Most dog professionals feel crates are a necessity when sharing your life with a dog. Crates can be a great management tool. They are helpful with a new puppy’s house-training routine. They can be a wonderful place for your dog to safely go and relax when there are too many visitors in the home or small children are at risk of bothering him. They are often recommended to safely transport dogs in a vehicle, and they can be a nice, comfy place for your dog to take his afternoon nap. But what about crate training for separation anxiety?
Having said all of the above, you may be surprised to hear that I don’t always recommend using a crate. The reason is, as a certified separation anxiety trainer, I spend much of my time working with dogs who suffer from separation anxiety and isolation distress. These dogs’ brains process things a bit differently, and confining them to a small space can often heighten their anxiety and stress levels. Think of it like being trapped in an elevator full of people, or in a traffic jam in an underground tunnel. Even those of us without anxiety issues may become a bit nervous or uncomfortable. Now add in an actual anxiety disorder and bam!, you have a full blown panic attack.
There could be several reasons a dog is not comfortable in a crate and it’s not always due to separation anxiety. If you have rescued a dog from a shelter, he probably spent many hours confined to a small wire kennel. It’s very possible that he has a negative association with this type of enclosure and won’t find an even smaller crate a comfortable place. This can sometimes be easily overcome by using positive reinforcement training and fun games to help your new dog build a positive association with his crate. Crate Games by Susan Garrett is one example.
When working with dogs who suffer from anxiety when left home alone, confining them to a crate or other small area is often recommended by well-meaning professionals. They might suggest using an exercise pen (also known as an X-pen), a baby gate, or closing the dog in one small room. The reasoning behind these suggestions is usually to prevent potty accidents on the rug and/or destruction to the home while the human is gone. The irony is that many dogs with separation anxiety manage to cause even greater destruction or self-injury while in their confinement area or crate. This can be seen in the form of torn up bedding, bent crate wires, broken teeth or bloody gums and/or nails. Not to mention, their anxiety typically worsens now that there is a combination of “home alone” and “confined to a small area.”
I have found that many of my clients’ dogs with separation anxiety also suffer from confinement anxiety. Therefore, they actually begin to relax and show more progress when allowed to be free in all or a large portion of the home. Once we eliminate this confinement, they no longer have that feeling of being trapped, or as if the walls are closing in on them. This allows us to introduce our behavior modification program with one less hurdle in front of us. My clients are very relieved once they see their dogs begin to relax and lie down on their comfy dog bed.
Our individualized protocol keeps the dog below their stress threshold during the desensitization process, which means they are not pushed to the point of destruction or self-mutilation. This allows the dog to move about and explore their environment calmly while their guardians’ know they won’t return to a mess. Humans are usually fine forgoing the crate once they realize how calm their dog is becoming.
Please don’t get me wrong. I still believe a crate can be a wonderful thing for a dog. In fact, some dogs I work with will seek out their crate and willingly go in it several times a day. I just think it’s important for all of us, including trainers and veterinarians, to consider that this is not a “one size fits all” solution. We must be willing to consider what’s best for each individual dog and honor those needs. This should include performing a proper and safe assessment to determine if a dog is comfortable in a crate, especially when left home alone. Some dogs need us to think outside the box before placing them in one.