Animals of all species are spontaneously active because of intrinsic brain operating systems which generate adaptive innate and learned behaviors. When human brain systems are not operating properly, we call them psychiatric disorders, and in animals we call them behavioral disturbances. Fortunately, these operating systems are equipped with varying degrees of plasticity. Some behavioral outcomes are rigid and are difficult to modify, and others can be changed through stimulus activation, inactivation, or non-activation of various intrinsic functions. Animals that are trapped have innate reactions to escape. Entrapment is opposed to this natural tendency to spontaneity. Improper confinement and restraint can cause behavioral disturbances.
In nature, animals willingly confine themselves for various purposes, primarily for shelter and denning or making nests for the raising of young. If something grabs an animal, its instinct is to panic and to get away because it signals a probable encounter with a predator. The immediate reaction of an untrained animal which is unnaturally confined, such as in a crate, is to immediately and violently try to escape through the nearest apparent opening or exit and often combined with a variety of distress vocalizations. If restrained, such as on a leash, the untrained animal will immediately try to run away as soon as they recognize they are snared, and sometimes with accompanying vocalizations.
The implications of these aversive emotional shocks through improper confinement and restraint should not be dismissed or ignored. Being entrapped is traumatic, resulting in heightened, learned, long-term sensitization to similar future experiences. In other words, bad stuff that happens to an animal is never completely forgotten.
Confinement risks creating a great deal of distress in a dog. The accompanying distress vocalizations, which we would compare with human crying, are programmed to obtain some kind of rescue, escape, or reunion, just as when a young animal gets separated from obtaining normal parental presence and care. Restraint, likewise, can be very traumatic, and is also often accompanied by distress vocalizations. If the distress of either situation is highly stimulated, it will produce an aggressive enhancement. The intensity of the situation can result in injury to the dog, another nearby animal or person, or all the above.
This is why I am especially careful in how I introduce a dog to confinement in a crate, new home, kennel, hotel room, or vehicle. I am similarly careful when introducing a dog to a collar or leash. Unfortunately, with people who don’t know better, and especially regarding animal control operations, these principles are ignored. With respect to animal shelters, dogs are often snared with catch poles by a stranger (catch poles are even scarier than being on a leash), dragged into an animal control vehicle, removed, and shoved into a wheeled garbage bin, and then forced into an unfamiliar and aversively managed cage. For novice dog owners, they sometimes entrap a new dog or puppy into a laundry room or crate and figure they will just let the dog cry it out. When the leash is introduced, they drag the dog around until the dog is broken into learned helplessness, like people used to break horses. In a similar way, veterinarians and groomers sometimes traumatize dogs to do various procedures. In a life and death crisis, there might not be much of a choice. But for many situations, unnecessarily harsh confinement and restraint can make it difficult, or next to impossible, to successfully treat the dog during future appointments. I have heard of veterinarians piling on a dog to pin it down to get a dog’s nails trimmed. That might work once or twice, but eventually that dog is going to fight back. Worse, the vet tells the owner never to bring the dog back, as if it was the owner’s fault. Or the groomer traps a novice dog on a grooming table with a muzzle, and they end up with the same result. And have you ever seen a dog flip around and around when first put on a leash? I always prepare for this response with a new puppy and employ very gradual steps, so the dog comes to understand what is happening and to see the pressure as always leading to some kind of desirable goal.
Maybe it is time to start seeing things from the dog’s point of view and use a bit more empathy for what the dog is experiencing. The first step is recognizing that any confinement or restraint has the potential for a bad outcome. So, the initial physical and social environment should be pleasant and familiar to the dog. Dogs don’t like to do stuff in a place that they haven’t checked out with people they don’t know. Why rush this step and make things more difficult? I take my time, and you should, too. Second, you need to get to know the dog and ascertain its previous experience with various forms of confinement and restraint. If you are in over your head, then it’s time to call in the dog trainer. A good dog trainer has experience with these kinds of things, and can inquire about, and recognize, early signs of problems. Third, you need to prepare for whatever solution is recommended as the best first option. The initial method should be a low stress, least restrictive approach. Yes, this takes more time than just shoving a dog into confinement or dragging the dog along the floor with some kind of restraint, but we are here to promote good long term animal welfare, not some kind of quick fix that ends up harming the dog. It is good to be able to read a dog and understand the emotional states the dog is going through, to reasonably prevent injury, fearfulness, panic, or aggression.
To a novice dog, that crate isn’t a den, it is a trap to be avoided at all costs. That leash is a predatory set of claws and toothy jaws to be avoided at all costs. And that strange person and new location don’t put the dog at ease, either. They know they are on their own, with no backup, so we should expect resistance and emotional upset if we don’t go easy on them. See all of this from their perspective and you won’t harm your dog. Ignore this and expect severe results. Do what is right for the sake of your dog.