Dog Social Distancing and Utilizing a Crate to Help with Separation Anxiety
As I sit here and ponder where I am going to go with this article, my mind wanders. I’ve already sat down a couple of times to write it.
I’d literally just sat down on Monday, computer open, and then the governor of Maryland called a press conference and essentially announced more lock down. So, you’ll understand why I flew out of the house to get more food and supplies.
It is now a law in our state, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or up to a five thousand dollar fine, to go out for any non-essential reason (other than medical, getting food, or emergencies).
I don’t even know how to conceive of, or talk about, all that is going on in the world, but I find it is affecting everything, even our relationships with our canine companions.
Interestingly, I have always seen myself as well spoken and have always had the ability to describe, through the written word, how to understand certain concepts, especially when it comes to dog training.
But I have, admittedly, been a little overwhelmed this week, and have struggled with all the ways to make this modern day article more pertinent to you as you sit at home looking for information to help get through this crisis.
First off, to those I know, who know me, and those who have been following Chet and I for the past 10 years, THANK YOU!
We take your loyalty very seriously and it is important to us to provide you with accurate and relevant information.
With things being the way they are in the world, I want to make sure that you and your pets are safe. Safety is far and above the most important thing we have to deal with each day.
To those of you on the front lines, driving trucks, growing food, working in warehouses and to those in both human and veterinary medicine; THANK YOU!
Having a pandemic afoot and being socially locked down has certainly never been seen by the world on this scale. We are still waiting on more affirmative information as I sit here.
My immune system has never been the strongest, and I worry about the implications this holds for me, my friends, and, of course, my pets.
So, since I have your attention for at least a short time, let’s talk about how all of this is going to affect those of us on lock down.
I am worried about some pets dogs especially, concerned that we are creating separation anxiety for them to struggle with when life goes back to ‘semi normal’.
Having been in the dog training industry for the past twenty five years, I will admit that true and severe separation anxiety in dogs is not nearly as rampant as many people think.
Severe separation anxiety is marked by a dog that:
** often urinates and defecates
** howls or barks almost constantly
** will literally become self-injurious while attempting to break out of a weak crate, or even break through windows
In my career alone, I have had 2 dogs that have jumped out or through windows. Thankfully they did not die or eviscerate themselves.
My first experience was when I was just 18 with the first dog (a Rottweiler) I had ever owned. He jumped out of the front window, fell probably 20 feet down and was loose for an hour or two until we returned.
Twenty five years ago in Wyoming it was impossible to find a dog crate. We purchased dog food from feed stores! I ordered my very first dog crate from a JCPenney catalog. I couldn’t afford new windows every time we left the house and I certainly didn’t want my dog to hurt himself.
Shoving a 100 pound, anxious, Rottweiler into a giant metal dog crate was my first foray into crate training. I honestly think it saved his life. And, although he struggled to get out in the beginning, the crate was strong enough that he wasn’t able to hurt himself.
That is really an important key to this article.
I recently got back from a trip to visit clients who swore that their dog was having severe separation anxiety. He’s young, and he is not really getting enough exercise, and they monitor video of the dogs constantly.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that in no way was it severe! He sings a little bit when he is crated, and he lightly puts his mouth on the crate, but by no means was he in danger of hurting himself.
He would bark but he was also laying down in his crate. That may be slight anxiety but really is no need for concern.
In the beginning, I suppose most dogs are not huge fans of the crate, but don’t panic if he is barking a bit or trying to assess if he can make an old school break out.
If you panic every time you leave him, he is going to panic (remember how intuitive dogs are; they pick up on our anxieties!) This dog is quite literally never left alone. Either the husband or wife has been home with him for a year.
Not only is this creating his problem, their shear terror and overreacting has made the dog worse.
I remember being scared to sleep in my “big girl bed” and room when I was a kid.
But in order for me to be a functional adult, I had to do some things I didn’t want to do, and I had to learn to be confident and independent as I aged.
Just as we can’t coddle our children forever, we can’t coddle our dogs; it is not healthy.
If you are truly, truly worried that your dog has severe separation anxiety, talk to your veterinarian or find a boarded veterinary behaviorist in your area.
I kind of hate to admit this, outwardly anyway, but we are talking about some personal subjects here.
In the last year, I have suffered from some anxiety. Ironically, when I am awake I am a fairly rational person and I pride myself on that.
