Crate training is a critical step in addressing separation anxiety when your dog is left home alone
Upland hunters across the nation have found the silver lining within the chaos of COVID-19. We recognize that more than any other year, we have enough time to be able to raise and finish our dream upland dog. For many now working from home, it is an amazing opportunity to have your dog at-the-ready, all day long, just begging to be educated. It has inspired many of us to get out there every day and to mold our pup into the finest hunting machine.
Of course, this is just a temporary circumstance; eventually we will have to answer the call and return to the workplace. For those who haven’t properly prepared for this change, don’t be surprised to come home and discover that your rebellious companion has destroyed its crate and chewed through four different pairs of your shoes while you were away. Worse, you may return to a panicked and shaking dog that didn’t know if you would ever return—a true sign of separation anxiety and not a behavioral problem. Was there something you missed or hadn’t prepared for? Absolutely.
Separation anxiety is experienced by some dogs when their leader leaves them. This anxiety can be part of the genetic disposition of the animal or it can be created through improper training, or both. In many cases it can be prevented with sufficient time, preparation, and training.
When separation anxiety behaviors present themselves, corrective measures such as electric collars or verbal and physical aggression will only excite the dog, exacerbating the issue. The dog’s anxiety explodes and the fear may become permanently imprinted on the dog. Instead of these punitive actions, it is better to take a reward-based approach, settling your dog’s mind back into rational thought and developing long-term acceptance of the confinement. The idea is to make the crate a friend, not a foe.
Start crate training right away with puppies
Most very young puppies come to us with some level of anxiety after leaving the whelping box and entering our homes. They no longer have their littermates and the new surroundings are foreign to them. For this situation, I would encourage you to make it your mission to get your dog to love its crate.
Start with a crate that is small enough so the pup can’t pee at one end and sleep at the other. The crate should follow you around for a while. Use the crate to play all kinds of silly crate games that get the pup excited to happily go in and out. Toss treats and toys into the crate. Make it the most comfortable place in the room to lay down. Feed your pup in the crate. Travel with it and spend time outside with it. Soon the pup will look forward to going into the crate for naps and entertainment. It will look at the crate as a positive place.
In addition to creating a safe space, the practice of settling your puppy down in its crate after a training session will provide your pup with a period of downtime to reflect, which helps with retention of new information. Many times, today’s lesson is tomorrow’s learning. What you thought the dog might have missed in a training session often presents itself the following day.
Your first nights with a new puppy in a crate will remind you of life with a newborn child. The puppy will cry and keep you up. It will need to be let out three or four times a night. It may take them a few weeks of this training, but in time and with plenty of patience, you’ll both be sleeping through the night. My preference is to systematically work the kennel out of the bedroom and into its own space as the pup gets acclimated to the crate. Before you know, it the pup will be asking to go to bed in the crate on its own. As the pup grows into adolescence and becomes more comfortable with its crate, there will likely be little to no separation anxiety when you head off to work. You will thank yourself a thousand times over for putting in the work to crate train your pup.
Prepare for your work routine by crate training
For those adolescent dogs that have not been crate trained, going back to work and placing them in their crate for eight hours will likely create high levels of anxiety, resulting in a cascade of anxiety-driven problems. I suggest proactively getting them used to being crated for longer and longer periods of time. Continue to feed them in the crate and make it a happy place with crate games.
Breeder Elise Wright of Olympic Vizslas observes, “Providing your pups with amounts of confinement throughout the day helps them to become independent of you and teaches them how to settle on their own in their crate, a safe space. If this becomes a structured routine, then this goes a long way in preventing anxiety down the road.”
Figure out what your work routine will be and slowly get the dog used to that daily ritual. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, exercise your dog as much as possible. I don’t mean a 45-minute on-lead stroll down the boulevard. I mean ripping through fields and woods, allowing the dog to follow its nose and just be a hunting dog. Physically and mentally burning off as much energy as possible will help transition the pup into confinement. This training and exercise regimen leaves your dog mentally drained and emotionally fulfilled. It will allow them to rest peacefully for the duration of your work day.
For those inherited extreme cases where you found these lessons ineffective due to the dog’s genetic wiring, I would recommend contacting your breeder and veterinarian along with researching various behavior treatment options with homeopathic remedies. Separation anxiety is a well-documented condition with many medical treatment options. A word of caution, however—like any medication, be careful of what you use, as some treatments have not been proven or properly studied, which could be damaging to the health of your dog.
The effects of separation anxiety are difficult for all parties. Your stress with going back to work and your dog’s stress of you leaving can be a recipe for disaster. Proper crate training, exercise, and proactively easing your dog back into the work routine will certainly help with this transition.
Jason Carter is a NAVHDA judge, NADKC member, director of youth development, secretary of NAVHDA’s youth committee, clinic leader and trainer at Merrymeeting Kennels. He has been around versatile hunting dogs his entire life, literally! Born into the Carter family and Merrymeeting Kennels, he attended his first NAVHDA test in Bowdoinham, Maine, when he was just a year of age. Jason successfully trains, tests and breeds Deutsch Kurzhaars in both the NAVHDA and NADKC testing systems. Through his work at the kennel, Jason has had the opportunity to develop pointers, flushers and retrievers over the years. When October arrives he can be found with family and friends hunting throughout New England.