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How Do You Deal When Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety?

My Maltese has separation anxiety, and it's been a problem not just for him and me, but my neighbors, too.

 |  Jan 2nd 2014  |   12 Contributions


I thought I had planned for everything when I left my dog, Obi, home alone for the first time. New dog-friendly apartment complex? Check. Bedroom filled with all the toys, water, blankets, and food a dog could ever want? Check. Frozen peanut butter-filled Kong to keep him busy? Check. TV left on all day for some extra noise, electric bill be damned? Check. Note to neighbors apologizing in advance for any barking they might hear? Check. Lunchtime visits in the middle of my workday? Check. 

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It's possible I am as attached to Obi as he is to me.

I planned, and I planned, and I planned. What I hadn’t planned for was for an upstairs neighbor who happened to work from home and would be subjected to Obi’s daytime barking. This I only learned of when I came home after Obi's first day alone to an email from my landlord. It informed me of two things: One, my upstairs neighbor had lodged a formal complaint against me after a day of Obi’s barking; and two, I had two days to get a shock collar for my eight-pound dog, or else.

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Obi is happiest when he's snuggled with his humans in the big, human-sized bed.

The email knocked the wind out of my sails. I felt deflated ... and then I was just angry. I couldn’t believe that a shock collar had been presented as my first (and only) option for my anxiety-ridden pup. No talk, no compromise, no time. Just a swift kick in the pants to get the barking under control, “or else.”

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Although the Kong toy filled with peanut butter didn't stop Obi's anxiety, he still enjoys it... as long as he doesn't have to be alone.

I immediately ruled out the shock collar. It didn’t feel right to me. (Editor's note: We at Dogster agree.Instead, I explored other options.

I talked directly with my neighbor. Although she considered herself a dog person, she said my dog was interrupting her daytime naps and she needed her peace and quiet. She, too, told me I had two days to fix the problem ... “or else.” No one would tell me what this “or else” meant, but I didn’t really want to find out.

In truth, I desperately wanted to fix Obi’s barking -- not just for her sake, but for his. It became clear to me he was suffering from separation anxiety, which required the one thing I didn’t have: time. In that sense, fixing his barking “immediately” felt unrealistic. Yet a ticking tock now seemed to complicate an already frustrating situation.

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Obi's plush bed isn't even enough to stop him from feeling anxious when he's alone.

I returned to my apartment and cried. I felt bad for my dog. He had just moved to a new place, he was adjusting to being by himself, he didn’t understand why, and now he couldn’t even bark it out during the day.

I was already feeling like a bad dog mom for leaving Obi alone and for being unable to instantaneously quell his anxieties. That other people had taken notice to my obvious incompetence and were resorting to complaining about me to the landlord made me feel worse. I started to question whether I even deserved to have a dog. How could I be such a bad dog mommy?

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Obi has always been around people. Here, he's held by his best friend, my grandma.

Unfortunately, crying wouldn’t fix my situation, so I needed to come up with a new plan. A better plan. It required experimenting. I started with an ultrasonic barking device, which worked for all of 30 seconds until Obi started just barking right through it. (Apparently he was not bothered by the sound.) I looked into doggie day care options, but didn’t have an extra $500 to fork over each month. I tried a ThunderShirt, a peanut butter-filled Kong treat, a walk in the morning/at lunch/in the evenings to tire him out.

None of it worked. Here’s what did:

1. I gave him a smaller space to feel safe in

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When Obi is inside his bag, he feels at ease. The logical step for me was to put this bag into the bathroom with him when he's got to be alone.

In Obi’s case, a bathroom. He hates his crate and, in fact, will injure himself if left inside of it. So I had to rule that out. I scoured the Internet before I stumbled across the solution of using the bathroom, which seemed so obvious to me once I'd read it. Keeping him in my bedroom was a bit much -- there was the stimuli of the construction next door, the stomping of my upstairs neighbor, and the tall ceilings that caused his barks to echo. Instead, the small bathroom felt cozy.

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Music keeps Obi calm. When he's alone, he doesn't wear the headphones, I swear.

2. I added white noise

I opted for a combination of the bathroom’s built-in ventilation system and some music. A YouTube channel with music specifically designed to help anxious dogs, actually. I don’t know if it really works. But Obi seems to like it.

3. I gave him water

Much of what I read said to forgo water, lest you want to come home to a messy room. But after all that barking, I figured Obi would need some water for his poor little throat. I solved the “mess” dilemma by putting the water bowl on top of a towel.

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This dog is part of a larger toy set that's designed specifically for anxious dogs. The small stuffed dogs fit inside of a dog house and Obi has to figure out how to remove them; it's supposed to keep him busy and calm.

4. I gave him things that bring him comfort

I tried the frozen Kong and other toys that were intended to keep him busy. My food-driven little guy was so distraught by being alone, however, that he wouldn’t even touch them. Instead, I set him up with something he already loved: his travel bag. It’s a ratty, reusable cloth bag with a cheap (but comfortable) dog bed inside of it; sounds weird, but he loves it, and he’s had it since he was a puppy. He climbs in it willingly whenever he wants to go somewhere. To Obi, the bed and bag are symbolic that eventually, I’ll be back to get him.

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A simple YouTube search turned up some music intended to relax dogs. Does it work? I'm not sure, but Obi likes it!

These four items aren’t a perfect science. Admittedly, Obi still whines and cries when I leave him. But I haven’t gotten a nasty note from my upstairs neighbor and I can no longer hear his barking out in the hall when I get home. He’s getting there. And I like to think I am, too.  

Have you ever had a situation like mine? What did you do? Let us know in the comments!

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