Things were changing this spring, and Fauci was anxious. After 14 months of nonstop attention, being alone led him to break things and lose his appetite. Like many other dogs rescued from shelters during the pandemic, ours — a 15-pound chihuahua mix with white paws who habitually stands on his hind legs like a meerkat (and yes, is named for that Fauci) — was adjusting poorly to the new normal.
When it was time to go back to the office, my partner and I hadn’t made as much progress as we’d hoped on the Things That Prevent Separation Anxiety in Pets: consistent spatial boundaries, rigid meal and sleep schedules, and a general sense of structured calm (concepts that had proven elusive for the humans, too). The vet had prescribed CBD and even Prozac, which was slow to take effect. Daily day care was neither affordable nor recommended. But if we couldn’t be there for our dog, maybe we could spy on him.
So began Operation Zero Bark Thirty: To help Fauci cope with stress, I would gather intelligence to support an evidence-based mitigation strategy. This meant launching a fact-finding mission with the cooperation of Dog Tech.
In Phase One, I sent away for a DNA kit from Embark, which promised to reveal breed or medical sensitivities that can affect a dog’s quality of life. Perhaps we’d learn that Fauci’s customary greeting upon our return home — repeatedly jumping two feet in the air and howling — was an inherited trait, not an indication of deteriorating mental health. When the results came back 43.5% Chihuahua, 25.8% Beagle, and the rest “Supermutt,” it made for great dog park conversation but wasn’t much use otherwise. The health data seemed more scientific — “Fauci has one copy of an FGF4 retrogene on chromosome 12” and a “normal altitude tolerance” — but not exactly actionable.
My next credit-card charge went to a pet-tracking company called FitBark, which sent me a bone-shaped GPS and biometric tracking device to attach to Fauci’s collar. Developed to facilitate dog-human research (like the 2018 study that reassured me it was fine for the dog to sleep in our bed), the device would monitor his location and activity rates throughout the day, providing a data-driven snapshot of the situation on the ground. Was he only hyperactive right after we left and when we walked in the door, or was he running laps around the apartment all day? Would he develop more consistent routines as he got used to being alone?
FitBark provided no concrete answers, but it did make me more aware of some of Fauci’s patterns — as well as my own. With a points system that rewards high activity levels and notifications that encourage personal record-breaking, the FitBark was, like my FitBit, a surprisingly effective motivator. Periodic “Time for a walk?” suggestions from FitBark implicated both me and the dog; with two devices tracking us, we were twice as likely to get moving.
I couldn’t imagine a world where I monitored anything this much, let alone a chihuahua who would abandon all dignity for one bite of a hot dog.
FitBark’s weekly reports came via email with aspirational subject headings like, “Stay on top of how your dog is feeling with the FitBark Health Index.” But the sleekly designed dashboards provided so much raw information, I felt like I needed a data-science degree to identify what was important. One week, Fauci was “more active than 67% of Small Sized Dogs of Adult Age,” and slept 3.9 fewer hours than he had the week before. Was that brag-worthy or bad? It also troubled me that FitBark had begun awarding me points using my FitBit data. Surely it was a benchmarking problem that I was #2, behind Fauci, on the Top Dog Board.
The grandiosity of FitBark’s pitch had grated on me: “We couldn’t imagine a world where we monitor our own health, but not that of our dogs.” Now, as a user, I couldn’t imagine a world where I monitored anything this much, let alone a chihuahua who would abandon all dignity for one bite of a hot dog.
Still, it was amusing to see Fauci’s activity mapped by the hour, and the alerts I got when my partner took him out for a walk felt comforting, even homey. I felt almost proud that my dog was contributing to FitBark’s meta dog data, used to create extensive reports on sleep efficiency by breed (boxers do it best) and a ranking of Europe’s most active dogs (Switzerland wins).
The tracking device had a short battery life, though, and some days I forgot to charge it. Soon, I began ignoring FitBark’s “Where’s Fauci?” reminders to reconnect the GPS. But I still had a taste for surveillance. So when an ad for Barkio — a dog monitor app that promises “your dog will never feel lonely at home on its own” — crossed my Instagram feed, I signed up. It led me through the process of setting up an old iPad as a dog camera and my smartphone as the monitor.
During my first full week back at the office, Barkio helped ease the transition. I could see if Fauci was barking and head home on my lunch break to let him out. The microphone feature allowed me to remotely coo at him through the iPad, which my coworkers kindly tolerated.
But the influx of information became overwhelming when I was too far from home to respond to it, or when it was socially unacceptable to chant “Good boy!” at something no one else could see. At my family’s first restaurant dinner together in 18 months, I was a model of poor manners, constantly checking my phone as it lit up with an onslaught of notifications:
1 min ago: Dog is resting.
2 mins ago: Dog is noisy.
5 mins ago: Dog is resting.
My mom gently suggested that this didn’t seem to be helping anyone. She was right: I was anxious about Fauci being anxious and missing out on quality time with the humans I had waited so long to see.
Later that week, we went to a baseball game, checking off another post-vaccination first. Fauci received some CBD and toys packed with treats to occupy him at home, and I decided to turn off Barkio notifications. I worried a few times that this was irresponsible, but reassured myself that the setup would keep him stimulated, yet slightly sedated, and most importantly, safe.
The White Sox rallied to win in the bottom of the ninth inning, and after exchanging high-fives with people outside my household (and then briefly panicking about it), I snuck a Barkio check. Fauci seemed … fine. (The high-fives were probably fine, too, since so many of us were vaccinated.)
As the celebratory light show started up, it felt dreamy to be in the world again, and I sensed the release of an anxiety bigger than just dog-parent guilt: It seemed like everything might keep getting better. I didn’t have the statistics to prove it, but the fans were cheering and we’d be home with Fauci soon, and that was enough data for the moment.