Enrichment For Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Studies suggest that 22-55% of dogs have separation-related problems. However, this figure is likely an underestimate, because it doesn’t account for behaviors that the guardian doesn’t notice and dogs who don’t express their distress through their behavior. Medication and dog training have shown varying degrees of success in reducing separation anxiety, but they can require significant time, dedication, and skill on the part of the guardian. These interventions are also targeted at addressing anxiety alone, and not other negative separation-related emotions such as frustration or boredom.
This study explores environmental enrichments, particularly food-based enrichments, as an alternative method to address negative emotions in companion dogs when they are left alone. Four food-based enrichments were selected for the study:
- Long-lasting chew
- A toy that dispenses food when played with
- A device that dispenses kibble once a minute while a human voice praises the dog
- A device that dispenses kibble once a minute without the human voice praising the dog
After the dogs got comfortable in the testing environment, they were exposed to each of the four food-based enrichments separately for 20 minutes each. The dogs were closely monitored by CCTV cameras.
Other than the toy, which a few dogs ignored, all dogs played with all enrichments. Dogs in all four conditions were equally likely to try to escape or destroy objects.
The results showed that the dogs spent more time playing with the chew than with the other enrichments. The dogs spent significantly more time physically touching the chew than the other enrichments. The dogs also spent significantly less time engaging with the chew without touching it than they did with the other enrichments. The chew also reduced the number of non-chew-related stationary behaviors the dog performed. In the first ten minutes, dogs with the chew were happier and less anxious than dogs in other interventions. Early on, dogs with the chew were less curious and engaged than dogs in other conditions; however, the levels of engagement became more similar over time.
Dogs with the chew or the toy became more anxious over time; dogs with the device didn’t. Dogs with the toy were happier than dogs with the device in the first five minutes, but less happy in the last five minutes. Later in the session, dogs with the toy were less curious and engaged than dogs with other enrichments. The emotional changes for dogs with the toy may have occurred because the toy ran out of food. The presence or absence of a voice made no difference for dogs in the device condition.
Chew toys seem to be the best method of reducing stress and anxiety for dogs separated from their guardians. However, dogs responded similarly to many of the enrichments. As there was no control group, it’s impossible to know which enrichments were an improvement over no enrichment at all. Because the study sessions were short, only 20 minutes, it’s difficult to know if these results would generalize to a dog who is home alone all day.