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Our dogs are social animals that love nothing more than being by our side. However, the strong bond they share with us can lead many to become anxious and stressed when they’re alone. This can reveal itself in destructive behaviors such as barking, whining, and chewing.
Dogs with separation anxiety can be extremely difficult to crate train – the crate should feel like a safe and secure space, but being kept away from us can make them feel the opposite.
That’s why today, we’ll cover some practical tips for crate training a dog with separation anxiety.
What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), “separation anxiety is when your dog exhibits extreme stress from the time you leave him alone until you return.”
The telltale signs of separation anxiety in dogs are:
- Exhibits stress or agitation when you’re about to leave
- Engaging in destructive behaviors when you’re not around
- Barking, whining, howling, or pacing
- Scratching at doors
- Having accidents inside the house
- Drooling, panting, or excessive salivation
- Attempts to escape the house (or get to the room you’re in), even if they injure themselves
Separation anxiety can be the result of several things, from genetics and trauma to a lack of proper socialization. Some breeds are more prone to separation anxiety than others, such as cavalier spaniels, border collies, and Labrador retrievers.
Crate Training a Dog With Separation Anxiety: Step-By-Step Guide
Crate training a dog with separation anxiety can take several months, so it’s important you remain patient, calm, and collected throughout the process. Be persistent but don’t push them too far, as otherwise, you could increase their fear of the crate (and being left alone!).
Positive reinforcement – also known as reward-based training – is by far the best approach. Punishment will only serve to elevate your dog’s anxiety and stress levels. Studies have shown that punishment-based methods can even increase aggressive and destructive behavior in dogs.
Before you begin crate training your dog, make sure they’re not wearing a collar or tag. These items can easily end up catching on the crate’s walls and injure your pup. You should also ensure the crate is the appropriate size – it should be spacious enough that they can move around easily but still enclosed enough that it doesn’t feel too open and exposed.
Introducing the Crate
Set up the crate in a quiet corner of the house where your pup will feel more at ease. Avoid busy areas like the kitchen or living room; constant noise and movement can elevate stress levels. Of course, some dogs might prefer the comfort of a social space. Every dog is different, and you know your dog best.
Once you’ve set up the crate in your desired location, leave the door open and encourage your dog to explore it. It’s crucial you don’t force them into the crate or pressure them.
Every time they look at the crate, praise them and reward them with a treat. If you use clicker training with your dog, click as soon as they engage with the crate.
Each time your dog becomes more confident, increase the difficulty of the reward criteria. For example, instead of rewarding them for looking at the crate, reward them for going near the crate. This technique is known as “shaping,” and it’s a fantastic way to get an anxious dog to engage with training without feeling pressured.
Anxious dogs may refuse to approach the crate, especially if they’ve had bad experiences with it in the past. If this is the case, there are a few tactics you can try:
- Lure your dog by scattering their favorite toys and treats near the crate.
- Sit beside the crate and speak to your dog in a high-pitched, excitable voice. This will pique your pup’s curiosity.
- Start smaller: disassemble the crate and simply put the crate’s bottom tray out for them to explore. As they grow more confident, gradually reassemble the crate, making sure to reintroduce them each time you add another part.
Making the Crate a Positive Environment
Dogs with separation anxiety tend to associate a crate with anything but a positive experience. After all, it keeps them away from you. Considering this, it’s important you make the crate a fun, safe, and comfortable environment. Here’s how:
- Add a soft, cushioned bed inside the crate. Ideally, opt for a bolster bed. A bolster bed has raised edges which can help anxious dogs feel more secure.
- Add a blanket covered in your scent.
- Feed your pup their meals close to their crate, and gradually move their dinner bowl inside it. They’ll soon learn to associate the pleasurable experience of eating with the crate.
- Fill the crate with treats, toys, and puzzle games to keep them entertained, happy, and busy. Swap out toys regularly to prevent boredom.
- You’ll want to particularly incorporate anxiety-relieving toys. Calming sprays can potentially help some dogs.
Keep at this process until your dog willingly (and happily) stays inside the crate. Don’t attempt to shut the crate door at this stage – remember, patience is the best approach.
Increasing Crate Time
The next step is to encourage your dog to stay in the crate with the door closed.
- Wait until your dog is inside the crate. Then, feed them a treat and slowly shut the door. Avoid making any sudden movements or loud noises, and don’t lock the door.
- Open the door after 5 seconds, and reward them with another treat or playtime.
- Repeat this method and slowly increase the time you keep the door shut. Try not to pay attention to your dog while the door is closed.
- Once your dog can comfortably stay inside the closed crate for 15 minutes, you’ll need to repeat the process again, though this time with the door locked.
