Dealing With Dog Separation Anxiety – Using Crates As A Safe Space

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Separation anxiety can be a real problem for some dogs, which can be a nightmare for you and your pet if you go out to work during the day. Some particularly clingy dogs can’t bear being apart from their owner even for a few minutes, making even leaving the room to go to the bathroom a stressful experience!

But did you know that you can use a dog separation anxiety crate to make a safe space for your pet that can tremendously help a pup’s issues? 

Read this guide to learn how you can use a dog crate to tackle your canine companion’s separation anxiety.

What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?

Dogs are highly social animals that are very highly pack-oriented. Many pups become very attached to their pet parents and show varying degrees of anxious behavior when left alone for even short periods of time.

Signs of separation anxiety are many and varied, depending on the individual dog.

What Dog Breeds Are Most Prone To Separation Anxiety?

What Dog Breeds Are Most Prone To Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can affect any breed of dog. However, there are some breeds that are more prone to the condition than others.

Dogs that commonly exhibit some of the signs of distress when left alone include Chihuahuas, Border Collies, Goldendoodles, and Cocker Spaniels.

Does My Dog Have Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways, usually becoming more severe when the dog is left alone for extended periods. It’s important to know that these are all anxiety responses that don’t generally occur in the dog’s owner’s presence.

Common signs of separation anxiety can include:

1. Defecating and Urinating

Some dogs urinate or defecate when stressed when separated from their pet parents. 

Also, some pets with separation anxiety defecate and then eat their own feces.

When It’s Not Separation Anxiety

If potty training is not complete, your dog or puppy might urinate or defecate in the house while you’re not around to let him outside.

Dogs that are not desexed sometimes start scent marking in the home by urinating on their crate or on items of furniture. 

Some medical problems can cause house soiling, including incontinence that often affects senior dogs. Also, urinary tract infections, bladder stones, kidney disease, diabetes, Cushing’s disease, and some neurological problems can cause urinary incontinence in dogs.

There are several commonly used medications that can cause frequent urination. So, if you are using any drug therapy for your dog, ask your vet to find out if that might be causing your pet’s toileting problems.

The bottom line: if your dog develops house soiling issues, always check with your vet before you begin formal training for separation anxiety.

2. Vocalization

Persistent barking and howling are generally triggered by separation anxiety in dogs unless there is some other obvious cause, such as a neighbor’s dog barking within earshot. 

3. Destructive Behavior

Many pet parents arrive home to discover that their dog has chewed his crate bed, destroyed a toy, or even tried to break out of his crate. 

However, puppies tend to be quite destructive when teething, even when their human family is around. Also, some young adult dogs can be boisterous and often resort to digging and chewing. Often, giving the dog more exercise or formal training can cure the problem, which is most likely not due to separation anxiety.

4. Escaping

Dogs that experience separation anxiety when left alone often try to escape from an area in which they are confined.

I once had a dog with severe separation anxiety that managed to chew his way through my kitchen door in a bid to escape! Dogs that live outside in a fenced run might attempt to dig their way out. Such behavior is distressing for both parties and can sometimes result in injuries to the dog, such as broken nails and teeth and scraped front paws.

5. Pacing

Dogs often pace when their levels of anxiety are high. The animal will walk or trot alongside a fence or in a particular pattern when separated from his pet parents.

What Causes Separation Anxiety In Dogs?

Dealing With Dog Separation Anxiety - Using Crates As A Safe Space

There’s no definitive evidence that shows just why some dogs go on to develop separation anxiety. However, there are several recurring themes that are common to dogs that suffer from this upsetting disorder.

Abandonment

If a dog is handed over to a shelter or thrown out of his home to become a stray, losing a significant individual or group can trigger separation anxiety.

Interestingly, dogs that are adopted from shelters are more likely to have this disorder than those that have enjoyed one home since puppyhood.

Moving Home

Dogs enjoy the familiarity and security of their home environment. A change in residence can trigger separation anxiety, although the condition is often temporary. Once the dog settles into his new surroundings, his behavior often returns to normal.

Family Membership

The sudden departure of a family member, perhaps due to death or simply from someone moving away from home, can cause separation anxiety in dogs. Likewise, the arrival of a new baby in the household can upset the equilibrium. 

