Q&A: How to make my dog comfortable in his crate?

We have a 3mo old lab that every time I put into his crate he started rapidly breathing and salivating while he screams and howls, chews on the door of the crate and continues until he wears himself out. He calms down long enough to catch his breath and starts again. I have fed him when I place him in the crate and he doesn’t eat, he just spills the food and proceeds to salivate to and cry. We have been at this for 3 weeks. I have to be able to crate him. I would welcome and suggestions and appreciate any help you might offer. Thank you.

Thanks, Pam

Hello Pam, and thank you for reaching out.

You are describing a pup who is breathing fast and salivating when you close him in the crate. If these symptoms occur only when your dog is closed in the crate, they are highly suggestive of anxiety associated with confinement. Salivation, rapid breathing, screaming and howling are your dog’s ways to let you know he is very uncomfortable. Additionally, the fact that your dog refuses to eat is also suggestive of anxiety as a dog who is highly stressed won’t eat.

Why is your dog stressed when closed in the crate? There may be various reasons. The anxiety may be caused from the fear of being closed up in the crate or from the fear of being separated from you, and sometimes both, which is often seen in dogs who start associating being closed up in a crate with the owner leaving. This is often seen when the dog starts noticing a pattern where being closed up becomes a pre-departure cue suggesting that the owner is leaving.

It’s important at this point determining what’s exactly causing the behavior. There are several ways to determine this. Here are some pointers: Does your dog act this way even when he is not closed in the crate and you must leave the house? To find out, the best way is leaving your dog in a puppy-proofed room with plenty of toys and recording his behavior during a brief absence. If your recording reveals that your dog is breathing rapidly, drooling, vocalizing and trying to get out of the room, there are chances you might be really dealing with a case of separation anxiety. Showing your recording to a behavior professional can help you further determine this.

Does your dog act this way when he is crated and you are around? To find out, you would have to crate your puppy and stick closely nearby without leaving for some time. Do this at a time you never leave the house, for example, in the evening. Read a book or watch TV and determine if your presence is helping to calm him down.

If you have determined your dog still gets upset even when he’s not crated and you are out and about, most likely you are dealing with a case of separation anxiety. Your dog is a bit young to show signs of separation anxiety as usually it affects puppies around 4 to 6 months in age, but it’s not unheard of it affecting some puppies earlier. This is something that will take some time to address, but with an early age of onset you have better chances at success if it’s caught early and nipped in the bud. In this case, I would highly suggest consulting with a dog behavior professional for a step-by-step behavior modification plan where your puppy will be gradually desensitized to better tolerate your departures. A good read would be Nicole Wilde’s book: “Don’t Leave Me” which offers an insight on what to do.

If your puppy instead shows signs of distress regardless if he is left alone in the crate or in your presence, most likely you are dealing with a severe case of fear of confinement or barrier frustration. Barrier frustration causes stress and “tantrums” when dogs are confined and affected dogs experience severe distress along with destructive attempts to escape the crate. In this case, treatment would involve teaching the puppy to tolerate confinement instead of teaching him to tolerate being separated from you. Following are some tips on how to teach a dog to better tolerate crate confinement.

• If your dog has a hard time tolerating the crate and you must leave your puppy for quite some time, you can try confining him in what Ian Dunbar calls a long-term confinement area. This is a puppy-proofed area with tiles (kitchen, bathroom or exercise pen) where your dog has more room to romp and access to a crate that is left open so your dog can go in and out at will. You will also add a water bowl, plenty of safe chew toys and a doggy toilet in the farthest corner away from the bed, crate and water. This may be the fastest solution as many dogs feel less nervous once they have access to more space and the ability to engage in different activities, (chew, sleep, drink, walk around, eliminate)

• If you absolutely must crate, then you must dedicate several days to make the crate a more pleasant place. This may take some time to accomplish. Start on a weekend when you are home. Keep the crate open and place a high value treat or favorite toy in there. When your dog goes inside to eat the treat or get the toy, praise you pup and place more inside to replace them. You want your dog to develop positive associations with the crate. Never close your puppy inside at this stage!

• Continue adding goodies to the crate, but this time add longer lasting ones. A Kong stuffed with goodies, a bone (make sure it’s suitable for puppies under 6 months) or his meal scattered inside are some ideas. Your goal is to have your pup enjoy these goodies inside the crate and spend some more time in there. Don’t close your puppy inside yet!

• As time goes by, your puppy will start investigating more and more the crate. From a scary place of confinement, it’s starting to become a treasure cove! Now, start placing goodies inside the crate (the smellier, the better) and close the crate with your puppy outside the crate. The goal is getting your puppy to be really eager to go inside. You want to catch him pawing at the crate, whining to get in. Open the crate and let your puppy inside and allow him to eat the goodies. Repeat several times.

• Finally, after some time, you can start letting your puppy in the crate to get the goodies, close him briefly—(the time your puppy has to eat them) and open him as soon as he is done, before your puppy has even time to whine or ask to get out. This will help him understand that good things happen in the crate and good things end out of the crate.

• As time goes by, start giving your dog longer lasting treats that will allow your puppy to be closed for longer periods of time. You can freeze a Kong with some goodies inside which take some time to finish up.

• Consider that crating a tired puppy ups your chances for success for him to nap. Play with your puppy for some time, go on a walk and provide loads of mental stimulation before crating him. Then, let him find a long-lasting goody in the crate. After managing to eat the long-lasting goody, he may feel more compelled to nap.

• Make it a rule to reward only calm behavior. If at some point your puppy is more accepting of the crate (doesn’t show signs of anxiety anymore) and you catch him whining and pawing to ask to be let out, ignore these attempts to get your attention and let him out only once he’s quiet. Stay nearby so you can promptly open when you notice a pause in his whining or pawing at the crate behavior. Do this as well with other behaviors your puppy displays. For instance, put the leash on only when your puppy seems calmer, feed his food only when he’s quiet, toss a ball only after your puppy sits or calmly waits. You want to reward only calm behaviors.

• Make sure the crate isn’t in an area where your pup is exposed to scary noises or where the crate gets too warm or cold. Never use a crate for punishment. It should always be a great place to be.

If you are not seeing much progress or do not have the time, consider that a long-term confinement area may be a better choice for your puppy. Not all puppies do well in crates. I hope this helps! Best wishes and kind regards!

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Adrienne Farricelle

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