But I was waking up in the middle of the night with a heart rate over 200, covered in sweat, and feeling like I was going to die.
If you’ve ever had the displeasure of feeling like that (and I hope you don’t) you will realize that drug therapy, along with behavior modification, is essential.
I made some changes in my life and hadn’t really had that problem until, ironically, last night.
But, with times the way they are right now, I feel that it was acceptable to spill over a little from the unknown.
If your dog would do better on some meds while you work on crate training, do him the service of getting him some.
Trust me, you would want the help, he will thank you, and your training will be more successful.
Needing something that helps balance serotonin, or other necessary chemicals, is nothing to be ashamed of!
Just don’t cover a problem with drugs and expect them to do wonders without behavior modification.
Some drooling, panting, shaking, barking or whining can be fairly normal for this process.
Avoid Weak & Dangerous Crates
The flimsy metal crates with plastic bottoms that look cozy to most people are the WORST. The metal is easily bent and the plastic bottom can be shredded with little effort. Many dogs have broken teeth and gotten stuck in the bent sharp metal doors and sides as they are trying to escape, which can cause deep lacerations. Some of the videos you find online of dogs escaping these kinds of crates are funny, but the implications of injury are not worth it.
The other problem, that as humans we don’t really understand… is that dogs are den animals. They like closed, dark places, not a big open cage where they can still see everything going on in the environment. This stimulation often makes them even more reactive. Most dog owners park those big crates next to a large window and the dog can’t escape if he is having anxiety with his crate training.
Plastic crates are usually chewed less and more escape-proof. There are also less sharp edges with dark plastic crates. Yes, I have seen dogs pop the front doors, but all-in-all they are safer. I even have a picture of my very own dog (Belgian Malinois) who chewed straight through a crate when he was just a puppy and heard me training his sister.
So being the dog owner that I am, I stuffed him in the crate to snap a picture and then I immediately purchased another crate that I had to have shipped (apparently I have had some naughty dogs in my career). There are heavy duty, thick metal crates that are used in the world of police dog training that are self locking and very nearly impossible to chew through. Also, their edges are not sharp (like the metal crates in the first example), and most have doors and openings that keep things dark but are also less likely to be chewed or have a tooth broken.
They can be pricey, but one or two crates that are impossible to ruin or escape from is cheaper in the long run and safer for your dog. I use and recommend Impact Dog Crates.
And remember: a broken window or a loose, anxious dog is not nearly as safe as an anxious dog in a heavy duty crate.
Why is Crate Training Better and Why Will it Help Your Dog Feel Better?
I understand that I am conversing with humans 😉 and it is hard to convince people that crate training actually helps with separation anxiety.
As a human you aren’t likely to hurl yourself through a window. You aren’t likely to chew electrical cords, the carpet, or chew through a door when you have anxiety. You have different coping mechanisms.
And, truthfully if you have anxiety to that degree; you are likely to look into some drug therapy.
Your dog doesn’t have those options.
So, by leaving him out loose in the home, it often causes more anxiety and reactivity as he runs from window to window, or door to door, in a panic.
I was trying to explain this to a client at the beginning of the month. Both their dogs were chasing around the house (you could watch with their in-home camera) and acting panicked. Putting them in a smaller and darker place where they couldn’t see every action in the neighborhood was actually better for their mental health. It helped them to relax and not worry about every sight and sound (feeding the anxiety).
I used to have billionaire clients in Colorado. They had a Golden Retriever and a Labrador Retriever and I used to pet sit for them. It was an amazing experience, but living in a huge house like that 20 years ago was kind of intimidating for me. I remember bringing a knife to bed with me in the early days! Every noise had me paranoid. There were too many doors and windows and levels. If someone broke in would I even hear it?
Currently I live in a small house (less than 1,000 square feet) and I have never really been afraid here. I basically have one door and a couple windows. If someone comes into my house, I am going to hear it. My dogs are going to hear it. A smaller space is easier to contain.
If I had 3 million dollars cash in a mansion and I knew someone was coming to take it; it would be much more intimidating. It would be a lot safer to keep here in a small space.
Smaller spaces often are less intimidating and more easily defended.
Not all dogs are guard dogs. Some dogs have general anxiety, but being in a large space isn’t always better. Dogs with anxiety (not even severe separation anxiety) feel better in a small dark place, with familiar sounds like the radio or television left on so that they don’t hear all the goings on. You are taking options and worry away from them.
