I recently spoke to someone with a problem. His adopted Beagle, just over a year old, has a serious case of separation anxiety. Mr. Beagle has already destroyed a plastic crate and a wire crate; his people are now considering a very expensive steel crate to contain him while they are at work. While this will keep the pup in one spot, of course the dog will still have separation anxiety, which his people would very much like to help him work through so he can be more comfortable in their absence.
I will also add, that in this particular case the people are very aware that another dog would help this little pack dog feel more comfortable; their living situation is such that another dog is simply not possible at this time.
Separation anxiety is a common issue for dogs, particularly adopted dogs that have already been left by at least one family, perhaps more than one. When dealing with separation anxiety I find that one of the most helpful things we can do for our dogs is create a more positive association with being crated – and seeing the crate as a safe den – when people are away. Here are some suggestions for turning the crate from the enemy into a safe zone.
Creating Positive Associations with Crating and People Leaving
Create a positive association with entering the crate:
Buy a really big bag of very small dog treats.
Work on teaching the dog a phrase like “kennel”– walk the dog into the crate say, “kennel” as you close the crate door, give a treat.
IMPORTANT NOTE: We do not want to reinforce panic. If the dog is already panicking when going into the crate, once the gate is closed and before giving the treat just stand next to the crate and wait for the dog to calm down. When they realize you are not leaving them there they should slowly calm down. Once the dog calms, repeat the phrase “kennel” and give the treat.
NOTE: we are not yet training the dog to stay in the crate, we’re training them to enter the crate on a positive note. Therefore, once the dog is calmly in the crate — which may mean you pull up a chair and sit right next to them for a while –and you must not speak to them or interact, just be there–once the dog is calmly in the crate, and has heard the command “kennel” and had they’re biscuit, you wait a minute and let them back out.
Repeat this exercise a number of times in one day until you can get the dog into the crate without the panic. You want to reach the point where when you say “kennel” the dog walks into the crate without any further prompting – just walks in and waits for their reward.
Create a positive association with being in the crate:
Note: two of the reasons dogs often develop negative associations with being crated is that 1)the only time they use the crate is when the people are away or, 2)because they spend too much time in the crate. Ironically, because we worry about 2) we tend to create 1)…using crates only when we’re gone. To break negative associations with being crated it is necessary to intentionally create positive associations AND to make sure our dog gets plenty of exercise.
Feeding: Start to give your dog their meals in the crate. Use their word “kennel.” Once they are in, place the food bowl in the kennel with them. Close the door so that the dog remains in the kennel to eat.
IF you do not have the crate in an area where you will naturally be preparing your own meal, or cleaning up afterwards, you may need to again stand or sit near the crate so that the dog is calm enough to eat. Do not speak to the dog, or talk to them about eating. Just be a quiet presence. Give the dog twenty minutes; if they are not willing to eat by then, remove the food and let them out. DO NOT offer the food outside the crate.
NOTE: it is VERY important that you have already done some work on creating a positive association with the crate by having worked on the “kennel” command; the idea is not to build on stress but to build on positive associations.
Create a safe association with being in the crate:
This is a hard one.
Stop letting the dog sleep on your bed.
If room allows – and try and make this work – find a way to fit the dog’s crate into your bedroom.
Follow the “kennel” routine, putting the dog in the crate as part of your night routine as you prepare for bed.
Be prepared to let the dog whine, bark, cry, and complain.
DO NOT respond in any way, do not speak to them, do not yell at them, do not comfort them. Allow them to calm down on their own when they realize that no one is going anywhere and this is their new den spot at night. I suggest beginning this routine on a night when you have the following morning off, because chances are you may not sleep well.
Use headphones if you have to.
It is really important to not give in and let the dog out.
NOTE: you want to make sure the dog has had LOTS of exercise before bed. Take them for a walk, play fetch, take them to a friend’s house to play hard with another dog – make sure they are tired!
ALSO: If it is physically impossible to fit the crate into the bedroom – and I would move a dresser to make this happen- then try and place the crate near enough your room so that the dog can hear you at night. Dogs with separation anxiety are worried about being away from the pack at night. It helps reduce their anxiety when they can hear and smell the other pack members, i.e. their people. Later on, when a dog has stopped seeing their crate as the enemy, it is possible to remove the crate a little distance – but you will again want to initially do this on a non-work night.
Reducing Stress over Separation
Note: While this is labeled step four, I will start to work on this step as soon as I’ve completed step one — so it might be more accurate to call this step 1.b
Once the dog is crating on command, practice leaving for VERY short periods of time. Crate the dog when you step outside the entrance to your home; while you run to the store; while you go to the bathroom — its all practice for being in the crate for short periods of time.
VERY IMPORTANT: Do NOT make a fuss over the dog when you return. If the dog is howling, crying, fighting the crate, wait for them to calm down.
Only let the dog out of the crate when they are calm.
Do not make a fuss over the dog.
Do not pet the dog and talk to him.
JUST let him out of the crate and then go about your business.
IF you need to take the dog outside to ‘potty’ when you let them out, then STILL wait for them to calm, quietly before opening the crate; then calmly clip their leash on – no petting, no talking – and take the dog out.
WHY – we reinforce anxiety when we make a big deal of ‘reuniting’ with our dogs. Basically, by making a fuss over them when we walk in the door, we are giving them the message that they were right to be concerned with our absence.
I know it feels good to have someone so happy to see you. But if YOU can act like your leaving is a positive thing – complete with giving a dog biscuit, AND that you’re coming home is no big deal – you will make a tremendous difference in how your dog views this whole interaction.
Leaving stops being a bad thing; coming home stops being a reason for emotional responses. Coming home should be just another routine, to be expected, nothing to get excited about thing to always be expected.
In other words, by NOT being excited about coming home, we help our anxious dogs to realize that this will always be part of their world, not a big deal, and therefore not something to be anxious about – it just always happens.
Other tips for reducing anxiety:
Make sure the pup is getting plenty of exercise. A dog that is tired will welcome crate time as den-sleep time.
Take the dog to pup-friendly walk areas so they meet their needs for social interactions and/or arrange play dates with other dogs.
Use food toys/puzzles to feed your dog rather than a bowl; the more time a dog spends being interactive with their environment the more they welcome the down time of a den/crate.
(I use a food toy in the crate to feed Lil my Lab.)
If possible enter a training class; the bonding time and learning will help engage the brain, and strengthen the sense of team/pack that doesn’t abandon each other.
Final Note: Make sure the crate is comfortable. The dog should be able to stand up and turn around. I like my dogs to be able to stretch out to sleep. Lil is a stretcher, Gracy however likes to burrow deep into a dog pillow-bed and curl up. Used blankets from resale shops and garage sales can be turned into doggy bedding if your dog is destroying bedding while working through their anxiety.
If others have ideas that have worked for them please share.
Also, questions and comments as always, are welcome.