Now that you have met my anxious dog Escher and learned the fundamentals of our training plan, it’s time to get to the good stuff: building a safe, calming, and FUN environment for your dog with separation anxiety.
Yes, there will be peanut butter.
If you can’t crate, get a gate…or two or three
We learned early on that Escher does not like to be confined and doesn’t quite understand the concept of a crate. In fact, the day we adopted him, we were watching him in his kennel while going over some things with the ASPCA’s behaviorist and I asked her if we should get a crate. At that very moment, Escher got up from his spot by the kennel door, walked into his crate, peed and took a dump, then walked back out to resume laying on the floor. “No, he thinks a crate is a bathroom,” the behaviorist advised as we all laughed. We also didn’t really have room for a crate in our small apartment so we never got one.
Believe me, life would be a whole lot easier if we could crate Escher while he’s home alone. I suggest trying a crate before trying anything else. Luckily my friend Sam (aka @pigpenthepittie) has written a whole guide on using a crate for separation anxiety.
But if the crate doesn’t work out, try the next best thing: baby gates. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, including extra wide and extra tall. I like the Regalo brand gates that use pressure to hold the gate in place. They’re very secure and you don’t have to screw them into the wall, which is great for us apartment renters. Luckily Escher has never tried to jump over the gate, nor do I think he could with his arthritic legs and lack of athletic skills. However, Escher has managed to knock or pull the gate down during moments of absolute panic. Recently we discovered these amazing Wall Nanny pads which I think should come standard with all pressure-mounted gates. He has not been able to knock over the gate since we installed those.
Once we got a webcam, we frequently observed Escher laying right next to the apartment door where he would howl for an hour or two, then fall asleep, only to resume howling anytime he heard a noise from the hallway. We already had a baby gate that kept him out of the bedroom (so he couldn’t eat the cats’ food and so our cats could have their own special feline space), so we decided to install another gate in the kitchen that would keep him about 15 feet from the front door. This made a HUGE difference in many ways: Escher could barely hear noises from the hallway and people in the hallway couldn’t hear him as much; Escher fixated less on the door (the evil portal that steals mom and dad) and stayed distracted by his toys/treats for a longer period of time; and the gate gave us the ability to control the space and the objects he could access while alone.
Now in our new apartment, we use the gate to keep Escher confined to the bedroom and office area while he’s home alone, which means we don’t have to completely dog-proof our kitchen, living room, and dining room every time we leave. The gate also helps a lot while we’re home because we can answer the door without worrying about him scaring the delivery guy or visitor. Whenever guests come over, we install a second gate in the bedroom just in case Escher needs his own private space. Gates are also really handy when your cat is barfing in the living room and you need to keep your dog from eating it while you grab the cleaning supplies! 😜
You might be wondering why we don’t just close a door to keep Escher confined to a specific room. Well, in our first apartment, we didn’t have any internal doors so that wasn’t an option. In our new apartment, we assumed Escher would not like being totally confined like that, especially since we would probably only close the door when it was time to leave. This assumption was dramatically confirmed the first time we left him home alone in the new apartment, confined to the office room with a gate across the doorway. After 10-15 minutes of panic, Escher accidentally closed the door on himself and then attempted to claw/chew/dig his way out…all while we watched via Nestcam. Now we have these baby-proofing door straps and bumpers on all doors because yes, we are those dog people.
Photo above: Our view of Escher (via Nestcam) while he was home alone and destroying my office door in a separation anxiety/confinement panic.
Take your gate to the next level with a great big curtain
This was one of those ideas that I really didn’t think would work, but decided to try anyway because the neighbors were gathering their pitchforks. Turns out it’s one of the best things we ever did. I noticed on the Nestcam that Escher would eventually calm down, but remain fixated on the door as if it could open any second and reveal a scary stranger or the grand return of mom and dad. So one day I installed a heavyweight floor-to-ceiling curtain right by the gate that blocked Escher from getting too close to the front door. I figured it would block his view of the door and hopefully provide some noise reduction, too. It wasn’t pretty and guests were thoroughly confused by it, but it worked for Escher and that’s all that matters.