If your pup starts whining it can be tempting to open the crate, scoop them out, and shower them in affection and love. However, this will only hinder their progress thus far – letting them out will reinforce their negative feelings and belief that the crate is a place they need to be taken away from. It’ll also teach them that whining is the best way to gain your attention.
If your dog whines, wait until they’re quiet before letting them out. Then, you’ll need to take it back a notch training-wise – it’s usually a sign you pushed them too quickly.
Leaving Your Dog Alone in Their Crate
This is the trickiest step by far: getting your dog to be comfortable alone in the crate when you’re not in the room with them. While difficult, it’s entirely possible with the right approach and mindset.
- Once your dog is inside the crate, walk a few steps away from them.
- After a few seconds, go back to the crate and reward your dog with a treat.
- Repeat this process, slowly increasing the distance and duration.
- You can start leaving the room once your pup is feeling confident, though initially only leave the room for a few seconds at a time. You also shouldn’t shut the door on them.
- Don’t make a fuss or show signs that you’re planning to leave. This will just put them on alert and increase their anxiety levels.
Whenever you return to your dog’s side, make sure to ignore them until they’re calm and settled. Then, open the crate door and reward them with praise and treats.
Tips for Crate Training a Dog With Separation Anxiety
There are a few more things you can do to help your dog feel safe and comfortable in their crate.
Vary When You Leave Your Dog Alone
You should regularly change up when you leave your dog alone. If you stick to a strict schedule, your dog will learn to anticipate you leaving. This can cause them to become anxious, as they’ll be hyper-focused on your departure and won’t focus on anything else. While some structure is normally unavoidable, you can help vary it up by doing daily tasks, such as going out to the shops, at different points of the day.
Desensitize Your Dog to Departure Cues
Through desensitization, you can train your dog to not stress over signs of departure – such as putting on a coat or picking up your keys. Desensitization involves exposing your pet to stimuli they find stressful in a non-confrontational way over a period of time. Eventually, your dog becomes accustomed to the trigger and doesn’t react to it.
Here’s how to desensitize your dog to departure cues:
- Put your dog in their crate and wait until they’re settled.
- Now, act out one of your departure cues, such as picking up keys, putting your shoes on, or fetching your coat. Don’t leave the room while you act out this cue.
- Wait a few minutes, then put any items away and go back to your normal behavior.
- Repeat this process, increasing the duration and trying it in different rooms of the house.
- Do this training technique sporadically throughout the day.
- Once your dog no longer reacts, start leaving your house for brief periods.
- Repeat the process with another departure cue.
Keep in mind desensitization is only effective if it’s gradually built up – you can start “small” by fiddling with your keys or simply moving your coat. Base your starting point on what your dog can comfortably tolerate.
Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Always ensure your dog is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation throughout the day, especially before you put them in their crate. This will help them feel more settled and at ease. Research has shown that a lack of daily exercise particularly can increase separation anxiety in dogs.
Never Make the Crate a Punishment
Sure, dogs can drive us barking mad at times, but they’re not going out of their way to be naughty or frustrate us. They simply don’t understand the difference between right and wrong in the human sense! As we mentioned earlier, you should never punish your dog, and that includes using the crate as a “time out” if you feel your dog has been up to no good.
If you use the crate as a method to punish your dog, they’ll never learn to associate it as a place they can feel comfortable, and their anxiety is just going to rise through the roof whenever you try to put them in it.
Don’t Leave Your Dog Alone for Long Periods
You should never leave your dog in their crate for hours on end. It’ll cause them to become frustrated, agitated, and even more anxious. The crate should always be a positive experience for them.
Keep crate time short, with 4 hours being the absolute maximum. However, be aware that for dogs with separation anxiety, 4 hours is often too long. Some can only tolerate 30 minutes – consider what your dog can comfortably tolerate, and don’t push it further than that amount.
Whenever you leave your dog alone in their crate, make sure they have games, treats, and toys to keep them entertained. Don’t forget to throw in a blanket covered in your scent as well.
Combatting the Underlying Cause
Crate training is only one method to tackle separation anxiety. There are plenty of other measures you can (and should) try to help your dog be comfortable with being alone. With the right approach, you can even get your dog to enjoy being left to their own devices.
While we can’t cover all the treatment methods in detail here, here are the main ones you should check out next:
- Anxiety-relieving supplements
While it can be a difficult and lengthy process to crate train a dog with separation anxiety, the payoff is worth it. Your dog deserves to be happy, whether or not you’re by their side. Crate training can provide them with a safe space where they can feel at ease throughout the day.
If crate training does not improve your dog’s separation anxiety, it’s worth looking into alternative methods, such as medication, desensitization, and anxiety-relieving supplements.