Q Charley, a rescued three year- old Lab who’d spent his entire life in an outdoor kennel, was scared of everything when we first got him. He’s been with us for eight months and now, he panics when we leave him alone. We have two crates, one in our house and one in our car. He goes into the home crate and stays there for about an hour. I’ve been gradually closing the door and even leaving the house, and when I come back, he’s fine. However, when we leave him in his car crate, he just loses it, so distraught that he’s destroyed a crate bed and a quilt. Is this separation anxiety? We adore him and want to help him, but what can we do?
A Charley is obviously suffering from a form of separation distress, which is not uncommon for a dog who has spent so much of his life in relative isolation. Fear of abandonment and the desire to seek reattachment are what drive some dogs into a panic when left alone, and the resulting destructive behavior is a manifestation of this desperate feeling.
Extensive research has shown that dogs suffer from the same kinds of fears, phobias and anxieties as do humans, even experiencing the canine equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It would not surprise me if Charley were suffering from a version of PTSD, which could be triggered by being left alone in novel places, even in a car that he knows. Dogs who become distressed when left alone typically do not do well in confined spaces such as crates, and in Charley’s case, it’s obvious that his anxiety is a result of his previous confinement.
You seem to have made good progress desensitizing Charley to the crate in your home, and a similar routine needs to be adopted for the crate in your car. Until he is completely comfortable being in the car without you, it’s better for him to stay at home, where he feels secure. If you try leaving him in the car too early in the process, he will revert to his former behavior, so it is vital that the following training steps be implemented slowly.
To begin with, show Charley that being in the car is a good thing. At various times during the day, walk him to where your car is parked and either feed him his favorite food in the car or play his favorite game around it. Open the doors and sit next to him while he is in his crate, with the crate door open so he can leave if he wants. Allowing him the freedom to make choices will help increase his confidence. Give him a durable rubber toy stuffed with food to chew when he’s in the crate. If, however, he decides to leave, gently take the toy from him and place it in the crate again, showing him that’s where he gets the nice stuff!
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If Charley is comfortable in the crate while you drive, take him to a variety of places and repeat the exercise, which will help him learn that being in the car with you in different environments is a good thing. Only when you see that Charley is eager to be in the car crate with the door open should you start closing the door for short periods while you sit with him. Gradually increase the length of time the door is closed.
At this point, you can begin moving away from the car for a minute or two while he’s chewing on his toy, returning frequently to praise him for calm behavior. As long as he is showing no signs of anxiety, you can spend more time away from the car. Repeat this training in different environments until he’s completely comfortable.
It goes without saying that a dog should never be left in a car when the weather’s warm (or very cold). In direct sunlight, a car can heat up within minutes, even on relatively cool days. If you know that you will be running errands or going to dinner, leave Charley at home.
If he doesn’t respond to desensitization, you may have to get rid of the crate altogether and use a canine seatbelt harness instead, which will keep Charley safe while allowing him a little more freedom. This in itself may be the only change you need to make for him to feel more secure when he is left alone in the car.