the sound of the kibble inside the toy becomes a cue as well. Or rather a series of them: The sound of a lot of kibble rattling inside the toy correlates with kibble being delivered more frequently; it predicts a high rate of reinforcement.

As the toy empties, the sound changes, predicting a thinner reinforcement schedule. A similar process occurs with the odor of the food in the toy. When the toy is empty, no kibble is audible and we can assume the kibble odor is greatly diminished. These are cues that tell the dog that reinforcement is not available. The dog learns to stop food seeking.

But we get problems with toys that give confusing signals about when or whether the food is available.

One such toy, the Foobler, is a hard plastic ball that ejects treats when rolled. It contains six rotating food compartments and a timer. One compartment at a time is in a position to release food, and then when the timer goes off, the next compartment rotates into position. The owner can set the timer to control how frequently the compartments rotate; the interval can be as short as 15 minutes and as long as 90. Before the compartments rotate, a bell rings to signify that pushing the toy will now pay off.

However, when a compartment empties, the sound of rattling kibble is still present, even though food will not be available until after the next bell. The dog can still smell the food in the toy. With every other food toy an experienced dog has played with, these are cues to continue pushing. There is no cue to let the dog know that the food is now unavailable and that ball pushing will not be reinforced. And because the pushing has been reinforced on an intermittent schedule – meaning sometimes it took one push to eject food, sometimes a few – both with other toys and with this one, the dog will probably persist for some time.

What’s more, when the dog finally perceives that the previously reinforced behavior is no longer working, he may start to go through extinction. Extinction can be an unpleasant process, and its common side effects include frustration and an increase in the variability of behavior. The former we try to avoid when training; the latter is something we can plan for and use when shaping behavior – but that is a procedure that requires careful adjustment of criteria and observation of the dog, and should not be left up to a plastic toy.

The Foobler

Among other reasons, it could be dangerous to the toy. I introduced three dogs to the Foobler. My smallest dog switched to gnawing on it when the active food compartment emptied, and even she was able to do damage. (Another dog decided immediately that the most efficient behavior was to chew the toy apart to get all the food at once. Although she’s only medium-size herself, she could have dismembered the toy had I not been there to remove it.) These are natural responses from dogs who have learned through reinforcement of many varied behaviors that their goal with a food toy is to do whatever it takes to get all the food out.

So you’ll need to supervise your dog closely to prevent behaviors that are damaging to the Foobler, which makes it less than ideal for one of its intended purposes: spreading food-toy engagement out over the course of a workday for dogs left home alone.

You’ll also want to teach your dog how to use it. A training plan would include teaching the dog that the bell means food is available, and – a more complex task – that when the food stops coming out of the toy, he should wait, for up to 15 minutes, until the bell rings again. Although there is no “training mode” for the toy, you can turn it on and off manually to temporarily shorten the intervals between the opening of compartments and build the association of the bell with food delivery.

Such a plan could address possible frustration with the toy’s reinforcement schedule, but could not be relied upon to prevent a dedicated chewer from taking matters into his own mouth during your absence. We would do well to provide a different toy to dogs who have the ability and inclination to chew hard plastic.

Pet Tutor

The Pet Tutor is a food- or treat-dispensing tool used by many trainers. A canister holds a supply of treats, which can be dispensed via a remote control for delivering treats to a dog at a distance from the handler, or via a timer. The product’s marketing materials suggest that the timed-delivery of food can be a helpful distraction for dogs who suffer from separation anxiety or isolation distress. And it might – for some dogs. Other dogs may experience the tool in much the same manner as the Foobler: frustrating because they can still see and smell the food inside the product.

Generally, when used to dispense food to a dog who is home alone, the Pet Tutor is either placed on top of a crated dog’s wire crate or on the door of a plastic crate (so it dispenses into the crate), or up on a counter (so the dispensed food falls onto the floor).

The product is designed to resist the explorations of a dog who gets ahold of it somehow, but it won’t hold up to all-day safe-cracking efforts or attention from a really strong chewer. But even if a dog can’t get at it, they can still smell that it’s full of food. For some dogs, that’s not a big deal; for an anxious, food-obsessed dog, this likely wouldn’t be a useful tool in this application.


We need to be careful consumers when we select toys for our dogs. We need to provide toys that are safe and fun for each individual dog, and at times, we also may need to train the dog to use them. We need to watch for fear or undue frustration. For the dog’s safety, we need to closely observe his interactions with a toy before leaving him alone with it.

And finally, we may need to take time to teach even an experienced dog about a toy with a rule structure different from the one to which they are accustomed.

Portions of this article were first published in BARKS from the Guild, Pet Professional Guild’s official publication (10/2014).

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