I’ve tried sneaking out of the house. I’ve tried distraction with toys, highest-value treats, and interactive puzzles. I’ve tried desensitization training and counterconditioning. I’ve read every book on the market and every blog on the web, but none of my efforts to cure my two-year-old Vizsla, Finley, of her separation anxiety have worked.
Just when I thought I had tried every option available short of hiring a professional behaviorist, I stumbled upon the 21st century’s answer to leaving your dog home alone: Digital Dogsitter.
With the tagline, “Train Your Dog to Stay Home Alone. With Love,” the computer software is designed for dog owners whose pets become highly anxious, often to the point of being destructive, when they’re left by themselves. Desperate to try anything that might help alleviate the problem with my pup, I immediately downloaded the free trial and hoped for the best.
The idea behind Digital Dogsitter is to allow owners to communicate with their pets when they’re gone by correcting any barking or loud vocalizations. The system “listens” to the dog while the humans are away and then plays a recording of the owner’s voice if her furry friend breaks the volume limit. Users are instructed to record corrections — such as “Quiet!” or “Shhh!” — so that the dog will hear the command and consequently calm down.
I quickly discovered that the program is fairly user friendly (despite its somewhat technical appearance) and pretty straightforward. After testing my computer’s microphone, I set the threshold fairly low so that it would capture any sounds of distress. Once I had recorded a few of my own Finley-specific commands, I put the program in “Watch” mode and left my pup alone in a closed-off living room while making my usual “leaving the house” noises, opening the back door and letting it slam shut.
As expected, she began pacing and whining immediately. But her soft, high-pitched whimpering didn’t exceed the volume threshold.
After six minutes or so, she suddenly barked twice. I have to admit, it was funny hearing my recorded voice say, “Finley, no! Shhh!” through the computer on the living room table. But much to my shock and awe, Finley immediately stopped making noise.
A few moments later, I heard another whine and another bark, followed by another one of my recordings, “Quiet! Shush!” Then another two barks and some additional commands.
Then came the familiar “thunk” of magazines and envelopes through the mail slot. The mailman had made his afternoon visit, which usually sets Finley off in a tailspin of barking and frantic panting as she follows his silhouette from window to window, jumping up at the blinds. Only this time, she became quiet after just three or four barks. She didn’t have an uncontrollable meltdown. I was shocked. With me nowhere in sight, I guess she didn’t see a reason to warn the entire household of the potentially threatening mail carrier outside the door.
Then there was silence. Absolute quiet. No more whining or pacing. Just complete and utter calm.
I figured she must be just starting out the window, wondering where I was and how I could have been talking to her from inside the house after she heard me leave. This, of course, pleased me to no end. My smart-as-a-whip dog was just outsmarted by a computer program! And, best of all, she wasn’t scratching furiously at the door trying to escape the house to come find me, which is her usual response when she knows I’ve left.
Over-the-moon happy with the success of the program so far, I decided to go outside and let Finley see me walk down the driveway and into the street. This would be a true test of Digital Dogsitter since Finley usually gets the most worked up when she can physically see the distance between her and me.
As soon as I made it to the end of the driveway, she let out a chorus of shrieks and barks — her usual hysterical display when she realizes how far away I am. After letting her throw a fit for a few minutes, I waited for a moment of quiet and then walked back up the driveway. The recorded commands didn’t seem to have as strong of an effect once she passed the point of no return in her tantrum.
When I got back inside and reviewed the log, I found nine recordings of Finley breaking the volume threshold. That wasn’t as bad as I had expected, but the software didn’t seem to have captured every single staccato bark during her outburst. System overload, I think it’s safe to say. So I think the key for me (and probably some other pet owners with a similar problem) is to trick my dog into thinking I’m still in the house, or to prevent her from seeing me leave by going through a window. That’s not a difficult thing to do, but it definitely requires a little extra effort.
I can imagine this kind of technology would work nicely for owners whose pets bark intermittently during alone time and need a simple correction as a firm reminder. And for the price ($18 for three months; $44 for a full year), Digital Dogsitter is one of the more affordable options when it comes to dealing with separation anxiety.
Overall, I was impressed with how effective Digital Dogsitter was with Finley’s first isolated protests. She really responded to my recorded voice and seemed genuinely convinced I was still nearby. If I had just closed the front window shades or put her in a room without street-access windows, I’m confident she would have done very well long-term. That said, I plan to keep using the program in conjunction with more rigorous desensitization training. From now on, I’ll try putting her in the basement with my portable laptop whenever I leave so she can’t see me out the window. And I don’t have to see those sad puppy dog eyes begging me not to leave!
Does your dog experience separation anxiety? Would you use a product like this? Tell us in the comments!
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About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).