Now that we’re all months into a global pandemic, spending more time at home seems normal. But when our local shelter called my husband and I in January to ask about fostering a 7-year-old, 123-lb Mastiff named Mayflower, COVID-19 wasn’t even a blip on our radar yet.
Mayflower, had been at Centre County (PA) PAWS for more than a year, arriving in November 2017. Very shy and easily spooked, this large dog demonstrated signs of separation anxiety from the start.
When left alone, her pacing, panting, and drooling escalated to chewing through tough surfaces. She bent the sides of a metal crate trying to escape and started to work her way through a plastic sink in the shelter’s decompression room. It was clear she needed support.
The Value of Good Friends
Otherwise, Mayflower’s disposition made her a favorite at the shelter. Once she bonded with a person, she was loyal and devoted. Her squiggly butt would even shake in excitement to see you approach, begging for head and body rubs.
Despite obvious signs of anxiety when alone, she was mellow to the core with someone she liked. The affection everyone felt illustrated itself in the various nicknames she collected: May, May-May, May-Baby. Anytime you saw the initials ‘MF’ written (on bags of treats, deli ham packages, or medicine logs), everyone knew that was for Mayflower. She was Queen of this shelter’s ship!
Her easygoing manner with other dogs also developed into an important new role: temperament tester of the new dog intakes. Since Mayflower didn’t react negatively to any of the new dogs, she was instrumental in helping the shelter staff and volunteers get a good handle on the personality of canines being brought in.
A Surprising Side Effect of the Pandemic
As the months went on without any adoption inquiries for May, the behavioral team at PAWS felt it was time to find a foster home. That’s when we got the call. We had recently relocated to the area and signed up for fostering. The reason we were asked is because I work from home. Knowing that MF didn’t like to be left alone, this made a ton of sense.
My husband Pete and I agreed to give it a try. I went to the shelter nearly every day for six weeks, in a committed effort to earn Mayflower’s trust. It took two weeks before she would even allow me to walk her alone. Eventually, she knew me and I began to see that sweet butt wiggle upon my approach. We began making plans for her to come home with us and projected that late March would work well.
Then COVID-19 hit.
As our community started to shut down, the shelter acted quickly, placing as many animals as possible in foster care. At the time, they had no idea what staff and volunteer availability would be like. It was a mad dash to get everyone safe and sound in this new, unknown, and changing environment.
On Tuesday afternoon, March 17, I drove over to pick up Mayflower. Several staff and volunteers packed up her big bag of essentials—food, leash, harness, treats, toys—and helped guide her into my car. Neither Mayflower nor I knew how things would work out but she got in my car without pausing, so I felt like we were both ready to give it a try.
Our Biggest Concern
The most significant worry Pete and I had about fostering MF was whether we’d ever be able to leave the house due to her separation anxiety. Even though I was always there during the day, I could run an errand or slip out for a long walk without any planning. Grabbing the occasional dinner or getting together with friends suddenly needed to be carefully coordinated and scheduled.
But, as fate would have it, the pandemic provided a fortuitous solution! With each passing day, events were canceled, shops and services closed, and mandates to stay at home were issued. Mayflower had no worries because we had no where to go.
Finding Malena and Feeling a Shift
While getting acquainted with May, I started researching separation anxiety. Another trusted dog trainer I follow, Suzanne Clothier, recommended Malena DeMartini. I devoured the information on Malena’s site, including the blog posts, numerous video interviews and podcasts. I also read her book in a matter of days.
I mentioned this amazing resource at PAWS and to my delight, the shelter was extremely supportive of engaging Malena’s help. We had an exploratory call before Mayflower came to our home, which provided a good foundation. Malena suggested allowing May time to “just be” for the first few days and not ask anything of her except to relax and get familiar with her new surroundings.
Having Malena’s expertise and experience made dramatic differences in our outcomes. It also gave us confidence and reduced stress throughout the entire process.
First, two guiding principles helped us create our plan. Knowing that we could leave the house – as long as we had coverage – meant our lives would not be that dramatically impacted. It was also easy to think that our training time would be focused and limited to just 30 minutes a day. Having those two directives gave us a roadmap we felt was doable.
Secondly, having Malena’s input on seemingly little decisions made a huge difference. For example, she suggested we forgo the crate training that had begun at the shelter. Mayflower could tolerate about 30 minutes in the crate before her stress levels showed, but she made it clear she didn’t enjoy being in there at all.
Instead, Malena suggested we let her have access to the main floor of the house and that worked perfectly. Without her guidance, I would have continued to try the crate, but I don’t think any amount of cajoling would have convinced May it was a good option.
Malena’s daily guidance was key, as well. Just having someone to query about any nuances or changes allowed us to focus on the training itself and not obsess over what to do. For fluid communication, we kept a collaborative spreadsheet accessible via Google Docs.
Malena checked in daily to see how May’s exercises had gone and from there, she would make recommendations for the next day. If we had a day when Mayflower regressed, Malena reassured us it was a normal part of the process, which kept us from worrying we had done something wrong or worse—thinking she would never get better.
In the six weeks we worked together, Mayflower went from zero to four hours of stress-free time alone! I never anticipated we would have such success. I know every dog is different and outcomesvary, but honestly, I believe any dog would benefit from such a positive, supportive approach.
Pandemic Or No, It Was Always Possible
The pandemic drastically reduced the times Pete and I needed to enlist volunteers to watch May, since we simply weren’t going out as much. That made things easier for us, minimizing coordination and planning. But in the end, whether living during COVID times or not, I now know separation anxiety can be addressed with amazing results.
Mayflower continues to be here with us and we don’t think twice about leaving the house for hours. She settles in and naps, sometimes not even getting up to greet us upon our return. This beautiful, slobbery love giant is still looking for her forever home. She’ll enjoy every moment she’s with you, but she’s proven she can be without you for a short time, too!
Robin and Pete Eichert are fostering Mayflower in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. They also share their home with their two orange cats, Oliver and Dodger. You can learn more about Mayflower here.
Adoption info link: https://www.centrecountypaws.org/dogs/adopt
Direct email for inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org