Even the dogs that I have successfully treated with thunderstorm or other phobias have often been treated more successfully by utilizing a crate or a safe spot. My current Malinois is not a fan of thunderstorms but by giving him his own safe place, he is able to deal with his anxiety.
Create Your Dog’s Safe Haven
First off, it is critical to know your dog, and what is and what is not safe.
Some dogs will eat dog beds and blankets.
A former puppy client of mine underwent surgery last week to have parts of a blanket removed from his intestines.
If in doubt, your dog doesn’t need a bed or blanket. Chances are he likes laying on the cold floor anyway.
The bane of my existence, my current Malinois, will never be able to be unattended with a bed or a blanket. I have ordered ballistic style dog beds that were guaranteed chew proof that he can still shred. Thankfully he has never swallowed anything, but he has killed quite a few of my friends’ sweatshirts at dock diving events! I know this about him, and I keep those items away from his crate.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t have some other things.
Play crate games with your dog or your puppy! Puppies, especially, need crate games to understand that the crate is a safe place where happy things occur.
If you only stuff him inside when you leave, he will learn to hate the crate because it equals your leaving.
If my dogs willingly go into their crates, they get a treat or a reward.
Feed your dog in his crate so that he learns it is not always a space where he will be closed in for long periods of time. Be sure and close the door occasionally, but not all of the time. It can and should be his choice to go inside during the day when you are with him.
A dog crate doesn’t have to be sterile or not fun – quite the opposite! Zippy’s crate has elk antlers and other indestructible types of chews for him to enjoy.
Occasionally, I will slather a bone, a Kong toy, or an antler with peanut butter or Kong paste when he goes in his crate. But he only gets that special item when he is inside with the door closed behind him. Think of it as a break, with a great treat that he only gets when he is inside.
I may only leave him in there for 5 or 10 minutes, but the reward for going in is high enough for him to just enjoy the act of going in his crate.
After I let my dogs outside, I always bring them in and have them go into their crates for an early morning treat. I do the same at night.
Have you ever heard of the dog that the owners can’t catch in the morning to put in the crate because the dog recognizes his owner is going to work?
If your dog is used to going in the crate every morning and every evening no matter what, this alleviates this problem.
The other important piece to remember is to continue to crate your dog throughout his life, not just when he is a puppy.
As humans we get lazy. We crate our puppies so they won’t eat our stuff, or so that early in the relationship we can take a shower or make food while the pup is learning to show better behavior, and have less destructive behavior more of the time.
As his behavior gets better, we stop putting him in his crate. OR, we only crate him for long periods, like going to work or overnight.
This teaches the puppy or the older dog that time in his crate is going to be extended. We need to remind them that crate time can be long or short, but can also be fun.
If he gets a treat and some peanut butter he is much less likely to become an anxious dog during the time he is left in his crate. It just becomes another place where he can go to relax.
I always laugh because my Fury (my Dutch Shepherd) crate trained very easily and was given access to the house early on in her life. And, when I moved into a smaller house I figured I wouldn’t have to bring her crate inside. WRONG! She was horrified. She would dramatically throw herself into my Belgian Malinois’ crate when he wasn’t in there. Having her crate is essentially having her bed in the house.
Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Exercise and mental stimulation are crucial to help a dog with even mild separation anxiety.
Most dogs don’t want to be crated overnight for sleeping, just to be let out and then immediately crated while their owners attend to work and business.
I know that we live in busy times, but waking up an hour earlier or staying up an hour later so that you can tend to your dog’s exercise and mental stimulation needs can be critical in helping him to adjust.
Think about it. If you slept all night you wouldn’t want to be crated again first thing in the morning.
But if you had a healthy run of 5 miles, you might not mind taking a nap.
Our bodies need physical exercise and there are all kinds of ways you can provide that for your dog.
You can walk him, you can run him next to a bicycle, or you can get him to pull weights. Even small dogs like Jack Russell terriers and the like can benefit from pulling weights!
He also needs mental stimulation.
Teach your dog a new trick in the morning or work on his obedience before you leave.
You can also get treat-stuffed and interactive toys for when you are gone. Again, be sure they are safe for your dog or puppy before leaving them. But interactive toys can be a great way to burn a little energy.
