Today’s post was inspired by a friend who was seeking help with crate training and separation anxiety issues. I would have loved to have been able to help him in person, but in lieu of flying to Texas, I decided to write this blog post discussing separation anxiety and how crate training can be immensely helpful for both human and canine in managing and resolving these issues. It’s a hot topic of discussion and one that many new and seasoned dog owners struggle with.
Q: Recently when I tell Mina, my 1 year old pit mix, to go in her kennel she starts shivering and shaking. She had bad kennel anxiety when we first got her, but then she seemed to be over it. She’s happy to go in there to get a toy or even to lay down if we’re still in the room, and she will still go in if I give the command – she just looks like she’s having a small panic attack. I never send her in as punishment, though I sometimes try to get her to go there just so she can learn to have a space that isn’t directly beside me. She is crated every time we leave the house. Any thoughts on what to do?
A: Great question! I am a huge advocate for crate training and think you’re doing the right thing, so keep at it. Crate anxiety can be a really tough thing to work through, for canines and humans! There are a lot of factors that are very important to keep in mind with crate training and separation anxiety / crate anxiety issues. First and foremost, all humans need to understand and accept that crating your dog is not cruel. The state of mind, energy, and attitude that you bring to the crate with your dog will impact their perception of it. When done properly, crates should provide a safe and calm space for your dog recreating a den like experience for your dog to relax in. Providing you routinely give your dog mental and physical exercise prior to crating, dogs can be crated on a daily basis quite comfortably. For some homes crates are used for the first year or so for training, and for some it is a lifelong ritual. Either is fine, although, like everything with dogs it depends on the dog and their humans; some dogs and families do require crating consistently if dogs have ongoing anxiety that can result in destructive or overly anxious behavior.
Crate training can be an excellent way to help dogs with separation anxiety, but the process is often challenging in the beginning, because they have to overcome the hurdle of both being confined if they are not used to it and being their pack. Many dogs struggle with these issues on varying levels. I have seen dogs that can and will destroy any crate, chew through walls, do damage to themselves, tear up furniture, howl, cry, or pant all day long. It is common for dogs to have a hard time when their human pack leaves the home. Dogs are pack animals. They are genetically designed to stay with their social group. As a part of their lives with us, however, they must learn to cope with separation because for most humans it is unrealistic for us to stay home all day everyday.
Everyone knows that having a dog is very time consuming. Dogs with different temperaments or energy levels may require different amounts of stimulation, but when it comes to being crated I like to encourage my clients to keep a consistent schedule with crating in the beginning, starting with short amounts of time and gradually increasing the amount of time the dog stays in the crate alone as the dog becomes more comfortable. While there are some exceptions, I like to put a 4-6 hour cap on crate time without a potty break or walk. For some families this may mean hiring a mid day dog walker if work hours exceed that amount of time. While most adult dogs can go longer than that without a potty break it is no life for a dog to be cooped up that long regularly.
I highly recommend working on crate training while you are home at first. Get them used to the crate while you are there. Start by being in the same room with your dog in the crate for short periods of time. Then move into other rooms. Then practice leaving the house for short periods of time.
Let’s get into each step of crate training with more detail. When starting crate training, it is important to go slowly and progress accordingly. If you are having issues with your process, break it down to simple steps and remember that sometimes it is better to take a step backwards and improve than to move forward too quickly. There are several key things you want to accomplish in crate training your dog, and keeping a calm state of mind is the essential foundation.
Step 1 – Going into the crate with a calm state of mind: Make sure you dog can walk comfortably and calmly into and out of the crate on command. Start this process with the dog on leash and using leash pressure guide your dog into the crate giving a “kennel up” or “crate” or “bed” (whatever command you choose for sending your dog to their crate) as they are stepping into the crate. Repeat this regularly until your dog is highly comfortable going in the crate on leash on command with no leash pressure, remains calm in the crate, and waits calmly to be released with the crate door open. Every dog requires a different amount of time, but for example, if you are just starting the process, on day one you may do 5 short sessions of 10-15 minutes with maybe 20 repetitions of going in and out. Maybe on day 2 you will do another 5 short sessions but you will only need to do 10 repetitions in and out calmly until your dog is running through this process comfortably. Then maybe on day 5 each time you crate your dog you ask them to go in and out twice and they are obedient and calm and you don’t need to do more than that. Whatever your dog needs, that is how many times you must go through this process with them. If you dog is highly resistant to going into the crate I highly recommend contacting a professional who has experience in this area. Do not force, drag, push, or pick up and put a dog into a crate if they are not mentally prepared. This will make the issues worse, create a negative association, and mostly likely you will never have a dog who willingly goes into their crate on command.Once your dog can go in and out of the crate with the leash on command, work up to giving the command with out the leash on.
Step 2 – Coming out of the crate with a calm state of mind: As you are working on training this, also make sure you dog does not charge out of the crate when you open the crate door. Your dog should be calm and respectful coming out of their crate. This does several things for your dog and your relationship with your dog. If you release your dog from their crate when they are in a high state of anxiety or excitement they will most likely charge out, tear around the house, and jump all over you. They will be conditioned to have this state of mind and while many of us may read this excitement as “happiness” that is a gross humanization of dog behavior. Yes, your dog should be happy to see you but if your child came home from school and acted that way, you would take them to the doctor. It is not a healthy state of mind. Reward calmness and that is what you will get. I also like to encourage clients to not let their dogs out of their crates immediately when they arrive home. Come home and ignore your dog completely for at least 10 minutes or so. Wait for your dog to be calm before you even acknowledge them. Coming in and giving them high pitched praise or excitement will just increase their excitement. On that note, during the crate training process
A good challenge for many dogs with crate anxiety can be to have them remain in their crates with the door open while you are home with them. If you have done a good job at teaching them to respect the crate threshold, they will learn to self regulate relaxation inside the crate while you’re there.
If you are having extreme behavioral issues surround crate training or separation anxiety, contact a professional who has success in handling this kind of behavior. There are varying ideas on how to train or manage this kind of behavior. While sometimes medication can be a helpful and even necessary means to an end with excessive behavioral issues, at BK9T we will always exhaust training options prior to exploring the medical route. At times a combination of training and meds can be used, but we always prefer a wholistic and natural approach whenever possible.
Teaching your dog to be comfortable in their crate is a great skill that can really help your dog in many scenarios. It can help relieve added anxiety with vet visits, boarding, and travel. If you have a dog that doesn’t do well with strangers coming into the home, crating your dog when the repair people come is a great option. Whether you’re potty training, introducing a new dog to a new home, working on separation anxiety, Balanced K-9 Training can help you crate train your dog no matter what age.