Helping a German Shepherd Get Over His Kennel Fear and Separation Anxiety

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 15, 2016

Zeus (German Shepherd)

Zeus is a two-year-old German Shepherd who has a case of Separation Anxiety and fear of the kennel, losing control of his bowels when his guardians put him in and leave the home.

Separation Anxiety is a fairly common problem for rescued dogs. When their guardians leave, the dog enters a panicked and anxious state, feeling incomplete and insecure without the presence of their guardians. When in this agitated state most dogs will not eat and it is not at all unusual for them to lose control of their bodily functions.

I sat down with Zeus’s guardian to discuss the situation and see if I could discover why the dog had developed this case of separation anxiety int he first place.

While petting a dog is a good thing that has a lot of positive benefits for both human and canine, providing attention at the wrong times can reinforce unwanted behaviors. Because Zeus’s guardian provided him with attention and affection any time that he showed distress, she was unintentionally reinforcing that unbalanced state in her dog.

I never want to tell a client that they can’t pet their dog, but I frequently suggest that they do provide it with attention and affection in a more structured way. I call it Petting with a Purpose.

Asking the dog to earn it’s praise is a small change for the humans to adopt that will have a large impact on the dog for the remainder of his life. Usually it takes the humans a good week or two before they get into a habit of interacting with their dog this way. Once they do, each time they pet their dog, they are deepening the leader follower dynamic that they want.

I also suggested a couple of rules and structural changes to the dog’s day to day routine. While humans feel rules and structure can be constructing, the same attributes can help an insecure dog feel more confident. In fact I would surmise that a good part of Zeus’s being underweight can be attributed to his stress level when being left alone.

I wanted to see the dog’s reaction to the kennel so we went down into the basement. The location of Zeu’s kennel was not ideal. The worst punishment for a dog is to be sequestered away from the group. Because the basement was not a room utilized by the humans, placing the kennel in this location can easily give the dog the impression that it is being ostracized from the group. Whenever possible, it’s better to have a dog kennel in a the room or area that is frequented by his guardians on a daily basis.

Because relocating the kennel was not an option for Zeus, I tossed in a high-value treat to gauge his perception of the kennel. When I saw the dog enter without any hesitation, I knew this was a mild case of Separation Anxiety.

But walking into the kennel is a different fish then being placed in the kennel while the guardian leaves. To see how Zeus behaved under these conditions, I set up my camera to record his activity after his guardian and I left him in the kennel.

As you can see in the above video, it didn’t take long for the dog to want to flee and escape from his kennel.

Not only is this problematic due to the dog’s loss of bowel control, as you can see in the video, it’s quite possible for the dog to get his neck stuck outside of the door. A potentially dangerous situation.

To help the dog get over his fear of the kennel, I showed his guardian an exercise that helps the dog practice staying inside the kennel with the kennel door wide open. For many dogs, its the closing of the door that triggers their fight or flight response. By leaving the door open and communicating that the dog must stay inside, we can remove that trigger. The goal of the exercise is to help the dog learn to practice remaining in a completely calm and balanced state while inside of the kennel.

At first we put the dog in a position to succeed by practicing this exercise with the guardian a few feet away. We only gave the dog permission to exit the kennel after it first lays down.

As the dog becomes more comfortable and relaxed inside of the kennel, then his guardian can gradually increase the level of difficulty by moving further away from the kennel and asking the dog to remain inside for progressively longer periods of time.

Simply put, the more time the dog spends in the kennel in a calm and balanced frame of mind, the more comfortable he will be when placed inside it in the future. It will be important for his guardian to move in small steps and wait for the dog to become completely comfortable with that step before taking the next.

To help Zeus develop even more self-control, I showed his guardian a leadership exercise I developed a few years ago. After running through the exercise a few times myself, I coached the guardian through it so that she can teach the other members of her family how to do so as well.

It will be important for all of the members of the family to start refraining from petting the dog any time it is in an over-excited or unbalanced state of mind. While it’s natural to want to pet a dog who is excited upon arrival, doing so only reinforces that unbalanced behavior. By waiting for the dog to return to a calm state of mind before we pet it or interact with it, we can help it learn that that is the only way to get the human’s attention.

The more control and self-discipline the dog has, the easier it will be for him to process being left alone inside of the kennel when his guardians leave. Combined with practice at being inside the kennel while completely relaxed, Zeus’s days of panic from being placed in the kennel will come to an end.

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