Dealing with separation anxiety: Dog crate solutions pros and cons
Small places can help with separation anxiety: Dog crate homes may help your canine companion calm down
It’s upsetting when your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. Getting the best dog crate you can find is often suggested as a solution, but are they really a good idea? The idea is sound – dog crates give your four-legged friends a safe-feeling small space to call their own and calm down in. Many dogs find comfort in confined spaces; you may have noticed your dog preferring to sleep under desks or beds, or behind the sofa rather than out in the open. This stems from the fact that their wild-dog ancestors used to live in dens – often very compact spaces – so this desire may be an evolutionary throwback.
Not all dogs display this behavior, though; some are more than happy to be asleep belly up in the center of the carpet, so dog crates aren’t for every canine. Before we get on to how dog crates may be able to help, we should explain what causes separation anxiety in the first place.
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What is separation anxiety?
As veterinary specialist Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS explains, "Separation anxiety is the feeling of panic when an animal is separated from an important ‘resource’ – usually a family member. It was an evolutionary advantage to stick together in a pack or group, so the feeling of fear when alone was useful to the canine ancestor. The problem is, in modern-day living we need our dogs to be relaxed when left alone for short periods.”
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This often isn’t the case, and signs include howling and whining when left alone, or panicking when you go to leave the house. Bad cases will see your dog pacing back and forth, and chewing everything they can get their teeth into. As Dr Woodnutt tells us, “Separation anxiety is a big problem for modern dogs. Not only is it bad for them, physically and mentally, to be so afraid – it also causes major problems for the family and household. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety may destroy furniture and even injure themselves. It also often gets worse without proper behavioral intervention: a dog that starts out crying when left alone can progress to pure panic and attempts to escape over several months.”
Separation anxiety: Dog crate homes can help
Although dog crates aren’t a sensible option for every canine companion, there is some merit in their use for many. Dr Woodnutt explains: “Using a dog crate can help dogs with separation anxiety in two ways. Firstly, it keeps them safe: dogs left to roam free and suffering from separation anxiety can damage themselves or even escape in their panic. Secondly, it can provide a mentally ‘safe space’ for your dog – a place they can go to be calm. It can signify ‘I’m going out and I’ll be back soon’ and provide a boundary for your dog.”
She adds, “Proper crate training can also help to prevent separation anxiety, as dogs are taught that being alone is not a bad thing.”
This is key: Buying a dog crate will not solve separation anxiety on its own – your dog must be trained to accept this new living arrangement, and to understand it’s a fun, safe place for them to call home. Crates also aren’t designed for you to leave your four-legged friends in for long periods – a dog that is crated for too long won’t get enough exercise or human interaction, and this can be a further source of depression or anxiety.
Types of dog crate for separation anxiety
Dog crates come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s important to choose a crate that's just big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around in. If your dog hasn’t stopped growing yet, choose a crate size that will accommodate their adult size. If this is the case, it’s important to block off the excess space with a divider – dogs won’t mess where they sleep if they can avoid it, but if the crate is too large, they may find room to do both.
Midwest Homes Life Stages LS-1636DD double door 36" folding crate with divider for intermediate dogs
$53.99 at Amazon.com
Your dog’s home for life! Designed completely around the safety, security, and comfort of your dog, the two-door design offers versatile front & side access, allowing you to use the crate in more locations within your home, as well as in SUVs for travel. Comes with a free divider panel for use while your puppy is growing
It’s also worth finding crates that your dog can’t chew through, as this can be costly both in terms of crate replacement, but more importantly your hound’s health. However, chewing is still a sign that your dog is stressed, so you may not be helping your dog with its anxiety just by confining it to a smaller area. If chewing continues constantly, it is worth talking to a vet or a professional pet trainer to find another way to relieve their separation anxiety.
Paws & Pals Dog Crate double-door folding metal wire pet cage with divider and tray
$69.98 from Amazon.com
The Paws & Pals Training Pet Cage helps move your pet away from sleeping everywhere into its own home. Two doors with latches help your pet get in and out easily and safely. The cage is collapsible for storage, and lightweight, with a handle for easy transport. Includes a leakproof plastic pan, a divider, and non-skid feet.
Dog crates tend not to be the prettiest objects, especially in your lounge or bedroom. Fortunately, manufacturers have recognized this, and now there are a variety of sturdy dog crate tables designed to blend in with your home décor, and which you can use as a piece of furniture. Be warned though, these can tend to be less sturdy than all-wire cages.
Merry Products Pet Cage with crate cover
$122.03 from Amazon.com
This black powder-coated steel crate within a cherry wood-effect cover comes in three sizes. It has an included divider panel to enable you to control the space available in the crate, so puppies have less excess space to relieve themselves in if you are using it for house-breaking. However, if the worst happens, the bottom features a removable tray for easy cleaning.
New Age Pet ecoFLEX Pet Crate/End Table
$118.99 from Amazon.com
This dog crate disguised as a piece of aesthetically pleasing furniture is made of a non-toxic recycled plastic-wood polymer composite material designed to repel moisture so it won’t smell, crack, warp, or split over time. Available in four sizes, with the larger crates having two latches rather than one for added security, this is an attractive new home for your pooch.
How to introduce your dog to a crate to help with separation anxiety
Crates shouldn’t be locked away in rooms where no-one else goes. When they are introduced to the home they should be placed in a room where the family spends a lot of time. Put a blanket or dog bed inside it – if they already have a favorite then adding this should help them to accept the crate faster. Some dogs may be curious and walk into the crate and lie down straight away, but if yours doesn’t, here are a few things to try:
- Introduce them to the crate with a friendly voice – as if it was a new, fun thing for them to enjoy
- When first added to the house, put their favorite toy or some treats inside, ensuring the door is wide open and completely out of their way. There should be no obstacle to them investigating inside
- Leave the door open for a week or so before trying to close them in it – you want them to accept it as their home before shutting the door. Don't be tempted to close them in as soon as they lie in it, as this can do more harm than good
- Leave their food bowl with food in it at the back of the cage, or, if they won't venture that far in, just near the entrance, and move it further back in successive feedings
- If they are used to eating in the crate, try closing the door when they are feeding, but open it straight after they have finished. Increase the time for a few minutes each time after that – but if they start to whine, let them straight back out
- Never use the crate as a punishment – otherwise your dog will learn to fear it
In general, you need incredible amounts of patience for an already stressed dog to accept a dog crate as its new home. The crate should always be associated with something pleasant, and training should take place in a series of small steps – you need to give them time to grow to like it.
Maintain this behavior even once they have accepted their new home, and your dog crate will soon become a calm, relaxing place where your four-legged friend can deal with problems like separation anxiety. It's not a solution on its own, though, and although it may help with destructive behavior it's best accompanied with lots of mental and physical stimulation for your dog when you are home, or even some behavioral training with an established pet trainer.
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Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer who has been editing and creating content for magazines and websites for over 20 years. As well as writing about the pets he loves, he has helped create websites about tech and innovation like TechRadar.com, Innovate UK and TechSPARK, written programmes for music festivals, books on inventions and architecture, TV listings magazines, and edited publications about cars such as Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar. In his spare time he writes fiction books and poetry - or at least he does when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.