A story of love and learning with an anxious dog

Midas the dog on a couch with two kids
When Lou adopted a strong malamute-husky mix named Midas who had bounced between homes, he changed her life, too.
By Sarah Thornton

As a young malamute-husky mix, Midas’ energetic, exuberant personality is an expected part of the package. He’s always wanted to run, sniff, explore, chase and have fun with his friends. But even if you knew what was coming ahead of time, he could sometimes be a lot to handle.

You see, Midas has separation anxiety. At one time, if he was left alone for even a minute, he would start looking for a way out of wherever he was, in an attempt to reunite with his friends and family. That sometimes meant doggy demolition and remodeling. In other words, he could be destructive. Seeing someone about to leave, he would try to grab clothing or even someone’s hand to prevent being left alone. All this added up to Midas being returned time and again after being adopted.

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Midas is a giant lovebug but his want to always be with his “pack” caused him anxiety. He needed someone to take the time to understand him and help him feel safe and confident. And when Lou fell in love with him, that’s exactly what she promised to do.

Exercising a malamute’s anxious mind

A staff and volunteer favorite from the moment he arrived at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Midas had striking good looks. But his conversational skills are what really charmed people. In typical husky fashion, he would happily whine, grumble, bark and howl with whoever indulged him in a chat.

He also thoroughly enjoyed his walks and was so excited to get up and go that he’d jump and pull with all his strength. Sometimes it took two people, each with a leash,  to keep hold of him. But once he was on the trail, he settled in and only tugged if he smelled or spotted another dog or something else irresistible. For those wanting to take him out on an adventure without all the pulling, he was a wonderful passenger on car rides, just as happy with the wind blowing through his fur.

Caregivers helped calm down Midas’ never-ending well of energy by engaging his mind rather than his muscles. He quickly learned sit, lie down and touch. And following training sessions (with his anxiety at a low ebb), he would finally settle in for a rest.

With regular mental and physical exercise, Midas did well, and it wasn’t long before he was adopted. But the adoptions never lasted very long. He was returned, then adopted and returned again. The right person for him would have to be dog-savvy, patient and willing to stick with him and work through his challenges. That person turned out to be Lou.

Falling in love with Midas

Lou, a California resident, first met Midas when volunteered for two weeks at the Sanctuary. The big, excited dog left quite an impression on her. “He was a wild man,” she recalls with a laugh. Midas was still mostly going for two-person walks when Lou decided to try taking him out on her own. That’s when she realized that he was much more than a pretty face. He was a ball of endless energy.

“The boy is ridiculously smart. All I had to do was say his name and he would turn around, come back and get a treat,” says Lou, who found that if she could be more interesting to him than what was going on around him, things went more smoothly. She loved him but was at the Sanctuary to volunteer and adopting just wasn’t part of the plan. But Lou had already planned return trips to the Sanctuary, and not long after meeting Midas, she was back for a workshop and an additional week volunteering in Dogtown. She took Midas on outings and adventures, and then set up a sleepover. They slept side by side all night, and while he was snuggled up next to her, the deal was all but sealed. Still, the timing remained a challenge.

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“I kept telling him ‘I love you, but I can’t. You can’t come to California. You’re too big. I’m moving. I didn’t want a long-haired dog and you have so much hair,’” Lou says. “But the next morning, I got out of my head and listened to my heart: ‘Oh, shoot. I really do love you.’ He just sidled his 80 pounds right up next to me in the morning and then we howled together. Oh, my gosh! He’s just a button of love, and there is nothing better than waking up in the morning laughing aloud with a bear hug and a howl.”

Indeed, a move from California to Utah was in Lou’s plans and she had already started building a home in Kanab, just south of the Sanctuary. But she wanted to wait until she was settled in her new place to bring a new dog into her life and, therefore, resisted the urge to adopt Midas.

Just a month later, she returned to Utah and she couldn’t resist another sleepover with Midas. During her time away, she says couldn’t stop thinking about him and kept looking at his photo on the Best Friends website. “I would try to rationalize (to myself): I don’t know. Should I take this on? Am I really up for this much of a challenge? And then, emotionally, my answer was always yep, he’s mine.”

She was always worried someone would scoop him up before she could, and when it almost happened, she found herself in tears. She started making calls and found a dog separation anxiety specialist near her in California, and pulled together a crew to make sure that Midas would never be alone during the day.