Change of Schedule

Dogs enjoy the security of a routine. The dog knows when he can expect to be fed, exercised, groomed, and when it’s time for bed. Likewise, a dog whose owner goes out to work every day will learn when it’s time for his pet parent to come home. So, if the dog’s routine suddenly changes, that can upset the dog’s feeling of security and cause minor separation anxiety. 

Does Crate Training Help A Dog’s Separation Anxiety?

dogs in crate

So, can crate training cure your dog’s separation anxiety?

Unfortunately, the short answer to that question is “no.” If the dog already suffers from this behavioral disorder, simply crating him won’t cure the problem. That said, with patience, positive reinforcement training methods, and proper training, a crate can be used to help to decrease separation anxiety.

Tips To Help Your Dog Deal With Separation Anxiety

Create A Safe Space

A dog’s crate should be a safe space in which he likes to spend periods of time, and a crate can be a helpful tool that you can use to combat separation anxiety.

So, equip the crate with a comfy bed, fit a water bowl or bottle to prevent dehydration, and provide your dog with a few safe toys to provide physical and mental exercise and distraction. Finally, locate the crate somewhere peaceful where the dog can relax and feel secure.

Restrict Movement

When a dog is able to constantly pace around, that perpetual motion can make him even more stressed and wound up, rather like an animal in the zoo.

If your dog exhibits that kind of behavior, restricting his movement through the crate training process can help to reduce his anxiety.

Alternatives To Crating

Dogs in bag

If your dog has never been crated before, suddenly confining him can be counterproductive and can even make his separation anxiety worse. Also, if your rescue dog has been shut in a crate as a punishment in his former life, crating him can cause your new furry friend considerable distress.

You can help to overcome that by gradually introducing that sense of confinement. Instead of using a crate, try setting up an exercise pen or putting your dog in a separate room.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

You can often successfully help a dog that suffers from separation anxiety by using desensitization training or counterconditioning.

Counterconditioning works by altering a dog’s anxious, fearful, or aggressive reaction to one of calm and pleasure. To do that, you must train your dog to associate that thing he finds stressful with something pleasant that he loves. Over a period of time, the dog learns to associate that thing he fears with something good.

For example, every time you leave your dog alone, offer him his favorite puzzle toy filled with tasty treats that will keep him occupied for at least half an hour. KONG toys are a favorite, as you can freeze the stuffed rubber toy so that it takes your dog even longer to extract the food inside.

Only give your dog the special, food-stuffed toy when you leave him alone.

Sad Dog

Moderate To Severe Separation Anxiety

Severe cases of separation anxiety are more difficult to remedy and require a more complex counterconditioning and desensitization program.

You’ll need to gradually accustom your pet to being left alone by using lots of short absences that don’t leave your dog feeling especially anxious

. Over many weeks of daily training sessions, slowly increase the duration of the separations.

Steps For Desensitization and Counterconditioning

If your dog has very severe separation anxiety, we recommend that you consult an expert animal behaviorist for advice before you begin the counterconditioning and desensitization process.

Here’s how the process works:

Step 1: Predeparture Cues
Predeparture Cues

Some dogs immediately feel anxious when they know that their owner is getting ready to leave the house.

For example, the dog might start panting and whining or pacing as soon as he sees his owner gathering their purse, files, and coat and then picking up car keys. 

One effective way to approach pre-departure anxiety is to train your dog that when you put on your coat and pick up your keys, that doesn’t always mean that you are leaving him home alone. You can do that by going through your predeparture routine and sitting down to watch TV instead.

Although that method does work, your dog must experience those false departure cues many times every day over many months before his anxiety is reduced. Once your dog stays relaxed when he sees you preparing to leave him, move on to step 2 below.

Step 2: Graduated Absences/Departures
Graduated Absences

This step involves leaving your dog alone for very short periods. Basically, you need to make your absences shorter than the time it takes your dog to get anxious.

Start by keeping out of sight behind an inside door in your home. Train your dog to sit and wait while you go to the other side of the door, gradually increasing the time your dog waits while you’re out of sight.

