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Kuranda Dog Beds - Rethinking dog beds
Kuranda Dog Beds
— December 11, 2012 —

To Crate or not to crate: Part 2.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Crates can be a very helpful device in training your dog. This week, we discuss how to use a crate as part of a plan to help a dog with separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a very perplexing issue in pet dogs. In my experience, separation anxiety is exhibited in different levels of severity, much like other disorders. Most trainers will advise you to deal with separation anxiety by leaving the dog alone for short periods of time and slowly increase the amount of time that you are away. Also, general obedience training and socialization can help a normal dog deal with being left alone. While this is all valid advice, I would like to expand on it for today’s article.

The lowest grade of separation anxiety is not what I would actually call separation anxiety at all. A dog that is bored and has not had enough exercise may exhibit destructive behavior when left alone. Sometimes they are searching for their owner. Sometimes they are just bored and searching for something to keep themselves occupied. These dogs will often find and destroy a shoe or some of your clothing. Usually the item destroyed is something that carries a strong scent of the owner. This is NOT because your dog is mad at you and trying to get even. He is bored and lonely and looking for you. Since his sense of smell basically guides him, he finds your clothing (usually certain pieces-if you’ve had this problem you know what I mean) or shoes.

If tearing up a couple of pairs of shoes is the worst thing your dog does, consider yourself lucky. This is pretty easy to prevent and a plan usually starts with picking up your things and closing closet doors. These dogs almost always need more exercise. A tired dog tends to be a less destructive dog. Also, providing your dog with appropriate and interesting chew items also helps. Of course, if you are very careful and your dog still destroys things, a crate may be necessary. The crate in this situation is an easy way to keep your dog safe from chewing something that may hurt him. A piece of shoe or a piece of clothing can cause a serious bowel obstruction, which is very much life-threatening.

Some dogs demonstrate separation anxiety through self destructive behavior. A lonely dog can lick themselves to the point of causing skin lesions, called “lick granulomas” which can be serious. Again, this can often be cured by providing the dog with more exercise and preventing boredom. A crate may not be of much use here, but a “Stop Bite” collar can help. These collars actually do work. We have used them on dogs following surgery. They keep dogs from reaching their legs or other body parts to habituate a licking behavior.

A dog that may bark, whine or howl when left alone may be helped by crating, if we use it properly. First, the crate should NOT be used only when the dog will be left alone or as punishment for bad behavior. I usually advise people with dogs like this to put the dog in the crate a portion of the time when they will actually be at home. The dog should view the crate as a positive experience, and you might want to give treats or tasty chews while the dog is in the crate. Another part of this trick is to block the crate so the dog can’t see what is happening in the house. You can use cardboard (or a sheet, if he doesn’t pull it into the crate) or put the crate in another room. If he can hear you, he may just go to sleep or relax in his space. While he is in the crate, we play music, run the dishwasher, open and close the main door, or do whatever else that will make noise for the dog to know that we are home. If we can convince the dog that we are home through these sounds, we can start to leave him alone (in the covered crate with the T.V. playing) and he will be none the wiser. Of course, this would be combined with slowly increasing the amount of time the dog is left in the kennel.

The most severe cases of separation anxiety are very difficult to deal with and may require veterinary intervention. As a trainer, I am the last person to advise drugging a dog instead of training, but sometimes drugs for anxiety combined with training may be required. Some dogs have such severe separation anxiety that it can only be described as a mental illness. These dogs, when left alone may be so stressed that they loose control of their bladder or bowels. Often an owner will come home to urine or feces spread on the walls and doors. Some of these dogs will actually injure themselves trying to get out of the house. Again, we must not view this as a dog that is intentionally “trying to get even”, but a dog that is extremely disturbed. While all of the things advised above are valid, these severely anxious dogs tend to need medication to help them cope with being left alone. Some of these dogs can be weaned off of the drugs, but this can only be decided after careful treatment.

With an honest evaluation, we can determine whether a dog can simply be trained to accept being left alone or if more drastic measures will need to be taken such as medication. Rather than viewing a crate as a bad thing, we need to see it as a step in the training of some dogs. While serious separation anxiety may require more intensive measures, in the moderate cases a crate can be an invaluable tool in training your dog.