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Ask a Trainer Question Answered

Author: Sally Bushwaller | Date: April 13, 2012

Here’s the next round of answers for our Ask a Trainer feature on our new website. It’s your chance to get dog training advice from the pros at AnimalSense. Stay tuned for more questions & answers, and if you have a burning dog training question, just “Ask a Trainer”!

Crying, whining, and anxiety in crate: my 4 month old shelter pup really makes a fuss in the crate. Not when entering, she loves her crates ( home, work, car). She sits beautifully when time to exit. She is well exercised, given Kongs, etc. Do I need to wait her out if I know she does not need to go out? I only approach crate when she is quiet if. Even for ten seconds, but she still seems anxious to not have me with her. Advise please.

If your dog has issues like whining or barking in her crate, that means that your dog doesn’t love her crate enough. Most people use treats to lure their dogs into the crate, then close the door, thereby trapping them. The dog is not really going into the crate because she wants to, she’s just following the food or expecting a treat. Once the treat is gone, now she’s in the crate with no way out, and then gets stressed. In order to reduce crate anxiety, it’s necessary to shape the dog to do everything. The dog must want to be in the crate or the anxiety will never go away.

SHAPING is a process by which you reinforce small successes on the way to the final behavior. Shaped behaviors are ultimately stronger behaviors because the dog is making the decision on her own to do the behavior and you are not cuing the dog to do the behavior in any way.

This phrase is used a lot in this blog. When a dog does a behavior we like, it’s necessary to communicate to the dog that she did something you liked. So we MARK that behavior with a word–I like to use YEAH–or a sound–like a clicker. Reinforce, for the purposes of this article, simply means give the dog a treat.

The hard part about doing this process is being patient enough to wait for the dog to offer a behavior you like. But once the dog gets the idea, it’s reasonably easy.

I commonly string together a series of shaped behaviors: go to your crate/mat, spontaneously sit in your crate or on your mat, spontaneously down on your mat, lower your head to the mat and keep it there, then begin Relaxation Protocol. While this sounds like a lot, it’s not too bad. Especially if you don’t try to do the whole thing at one time.

At no point during all this training will you tell your dog what to do. If your dog leaves the crate or bed, let her! Don’t say anything to your dog to try to prevent your dog from leaving. The reason this process works so well is that the dog has free choice. The only repercussion for the dog is, you ignore the dog completely. She only gets reinforcement when she chooses to be in the crate or on the mat in a down. Most dogs get this concept quickly. You can help the dog initially if she gets up, by returning to her crate or mat and looking at the crate/mat, continuing to ignore the dog. The dog will probably return and lay down. When she does, immediately mark this behavior, but don’t treat (you can treat the first time or two to help your dog understand the concept better). Repeat the move that caused the dog to break, but make it a little bit easier, then mark and reinforce for success. After you’ve done this a couple times, the dog will understand and you will not need to return to the crate or mat in order to get the dog to go there.

If your dog leaves and doesn’t return no matter where you stand and look, abort the session and ignore your dog for 10-15 minutes. Don’t be angry, just ignore. Try again later and use higher value treats. Keep your sessions shorter if your dog loses interest. If you are increasing the difficult of Relaxation Protocol too quickly, some dogs get frustrated and break the down. You must keep in mind the purpose of this technique is to promote calmness, not to see how difficult you can make it for the dog and how quickly you can get out of sight. If you are doing Relaxation Protocol at a good rate for your dog, the dog will want to be in the crate or on the mat and will be sad when you stop training.

Be sure your dog is being reinforced at a high rate of reinforcement.

Watch the short videos below to see how to do the behaviors.

Your only job is to reward any progress toward the mat. This is most easily done the first few times, in your home, where your dog is more comfortable and there are fewer distractions.

Wait for a spontaneous sit. It’s best if the sit is already a default behavior for your dog.

Once your dog will go to his/her crate/mat and sit, shape a spontaneous down (SD).

I have found that it’s almost impossible for dogs to maintain a head down behavior and not become calm. So that is the next step in the process. This can initially be done outside of the crate, but the ultimate goal is for your dog to lower her head to the mat and leave it there.

This video shows my dog Cassie doing the transition.


When your dog is good at HEAD DOWN, you can use that as your criteria for returning to your dog. For example, your dog has her head down. You take a step away and your dog raises her head. You stand there patiently waiting until she lowers her head again, you mark that good choice, then return and reinforce.

This works best when you keep a steady and smooth pace of movements, being sure to mark and reinforce after each successful move you make. Moving steadily and smoothly initially keeps the dog in place better and gives the dog a high rate of reinforcement. Try not to stop in between movements, mark and reinforce and keep going.

Talk soothingly to your dog during this process. You will begin doing small movements while your dog remains in a calm sit or down. If at any point your dog gets up, calmly wait for the SS or SD, praise but DO NOT reinforce with a treat, then repeat the same move that caused the dog to break, but at a slightly lower intensity, mark and reinforce for success and continue on.

If your dog barks or whines because she wants a treat, simply turn your back and ignore that. We want the dog to learn that behavior earns her nothing. When she’s quiet, turn back and face her again, praise her but don’t give her a treat. The reason for this is that we don’t want to reinforce mistakes, yet we still want to let the dog know that what she did was the proper thing to do–fix your own mistake. Then begin your movements again.

◆    Rock back on one foot, mark and reinforce, rock back on the other foot, mark and reinforce.
◆    Rock to the right, mark and reinforce. Rock to the left, mark and reinforce. Rock around the clock!
◆    Take 1 step back with one foot, mark and reinforce. Take 1 step back with the other foot, mark and reinforce.
◆    Take 1 step back to the right, mark and reinforce. Take 1 step to the left, mark and reinforce.
◆    Stand backwards in front of your dog and mark and reinforce
◆    Stand backwards in front of your dog and take one step away, mark and reinforce.

Gradually increase the number of steps you take in every direction. You can include things like counting out loud, clapping, waving your arms around, etc. Be creative.

If you need help with this process, a private training session may be in order so you can learn, in person, the complete process.


The trainers really get to know and evaluate your dog to figure out techniques that the dog will respond to.

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