Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 2, Confinement Anxiety and Barrier Frustration

One of the first natural thoughts that crosses the minds of most people with a dog may cause destruction around the house is to confine the dog to a crate. Unfortunately, most of my patients with separation anxiety DO NOT improve when placed in a crate and often have concurrent confinement anxiety. They pant, salivate, whine, howl, bark, urinate, defecate, and/or are destructive when confined. They sometimes even hurt themselves, breaking teeth and cutting their skin trying to escape. What constitutes confinement? You must ask each individual dog as confinement can mean a small crate or even a room.

The first step in differentiating confinement anxiety from separation anxiety is to video tape the dog home alone OUTSIDE of the crate, loose or confined to part of the house. Often confinement anxiety alone is an easy fix as they are calm when left outside of the crate. If the dog must be crated (ie at a dog show) the crate should slowly be re-introduced using a desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol prescribed by your veterinarian. This is the primary technique we use to change your pets’ emotional response to triggers of fear. Desensitization is exposing the dog to their trigger for fear (ie being in the crate) at so low of an intensity that they are calm and relaxed, and slowly increasing the gradient of the trigger, staying below their threshold for displaying fearful behaviors. For example, starting the exercise with the dog near the crate and gradually working up to them being inside the crate, first for a short period of time and then longer amounts of time. Counter-conditioning is the process of changing their emotional response to the fear-elicit trigger, usually using a high value food reward.

Barrier frustration can look very similar to anxiety (barking, whining, howling, and/or destruction) although the dog is not actually anxious. This occurs when the dog is separated from a person by a barrier (ie door, window) and calm when the owner is out of sight and hearing range. In this case we would use desensitization along with counter-commanding. Counter-conditioning is different from counter-commanding in that with the latter we are not changing the dogs’ emotional response, but rather rewarding them for a behavior that is incompatible with the negative behavior we are trying to eliminate.

Meredith Stepita, DVM, ACVB

If your dog is suffering from anxiety and you would like to get them the care they need, please contact the only specialty veterinary behaviorist in Contra Costa County Dr. Meredith Stepita to schedule an appointment at Encina Veterinary Hospital in Walnut Creek: (925) 937-5000