You can also incorporate your pre-departure cues while your dog stays. So, ask your dog to stay. Now, put on your shoes, pick up your keys and go into another room while your dog waits outside.

Next, begin carrying out the out-of-sight stay exercises at an exit door. Use the back door if you always go out of the front door. By the time you start using exit doors, your dog should be fairly relaxed since he has experience of playing the fun “stay game.”

Introduce Short Absences

At this stage in your dog’s training, you can introduce short absences into your training. Begin by leaving your dog alone for a few minutes, slowly increasing the length of time you’re absent from him.

Once you’ve trained your dog to accept these short separations, you can start to incorporate counterconditioning by presenting your dog with a treat-stuffed toy just before you leave. The treat-stuffed toy is a safety cue that reassures the dog that the separation is a “safe” one.

Throughout each training session, wait a few minutes between absences. Ensure your dog is totally relaxed and happy before you leave again. That’s crucial because if you leave again immediately, your dog will still be excited by your return, and that can make him less able to cope with the next separation, potentially exacerbating the problem.

Always be calm and quiet throughout each training session. That reduces the contrast between the times when you’re with your dog and times when you’re absent.

Every Dog Is Different
Every Dog Is Different

There are no set timelines for treating dog separation anxiety, and every dog is different. It can be difficult for pet owners to know when to increase the length of time when the dog is left alone, and that can lead to mistakes.

You can avoid making these common errors by observing the dogs for signs of anxiety, such as panting, pacing, trembling, and salivating. If you spot any signs of stress, immediately shorten the time you’re absent until your dog relaxes again. Then, you can start again at the same level and move on again more slowly. 

Timescales

It will take you a considerable length of time to build up to 40-minute absences. That’s because most of the dog’s anxiety occurs during the first 40 minutes that you leave him alone. So, over many weeks of careful conditioning, you can gradually increase the duration of your absences by just a few seconds each time, depending on the individual dog’s tolerance levels.

When your dog tolerates 40 minutes of separation, you can increase your absences by five-minute increments, increasing to 15-minute increments later. Once your pet can tolerate being separated from you for 90 minutes without getting upset, he should be able to cope with four to eight hours. However, we recommend that you start with four hours first and then increase that time to a full eight hours over a week or so.

If you can manage several training sessions at weekends and perhaps a couple of times during the week, you can often accomplish the remedial treatment process within a few weeks.

Alternative Solutions

If your dog struggles with separation anxiety so much that you can’t leave him home alone, there are a few alternative solutions you can use:

Take your dog to work
  • Take your dog to work with you if your company permits that.
  • Organize a friend, dog sitter, or family friend to stay with your dog while you’re out. Most dogs don’t mind who’s with them, as long as they have company.
  • Take your dog to doggy daycare or dog sitter’s house. 

Of course, these solutions might not all be practical, and some of them are quite expensive. 

Keep Calm!

Dogs are very sensitive to their owner’s moods, and many pet parents accidentally overexcite their pets by greeting them too enthusiastically. That can often wind the dog up even more and worsen the separation anxiety issues.

So, when you arrive home, simply say hello to your dog and give him a pat or a stroke, and do the same when you leave. The length of time it will take for your pet to relax depends on his anxiety levels and individual temperament. However, if you remain calm and relaxed at all times, your pet will be less excited and stressed.

You can often reduce your dog’s excitement levels when you arrive home by asking him to carry out a few simple tricks or learned behaviors, such as “down” or “sit.”  

Final Thoughts

Separation anxiety is a common problem that affects many pet dogs, especially those from shelters. You can use a crate as a safe, secure space where your dog can take refuge when he needs to. However, treating separation anxiety is a time-consuming process that takes much patience on your part, and you can’t simply shut your dog in his crate. For severe cases of separation anxiety, we recommend that you consult a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) for advice.

Did you successfully use crate training to cure your dog’s separation anxiety? Tell us your story in the comments box below.

Meet our writer

Alison Page was brought up with dogs and various other pets! For a few years, Alison worked as a Practice Manager in a small animal veterinary clinic. Alison is now a full-time writer, specializing in creating articles on the care and training of dogs, cats, and fish.

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