When It Comes To Crates, Think Outside The Box

French Bulldog Puppy in a crate

*This article has also been featured in The Bark Magazine’s “guest posts” blog section*

Most dog professional 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.

Having said all that, 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.

Tiffany Lovell, CSAT, CPDT-KA, AAI, operates Cold Nose College, Space Coast, Brevard County, Florida and offers force-free, humane training and behavior consulting. Private in-home coaching & training, separation-anxiety training (local & remote to anywhere in the U.S.) and behavior consults. (321) 757-2059; coldnosecollege.com

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is the author of The Original Rocket Recall™: Teach Your Dog to Come. She’s a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. The company’s trainers enjoy providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals. www.coldnosecollege.com

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2 thoughts on “When It Comes To Crates, Think Outside The Box”

  1. My dog is totally cool with his crate, sleeps all night in it in my room and will go in and take a nap a couple times a day. Leaving the house is another issue altogether… I give him high value treats when he goes in. He is fine when we leave. When we get home everything near the crate that is reachable is torn to shreds, towels , blankets, paper… I have found blood on the towel before and know he is hurting himself to try and get out. We don’t have an extra room for him to go in where he can’t tear anything up. The crate is bent as well. How can I get him to be comfortable while we’re gone? I have also done multiple cratings randomly throughout the week where I leave him alone for periods of time, and he loses his mind .. Please help!

    1. Cold Nose College

      Hi Diana, I’m sorry your dog is experiencing anxiety. Without doing a behavior consult and video assessment, from the little bit you shared, it seems as if he’s experiencing home alone anxiety, also referred to as separation anxiety. Confinement anxiety (putting a dog in a crate) is co-morbid with separation anxiety and most often causes the dog’s anxiety to increase. So the destruction in the crate is a symptom of his discomfort.

      It’ll be important to address your dog’s underlying anxiety and begin helping him learn to be alone in very small increments using a separation anxiety training protocol. The desensitization plan is specifically tailored to your dog and proceeds at your dog’s own pace. Just like people who recover from anxiety, progress for each dog varies. You can read more about separation anxiety and how we help dogs recover here: https://www.coldnosecollege.com/separation-anxiety/ And here’s another article that could be helpful for you: https://www.coldnosecollege.com/please-dont-leave-me-tackling-separation-anxiety/

      An initial consult and video assessment is what would be needed for one of our Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers to fully understand what is happening. Please know there is hope. Thanks for reaching out. The first thing that’s needed to help a dog is a concerned committed dog guardian and that sounds like you. Your dog can recover. We’ve been working with clients and their dogs with separation anxiety for over seven years and we see dogs recover on a regular basis. Know that there is hope.

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