Consider getting a dog walker that takes your dog for a walk, or take him to training, or doggy day care a couple of times a week. He gets to play and make friends, and you get to bring a tired dog home after a long day.
Remember he has needs! I was talking to an owner earlier today who was furious because her 7 month old puppy’s behavior is seeming to get worse. I always want to ask (and sometimes I do ask) if these people are parents to human children.
We expect that our toddlers need to go to the park. We know that they need to go to school, or have learning opportunities in the house. We better understand their physical, mental and emotional needs. But young puppies need all of these things too and if we are not providing them….. puppies often provide their own stimulation.
Puppies and young dogs also go through learning phases and stubborn phases just like you and your children did when you were young and exploring the world. Heck, I still sometimes have these stages in my “old age”!
If he is driving you crazy or if he is showing anxiety, chances are you are not giving him what he needs and you must reassess your training and exercise plans.
My very first Belgian Malinois I got when I was in my early 20’s. He was probably one of the most brilliant dogs I had then or have since ever trained.
I vowed to him that when I wanted to throttle him, or when he was being naughty I would assess if I had provided him with the kind of physical exercise and mental stimulation he needed.
Most of the time the honest answer was no, I had not.
So eventually, he learned about all of the 101 dog tricks in the book and could perform a gamut of service dog skills.
His mind and his body needed that kind of interaction.
He was also one of the few dogs I could trust at a dog park, or to play politely with other dogs.
So I would use that option if time was limited or I’d had a bad day
Prevention of Separation Anxiety
I started this article talking about what’s been going on in the world today. At the time of this writing, I have been locked down for a little over a week.
My pets are likely getting tired of me shuffling the house and watching TV at 1 am. I am tired of it. I am excited for life to get back to some normalcy, whatever that looks like.
But the last thing I want is to create dependency while I am at home.
As I am typing I hear my Dutch Shepherd snoring on my bed in the other room. My Malinois is asleep by the front door.
In times of anxiety for me (like not knowing about my ability to pay my bills), I don’t want to create a NEED for my company with my dogs. Would I love Fury to be asleep in my lap right now? YES, but it isn’t going to be healthy for them when I go back to full time work. That doesn’t mean they don’t all get lap time, I am just trying to avoid creating over-bonding.
I still occasionally crate my dogs and go outside alone so they continue to be used to the crate. I still crate them at night. Sometimes it is for short periods of time and sometimes it is for longer periods of time.
I put them outside for 30 minutes or more so that they can lay in the sun.
I let one dog out and keep one inside. I even walk them separately and train them separately occasionally.
I can imagine with significant others spending too much time together, and mothers and fathers needing breaks during this time, that my dogs need a break from each other too.
Relying on each other constantly isn’t good for their mental or emotional growth either.
I feel sorry for any pet that is overly bonded to another pet or to their human. I want a confident and independent pet.
And, I try and walk them and play with them safely each day.
I giggle a little bit seeing the memes on Facebook with the dog hiding on top of the counter because his owner has walked him over 20 times that day.
And, whereas I want you all to get your physical and mental exercise, it is crucial that you still foster some independence with your dogs.
The worst cases of true and severe separation anxiety I have seen were in working dogs and the working dog world.
Police dogs, guide dogs, or service dogs that develop a sense of never having their own space or being left alone are sometimes incapable of doing it in later years. This is why I think retirement can be so difficult for these working dogs. Thankfully, at least most police officers leave their dogs occasionally.
But one of the saddest cases of over bonding and severe separation anxiety I have ever seen came early in my career. It breaks my heart to say it was a dog I helped to train and place as a service dog. His owner never left home without him. They had an amazing bond and friendship; but then his elderly owner needed a surgery. Not knowing what to do and not being able to really leave him in the house because he would be destructive, they left him outside. He strangled himself trying to figure out how to find his owner.
Separation, even for working dogs, is critical to good mental health. I do feel sorry for those who literally are having a hard time finding any alone time right now (I also worry about those of us who are alone and secluded for days on end). Neither is really mentally healthy.
So, I will say it: make some time for a little social distancing for your dogs and pets too, so you are not creating unhealthy habits that will make him suffer when his life changes again in a few weeks.
It’s not a bad thing, it is a healthy and important thing!
Be safe mentally, emotionally and physically during these times because we all need it.
Sending my love to all of my readers!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.