“I was adamant. I’m making a commitment. I will work with him, I will be there for him,” she says. “Because really, it’s not about his behavior. It’s the reason for that behavior. What is he feeling? What is he afraid of? And once he tells me about those emotions, then we’ll work together to help him feel more secure.”

And so finally, finally, Lou adopted Midas and brought him home.

Overcoming separation anxiety, slowly

Since adopting Midas, Lou says she’s learned a lot — not just about Midas but about herself as well.

“Everybody loves this boy. He loves people, he loves dogs (once he knows they’re gentle, like him) and he loves kids. He’s just a sweet gentle giant. Big Midas Man loves little kids more than anything else in the entire world. He will go up to a little two-year-old who wants to touch him, kiss their nose, and he will just stand there and let them do anything they want. He does it all the time.

“And my first lesson from that was, I didn’t know any of that about him, because when I met him, he was barking and howling and frantic. But as it turns out, he was also afraid.”

She’s also learned that Midas is scared of loud noises, busy streets, trains, the dark and assertive dogs. But he’ll play forever with a small dog. “We went to a 20-acre avocado farm with water, rocks to climb on and hiking trails,” she says. “I took him out there with a smaller dog he knew … and Midas was just in heaven. They played and played. And I thought, OK, this dog relaxes in nature. He loves to play. He loves to chase, and he loves to climb and swim.”

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Midas also has made friends with the neighbor’s dog, Delilah, and the two have become nearly inseparable, hanging out and playing whenever they get the chance. And to help him with his fears and build confidence in his interactions with the world and other dogs, Lou has worked with a behavioral consultant. It didn’t take long at all. Midas is able to look at a dog he would been scared of in the past and then look back at Lou for a treat before calmly turning around to go somewhere else.

They’ve also been making progress with his separation anxiety. Every day, they spend an hour practicing with him on staying calm when she leaves the house. They warm up with Lou taking short trips outside or to the garage, and then coming back after a few minutes to show Midas she’ll be back. She also has cameras installed so she can watch him on her phone to make sure he never gets too upset.

“Now, after a warmup, he can be by himself up to 35 minutes,” she says. “It took forever …  but boy am I proud.” (You can hear that pride in her voice.) “He’s to the point where he’s not showing any stress at all, and we are adding minutes every week.”

Midas can walk on a loose leash (though he still has his drive to pull off and check out interesting things). But he settles down calmly at Lou’s feet when they go out for coffee. She says they’re learning to communicate and balance her expectations with what Midas wants to do and where he wants to sniff. And as they work together, he grows more and more comfortable in his own fur.

“He is inconsistent about his preferences, incredibly savvy, and (he) prioritizes things differently on any given day,” Lou says. “He’s consistently funny, kind, gentle and loyal, but his opinion on things changes (and that’s) my biggest challenge. For example, one day he may feel that cheese is far better than getting to talk to a passing dog. Another day, nah. Who cares about cheese? I’ve learned to have a huge variety of rewards in my refrigerator.”

Life lessons from a dog

Lou says she’s learned that the quality of their walks depends on her reactions to Midas’ explorations — for example, when his attention turns to investigate something interesting and he pulls on the leash. “I am no longer frustrated or embarrassed when his behavior isn’t just so. Why would I be? He isn’t perfect and I’m not perfect. At first, it was scary not to have rigid rules with a dog but I learned that by accepting who we are, our needs and our imperfections, we have developed a bond that is far deeper than I’ve ever experienced.”

And, she says, the learning never stops: “I have had dogs my whole life, trained therapy dogs and had two service dogs of my own, as well as all kinds of wonderful dogs as family members. But he has taught me more about myself than any other dog … He's teaching me to be aware of and question both my expectations and frustrations with him. While he quickly mastered all his manners, Midas will never be a ‘Stepford dog.’ And I don’t want him to be. I’m constantly asking myself what I really need from him and why, and what he needs from me and why.

“Midas is a life lesson guy. He lives in the moment, and he is teaching me to do the same. He constantly makes me laugh and, for that moment, all the worries of my day disappear. He is open about his feelings and is teaching me the value of stopping and listening to them. By learning to accept him and love him for who he is, maybe one day I can do that for myself.”

Lou says theirs is a love story, and there is still so much more of it to write. And while the story may be leading Midas back to Utah, this time, it’ll be with his person at his side.

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