Dogs descended from wolves, and wolves live in packs. They are social animals, and they like the company of their owners. They never like it when you leave them alone, but you can train them and get accustomed to your absence.
Older dogs are particularly hard to crate train, especially if they have separation anxiety. This condition is very real, and it affects many dogs. You may think that your dog is throwing a tantrum, when in fact it is anxious and desperate because you are leaving.
Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The worst thing you can do to a dog, aside from hurting it, is neglecting it. If you are a dog owner, you should pay attention to your furry friend. Dogs are living beings, and they are very intelligent. They have feelings and they are nearly as emotional as humans.
When you treat your dog right, you can establish a bond with them and gain their trust in a matter of days. Dogs are very affectionate and they love having you around. When you leave, they might make a mess, break a vase, or soil the carpet.
Don’t think this is a coincidence, because they are doing it on purpose. They are trying to get your attention and express their emotions which may be sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, or a combination of all. These are clear symptoms of separation anxiety, and here is a more detailed list of symptoms.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Here are some of the most usual symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
1. Urination and defecation
Some dogs will urinate or defecate when they are left alone. In case they do it in front of you, the owner, it is safe to say the cause is not separation anxiety. Some dogs will even eat their own excrement afterward as a sign of distress.
2. Destructive behavior
Many dogs with separation anxiety resort to the destruction of household items when left alone. They might chew on things they are not supposed to chew, or even dig holes in your floor. This is a very risky behavior because your dog might injure himself in the process. If this also happens while you’re around, you can cross out separation anxiety.
3. Making noise
Dogs that have separation anxiety might howl or bark very loudly when you are away. If they don’t normally howl or bark, it is probably a symptom of anxiety.
4. Running away
A common defensive mechanism of dogs with separation anxiety is an escape attempt. Some might even chew and claw their way out through doors and windows, potentially getting severely injured in the process. If they do this only when you are not around, it is clearly a symptom of anxiety.
Separation Anxiety Triggers
It is very hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why dogs get separation anxiety. Sometimes there are multiple reasons, such as the loss of a guardian, change of scenery, etc. Here are some of the most common triggers of separation anxiety in dogs:
Change of owners
Dogs whose owners die or abandon them are very susceptible to separation anxiety. This is traumatic enough, and the change of owners only adds insult to injury. An abandoned dog takes a lot of time to adjust to a new owner. Also, dogs need time to get used to new family members, such as a newborn baby, who takes most of the owner’s attention.
If you move to a new house you need time to settle in and adjust. The same applies to dogs, as they don’t typically like a change of scenery. Sometimes they may develop separation anxiety because of moving to a new home.
Dogs don’t like change, especially if the change involves their daily routine. For example, if you get a new job which makes you spend more hours at the office, your dog may develop separation anxiety. A sudden change of their feeding or walking regimen, or the time spent with you, might trigger separation anxiety.
Crate Training and Older Dogs with Separation Anxiety
Now that you know more about separation anxiety in dogs, you can take some measures to make being apart easier for your dog. Crate training is often beneficial to older dogs with separation anxiety because they learn that a crate is a safe place.
They can retreat to the safe place while you are gone and await your return. On the other hand, some dogs can feel even more agitated and anxious if you crate them. You have to observe how your dog responds to the training.
If your dog shows any symptoms of separation anxiety mentioned above, or it pants and salivates a lot while left alone, crate training may not a good idea. Alternatively, you can consider using a crate replacement. For example, if you have an empty room, put your dog behind a baby gate and see how he reacts.
How to Crate Train an Older Dog with Separation Anxiety
If you think your older dog is ready for crate training, you can begin the process. It is not going to be easy, and you will need a lot of patience. The key to success is to take it slowly. You want your dog to feel comfortable and adapt to the new situation at their own pace.
Before you begin, try to get a few days off work or start on the weekend because you need to spend a lot of time with your dog during the first few days of crate training. You are also going to need treats, toys, and anything else your dog likes.
Finally, you will need a comfortable crate that fits your dog, because you don’t want to confine your pooch to a prison. The crate should have enough space for your dog to move and turn around freely. Your dog must like the crate in order for this to work. The whole process might seem difficult at first, but here are step-by-step tips.
#1 – Let Your Dog Get Familiar with the Crate
When you set up the crate in the designated room, you shouldn’t lock your dog in it right away. First, the dog must get familiar with it. Let your dog sniff it out, and see it. Then place treats around the crate, not in it.
You can also play with your dog and show them that a crate is a fun place. Naming the crate is not a bad idea, either. Your dog will memorize it easier the more you use the name. You can call the crate whatever you like, something in the lines of “den,” “crate,” or “bed.”
Some dogs like sheets because they make the crate look like a den. Other dogs like familiar sounds like TV or music.
#2 – Getting Your Dog Inside the Crate
Don’t force your dog into the crate under any circumstances. Also, never use it as part of a punishment. A dog must feel comfortable and relaxed inside the crate. Once your dog gets comfortable around the crate, this is how you get them inside.
Place some calming treats inside the crate and move away. Wait for the dog to enter the crate willingly. You can also place their favorite toy inside. Place treats and puzzle toys inside the crate several times a day for a few days.
You can quiet your dog if barking ensues, and provide praise whenever they enter the crate. You want to use positive reinforcement and treats here.
#3 – Locking the Crate Door
You can start locking the crate door behind your dog when you think they are ready. Adjustment time is different for every dog, but you have to be patient. Once the dog starts liking the crate, you can start locking the door and moving away.
At first, only lock it for a few seconds and move away a step or two. Gradually, increase the time the dog spends locked inside and the distance between you and the crate. This phase can take several days.
When you think the dog has adjusted to the crate, you can proceed with the tough part. After you lock the dog inside the crate, go to another room. Do some chores and be loud, so your dog knows you are still home.
Gradually increase the time you are in the other room while your dog is in the crate. You want to give them toys and treats each time before you leave so that your dog is occupied.
Some people suggest placing the crate in the busiest place in the house, like the living room. The dog needs to adjust to noises, movements, and everyday life in the house.
You can start leaving your dog alone when you think they are ready. Remember that you shouldn’t leave them alone for longer than four hours. This is the maximum amount of time, mostly because of their bladder.
Don’t ever leave your dog in the crate longer than that. Call a friend or a dog sitter if you can’t make it home from work on time.
#4 – Patience is the Key
If you leave here with only one piece of advice, let it be this. Don’t lose your cool in front of your dog. Stay patient and give your dog all the time they need. This is crucial for proper crate training of all pets, especially older dogs with separation anxiety.
You can use several crates if you think that is the best option, but make sure they are spacious enough. Separation anxiety in dogs can be treated, but it takes time and extra care.