Separation Anxiety and Sam

As I’ve mentioned, we are currently fostering a puppy named Dante through MCACC, the county shelter. After having Sam, who unfortunately suffered from SEVERE separation anxiety, I’ve often worried that our next dog would have the same tendencies. This blog is about Sam’s dealings with separation anxiety, what we tried to do, and what we could have done.

Sam had SEVERE separation anxiety and social anxiety, which wasn’t apparent when we adopted him. But it was something that took a toll on us mentally for the 10-11 years we had with him. Honestly, anytime I’ve thought of getting a dog again, part of me has been a little scared to wind up with another extremely anxious dog; dogs act differently at the shelter than they do once they become accustomed to a regular home and family. Sam was also very docile and friendly when we first met him. We brought him home for a week trial and he still did fine. Over several months, his anxiety grew as his attachment to us formed, and it was very hard for me especially. I spent almost a decade feeling stretched thin.

When we first adopted Sam, he was advertised as being crate trained. He didn’t have accidents, but he definitely hated being put in a kennel. We tried having him sleep in his kennel at night, but he howled all night and we hardly got any sleep. After only a couple nights, we decided he was well behaved enough to sleep in our bedroom. He didn’t get into anything as long as we were in the room, so what’s the harm? Ohhh, how naïve we were. I’m wishing we had stuck it out, tried to praise him and work with him to get him to enjoy being in his kennel. But instead we allowed him to sleep out of the kennel at night, so he only ever associated the kennel with being “left”.

Sam exhibited almost all the tell-tale signs of separation anxiety: barking, howling, breaking out of his kennel, chewing up his bedding, slobbering all over the place, but only when we would leave the house.

We had a special ritual when we’d leave:

1. Always play soft music
2. Open the curtains so he could see outside
3. Give him a Kong stuffed with peanut butter and treats
4. Try to tire him outside before carrying him to the kennel
5. Everyone else leave the house
6. Last person quietly steps away while he’s busy with the peanut butter

We would also have to put a special tray under his kennel to catch the slobber. The last kennel we used was slightly raised, with solid walls so his slobber would drizzle out through the front gate. Every time we returned, there was a big mess to clean, a saturated wadded up blanket, slobber all over the tray.

One of the problems, I also know, is that we couldn’t always take our time when leaving the house. In the mornings, getting 3 girls dressed and ready and fed, teeth brushed, hair brushed, make sure everyone has everything before we leave the house – it’s stressful. I know Sam felt some of that frustration and I rarely tried to disguise it. And with James working from home, there was almost always someone at the house with Sam, so we had few opportunities to reinforce the “we always come back” concept.

Of course, with animals dealing with separation anxiety, you’re supposed to stay calm, practice pre‑departure cues, and slowly introduce graduated departures. ASPCA gives some good reading on this. One note is that not all dogs will have separation anxiety, many won’t, and you won’t need to go through these steps at all. But after dealing with Sam, even if our next dog is more mellow, I’m determined to be calmer, reinforce that the kennel is a positive space, and do everything I can to make sure we don’t do anything to cause the anxiety to happen.