“He can’t be crated even if we’re in the next room. I know we should have worked harder at getting him to like his crate.”
This is what I recently heard from a client at our initial consultation for her dog’s separation anxiety, and it’s very common for me to hear this from many of my clients. I was quick to reassure this particular client that she didn’t do anything wrong.
Dog crate training for separation anxiety
One of the internet remedies I’ve seen for treating separation anxiety is to teach the dog to go in and be comfortable in a crate. I’m assuming this common myth about resolving separation anxiety is given because very often these dogs with separation anxiety will become so frantic with distress when left alone that they become destructive. Crated dogs aren’t likely to chew up the molding or destroy your shoes.
Unfortunately crating a dog with a severe phobia won’t solve the dog’s anxiety, and many times may make it even worse. There are many cases of dogs with separation anxiety who destroy the crate from the inside, and severely injure themselves in the process.
I believe that crating a dog that suffers from separation anxiety actually makes the dog’s anxiety worse when left alone. I truly understand why people do it – who wants to come home from work to discover a significant amount of damage? But crating a dog doesn’t actually treat the separation anxiety and shouldn’t be considered a remedy.
A likely reason as to why a crate is worse for a dog with separation anxiety issues is that they are already panicking when their people walk out the door, but now they’re confined and panicking. Not only is there a barrier between the dog and their owner with the door to the house, but being confined to a crate is an additional barrier.
What can be confusing to owners is that sometimes dogs with separation anxiety will be fine in a crate as long as the owner is home, but will panic when the owner leaves. The owner wonders why the dog loves the crate in one situation, but not the other. But remember that the problem isn’t the crate; it’s that the dog is phobic about being left alone.
Dogs are very good at discriminating context. A dog may love the crate when the owners are home because they feel safe when their people are in the house. But because the dog feels very unsafe when their people leave, the crate becomes an intolerable prison.
Loose dogs and destructive dog separation anxiety
When I explain to clients that during training it would be better to have the dog uncrated, they express a concern about the dog becoming destructive. But in most cases the destruction is a symptom of the anxiety. With training our goal is to help the dog learn to relax when left alone and eliminate the anxiety altogether. If we get rid of the anxiety, we get rid of the need to get destructive.
Some clients are still skeptical after I explain this, and then I point out that during training they will be watching the dog at all times remotely through a camera. If the dog becomes destructive, they will be able to come right back and we can re-evaluate. If not, by the time they can leave the dog for good they’ll know for sure through their many training sessions that the dog can be reliable in the house.
Additionally, for most dogs that have separation anxiety, the anxiety is worse when crated. Clients sometimes want to do the separation anxiety training while the dog is crated. This makes the training process that much harder, because not only do you need to teach the dog coping skills with the owner being gone, but you also have to overcome their crate anxiety.
Dog crating alternative
For owners that are worried a puppy or young dog will cause damage and are leery about the dog having the run of the house, a compromise is to use an exercise pen that gives much more space, or to gate them into a room.
However, training to ensure the dog can be happy and relaxed in that space should occur before working on departure training to treat the separation anxiety.
I had clients with a puppy that was initially left loose in the house during their separation anxiety training, and then they decided to gate him in the kitchen. His anxiety came back and we needed to work on conditioning him to love his kitchen set-up, and then started over with departure training. That work paid off, since the dog now happily runs into the kitchen area and lays on his bed when the owners leave.
Dog is anxious in the crate
If you suspect separation anxiety in a dog that has always been crated when their owners leave, it’s worth seeing how the dog does when left loose. I’ve had a few cases where the dog didn’t actually suffer from separation anxiety, but instead had a type of confinement phobia.
Setting up a camera, leaving the dog loose and watching the dog’s reaction to the owner’s departure can help in ruling out confinement anxiety. The owner doesn’t have to be gone for more than a few minutes and should be able to return immediately if the dog starts to exhibit anxiety. If it truly is separation anxiety the dog will display stress signals fairly quickly.
I am not anti-crate. All of my dogs have been trained to be comfortable in a crate, and were crated routinely for a period of time in their youth.
But given the fact that crating dogs with separation anxiety is counter-productive in most cases, it is not a good tool to use with those dogs.