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Do you have a dog that howls, cries, or barks excessively when left alone? Your dog may be suffering from either separation anxiety or confinement anxiety.
In this guide you'll learn how to know the difference between separation anxiety and dog confinement anxiety and what to do about it.
As a certified separation anxiety trainer there's nothing I like more than telling a dog guardian their dog DOESN’T have separation anxiety. This is most common when a dog (or puppy) is displaying concerning behaviors when confined to a crate.
The behaviors may look the same on the surface but the root cause and solutions are very different.
Let’s break it down a bit - regarding crates...
First, before I start getting lots of messages about being anti-crate, let me say that I am all for crate training. Crates are incredibly helpful management tools and I think all dogs should learn to feel good about being in a confinement area for short periods in the event of an emergency.
However, I am against forcing a dog into a crate, getting stronger crates when dogs break out, using any sort of punishment to crate train or ever using a crate as punishment in general. For dogs with any sort of alone-time issues I recommend 99.7% of the time that a crate be eliminated from the equation.
Ultimately, there is no rule that says to crate train if you don't want to or if your dog has negative associations with it and really hates it. Dogs are not den animals and crating doesn't come naturally.
Now on to the topic at hand...
Understanding confinement anxiety vs separation anxiety
Confinement Anxiety happens when a dog is placed in a small confinement space like a crate (or sometimes a tightly confining x-pen or baby gate). This can cause panic just like the anxious behavior in separation anxiety.
The dog's behavior may include attempting to break out of the crate and causing self injury, getting broken teeth from biting at the bars, urinating or defecating when otherwise house-trained, drooling and panting excessively as well as destructive behavior and more.
So basically, an anxious dog showing the same obsessive behavior patterns and common signs of separation anxiety. The big difference is when not in a confined small space the dog is much more comfortable.
Many dogs with separation anxiety will also have confinement anxiety but not necessarily vice versa. If you think your dog has separation anxiety, go to the Anxiety Channel here on Dogly and select Separation Anxiety to go through all of the step-by-step guides for help from certified dog trainers.
Incomplete Crate Training is exactly what it sounds like. Have you put in the time with confinement training to create positive associations with the crate? Maybe when your dog was a puppy you just put them in the crate when they fell asleep and they slept through the night and you thought you got off easy, now they are 6 months old and not quite so thrilled to be in the crate. Maybe you adopted a dog and were told by the rescue that your new dog was crate trained, but after a week or so at home your dog is not happy there anymore.
These scenarios, if not handled well to include positive stimuli, can lead to a negative association with the crate and dog confinement anxiety if the dog is crated repeatedly and feeling a little anxious.
So how do we suss out what is happening?
8 questions to ask yourself to figure out if your dog has separation anxiety or confinement anxiety
Question 1) Does your dog feel calmer and comfortable in the crate/confinement area when you are present?
If yes, and the issue arises only when alone there may be elements of separation anxiety and confinement anxiety.
Question 2) Is your dog comfortable home alone in or out of the crate?
If your dog show signs of hesitancy to enter the crate around the context of your leaving, there may be elements of separation anxiety and confinement anxiety. However, if your dog is hesitant to go into the crate at anytime, whether you're in your footie pj’s or work clothes, confinement anxiety or incomplete crate training without enough positive association with the crate may be an issue.
Question 3) Does your dog choose to go into their crate without prompt or lure (food/treats)?
This one isn’t necessarily going to give you any definitive answers but paying attention to if your dog ever chooses to go into their crate on their own can give you some information about how they feel about that space. Some dogs who enjoy their crates and think of it as a safe space will choose to take naps, snacks or toys inside for safety.
Question 4) Will your dog stay in their crate with the door open?
If not, there may be a confinement anxiety or negative association with the crate. If your dog will stay in the crate with the door open then that is a good sign!
Question 5) When working on crate training (it doesn’t come naturally) will your dog bolt out the moment the reinforcement stops?
If so you may need to work more slowly or address confinement anxiety or go back to the beginning and re-teach crate training with some slower more positive steps for your dog to accept confinement comfortably.
Question 6) How long after the crate is closed does your dog begin exhibiting signs of worry?
Most dogs with strict confinement anxiety will almost always show signs of worry immediately after being confined. This doesn’t mean they will explode but may begin to pant, drool, yawn, circle, or pace. This may lead to larger displays if they are confined for longer durations and these initial stress signals are ignored.
Question 7) Will your dog eat offered snacks / bones / enrichment toys when in the closed crate when you are present? What about when you are away?
Some dogs will eat no matter how stressed they are. I know, I have one. But an indicator of stress in dogs is anorexia. So if you offer yummy snacks and your dog ignores them while in their crate but eats them the second they are let out this is good information. If your dog will eat happily in a crate while you are present but stop when you leave the room or house, separation issues may be a bigger concern.
Question 8) Have you observed your dog while they are alone on camera in and out of confinement?
If you have a dog monitor or camera you can get good information about what your dog is doing when unsupervised in and out of their crate.
How to run an assessment of your dog
The best way to determine what may be going on with your dog is to run your own assessment as the concerning behaviors may not be happening when you are present. To run a functional assessment:
#1. Go through a "normal" leaving routine
Get dressed in your work clothes, put on your shoes, grab your keys and bag or briefcase. If you wear a coat, put that on too. Make sure to do this calmly and without any fuss.
Ensure you have a camera directed on your dog and you can watch live and record if possible.
#2. Leave the room or house and watch what happens
If you're able to observe your dog on camera while you're gone, this will give you a better idea of his/her behavior when unsupervised.
As soon as you feel your dog is getting too worried, return. This may not be at the first bark, but maybe as stress related behaviors increase. If your dog is self-soothing (paw licking, yawning, circling) these behaviors may precede an increase in stress related vocalizations. We are trying to determine a starting point for your dog.
We don't want to make it a habit to leave and let our dogs stress, and returning will not reinforce the behaviors they might be displaying (barking, whining, chewing) as emotions have taken over and learning is likely not taking place.
#3. Use your observations to determine the root issue and make a plan
Your observations on the timing and nature of discomfort give you a good reference point for the difference between in and out of the crate and for helping your dog in general.
Once you’ve determined the root issue it will be easier to make a plan to move forward. Sussing this out early can help with a training plan for any of the above issues.
If it turns out your dog is having a hard time being alone no matter if he/she is in a crate or not, consider reaching out for help specifically for separation anxiety.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to tell if your dog has separation anxiety or confinement anxiety, you're ready to continue on to other guides in the Anxiety Channel. Jump to Separation Anxiety step-by-step guides like how to make coming and going boring and how to set your home environment up for success, or check out other guides like how to teach your dog to stay calm outside of the house.
Hop over to the Anxiety Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Noise Sensitivity, Separation Anxiety, or Understanding Anxiety.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!