Another way to manage sound is to leave the radio or TV on when you leave. It drowns out sounds from outside the apartment and I like to think that it makes Escher feel a little less alone. We turn on NPR at least 30 minutes prior to leaving (and we often listen to NPR while we’re home) so he doesn’t associate the radio with us leaving. In case you’re wondering, Escher’s favorite NPR show is Radiolab.
Photos above: A few more recent Nestcam screenshots showing Escher fully relaxed after playing with his toys.
Treat-dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter, and the art of distraction through enrichment
A lot of people with anxious dogs will actually get another dog or start fostering dogs to keep the anxious dog company while home alone. If that’s an option for you, then give it a shot and I’ll just sit over here being jealous. Unfortunately that was never an option for us due to Escher’s dog reactivity.
Instead we keep Escher distracted with food and toys. Since he doesn’t actually understand how to play with regular toys, all of Escher’s “alone time toys” are edible or treat-dispensing. They keep his mind busy while rewarding him for being calm (can’t eat while howling) and they help drain his energy a bit more. I honestly don’t know what we would do without these toys and I believe they are the #1 thing we can do for Escher’s separation anxiety. The key is to reserve these special toys and/or high value treats for your dog’s alone time. It may feel cruel to keep your dog’s favorite treat or toy hidden most of the time, but the fact that it’s his favorite makes it an excellent tool for you. We keep Escher’s alone time toys in a closet, deploy them right before we leave, and then put them back in the closet as soon as we get home. The goal is to make your dog associate you leaving with the appearance of his favorite toy or a tasty snack. Over time, he will build a positive association between the toy/treat and your absence. Hopefully this will ultimately change his reaction to you leaving. This is called counterconditioning.
One of the challenges we faced early on was Escher’s sensitive stomach and food restrictions. Even the tiniest piece of a treat or a lick of peanut butter would upset his stomach so we only allowed him to have his dry dog food. This eliminated a lot of the more popular treat-dispensing toys and forced us to try a lot of different things. Here are some of our favorite alone time toys:
- Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball: This treat-dispensing ball is so good that we got a second one and still use them today. Unlike most treat-dispensing toys, the food does not come out easily and Escher really has to roll it around a lot to get his reward. Best of all, it’s made of rubber instead of hard plastic so it doesn’t make as much noise while he’s rolling it around and bumping it into walls. This is not recommended for heavy chewers, though.
- Kong Wobbler: This one is for the heavy chewers. This treat-dispensing toy is also challenging, but not quite as much as the Tricky Treat Ball. This was the first treat-dispensing toy we tried, but the hard plastic made it a bit too noisy for apartment living.
- PetSafe Busy Buddy Twist ‘n Treat: This was our favorite before we found the Tricky Treat Ball. It’s also made of a softer plastic and the shape of it prevents it from rolling too far or too fast, thus reducing noise. The twist closure of this toy makes it easy to use this with a variety of treat sizes or even peanut butter.
- Goughnuts K9 Kup: This is a lot like a kong, but fully closed on one end and shaped like a cup. You can fill it with your dog’s favorite treat or a variety of treats in layers for added surprise! Freeze it and you have yourself a long-lasting distraction tool. We actually soak Escher’s dry food in water, mush it up, spoon it into the cup, drip in some CBD, top it off with some peanut butter, and then pop it in the freezer.
- Snuffle Mat: While I cannot vouch for the exact mat linked here, I can vouch for the concept of a snuffle mat. Back in 2014, I DIYed a snuffle mat with these instructions and it kept Escher quite busy whenever we left. I ended up passing it on to a friend once Escher’s separation anxiety became more manageable.
For more treat-dispensing toys, check out The Best Food-Dispensing Toys 2019 from Whole Dog Journal.
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