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When it Comes to Dog Crates, Think Outside the Literal Box

Dog behaviorist Tiffany Lovell on how to treat and prevent confinement anxiety.

by Tiffany Lovell, CPDT-KA, CSAT
Updated December 28, 2022
A cute puppy looking up at the camera
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Many dog professionals believe that crates are a necessity when sharing your life with a dog — and they usually have a point. 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 retreat and relax when there are too many visitors in the home, they can be used to safely transport dogs in a vehicle, and they can be a comfy place for your dog to take an 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 — and crates can sometimes make these problems worse.

Understanding Confinement Anxiety

When dogs suffer from confinement anxiety, their 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 anxiety disorder, and you have a full blown panic attack.

There could be several reasons a dog panics in a crate, and it’s not always because of separation anxiety. If you have rescued a dog from a shelter, they probably spent many hours confined to a small wire kennel. It’s very possible that they have 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 their 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 take the shape of torn-up bedding, bent crate wires, or self-injury. Not to mention, their anxiety typically worsens when there is a combination of “home alone” and “confined to a small area.”

Easing The Stress of Confinement

I have found that many of my clients’ dogs with separation anxiety also suffer from confinement anxiety. Considering that, 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 the 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.

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.

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Tiffany Lovell, CPDT-KA, CSAT

Tiffany Lovell, CPDT-KA, CSAT is the owner of Cold Nose College in Florida. They offer local private, in-home training, and behavior consulting along with distance consults and remote training for separation anxiety. Tiffany shares her home with a menagerie of beloved pets and an animal-loving husband.