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What Your Dog Wants You to Know about STRUCTURE

In the Doghouse

At John Earle Dog Training, we are on a mission to save dogs. Every year, millions of healthy dogs are euthanized after being surrendered by their owners for behavior issues. When a dog exhibits severe behavior problems, sometimes the owner thinks the only option is to surrender their dog to the shelter.

I want dog owners everywhere to know that there’s another way. I want every person who adopts a dog to have the tools needed to KEEP that dog in their home.  Knowing what and how to provide what our dogs need from us is the first step in ensuring harmony between people and their canine companions.

anxious dogs.jpgPutting aside Human-Canine language barriers for a moment, consider this: Your dog is telling you what he needs by how he acts and reacts.

Today’s focus is Structure: what it means, why it is important, and how can you provide it.

Structure – The What and Why  

Dogs are naturally programmed with a rigid structure. The “Frame” tells them when it is safe to hunt, sleep, and breed. In the wild, dogs will die if they are out at the wrong time of day or feeding in the same place as a higher predator. Now, unless you have lions and alligators in your kitchen pantry, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the life you’ve given your canine companion isn’t quite as rigid as the framework that’s present in their natural state. That doesn’t mean the need for a structured framework goes away! Even now, dogs observably crave a structure framework to feel safe, secure and to have the ability to know what the expectations are so that they can behave appropriately.

When a dog exhibits  destructive modifying behavior (e.g. excessive barking, chewing, growling, digging, jumping, accidents, etc.) I know the dog is telling me: I’m over-stimulated. I am unsure what is going to happen next.  Will you protect me because I am afraid?  I have no purpose and the expectations are unclear.

 How You Can Provide Structure:  

1. Crate or a kennel – Providing your dog with his own personal space is the meat and potatoes here.   

  • Using a crate provides safety and security for the dog  and helps decelerate his anxiety. When a dog goes into his crate (his den), the first thing he thinks is, “Ooooh – what a great place to take a nap.” Sleeping is a phenomenal decelerator. When people have high anxiety they want and need to sleep more. It’s the same with dogs. If we can enable that by using a crate, then we are meeting the dog’s needs. Sometimes a dog will behave anxiously when placed in a crate.Note: whenever a high anxiety dog has a change in routine, there is going to be reactivity. A good plan would be start with small frequent periods in the crate. A good example might be 20 minutes in the crate, followed by 20 minutes on a leash attached to you. Slowly increase the time in the crate over the course of one to three days.
  • Some people also have a kennel to use outdoors. This can be useful if the family is out in the yard as well and want to include the dog peripherally in outdoor activities. Where an outside kennel can be a detriment to a dog’s stress level is if the dog is placed outside the primary domicile while the people are inside. A dog may get  the sense that being put in the kennel outside is somehow being isolated from the internal social group.

2. Target bedding — The target training is a bed or a rug that delineates where the dog sees its space to occupy. It’s “home base”. It has no walls so it requires higher mental output for the dog. A dog training with us learns what an important job it is to Target: “My Dog’s Job is to sit (or lie) on this bed and keep it from flying away!” Targeting is the higher intensity outlet for the dog because it engages the dog mentally.

3. Leash — This is the structure used to transition the dog between states, and of course walk with you. I’ll take this opportunity to let you know that retractable leashes do nothing to provide structure for your dog. The dog is actually rewarded for pulling, and there is no way to control the dog’s movements. Don’t use a retractable leash for anything other than a potty walk in your yard after advanced training has occurred.

Choosing a Crate


(click to enlarge)

Remember, the crate is part of the structure that will decelerate his anxiety. It’s his safe space. Therefore, you want a crate that’s tall enough for the dog to walk into upright, and wide enough for the dog to turn around and lie down in.

Resist the urge to think, “bigger is better”; not necessarily. Remember that you’re providing a structured, decelerating, environment for your dog. What matters most is what the crate does to limit external stimulus.

Use these diagnostic questions to choose the right crate for a structured environment.

  1. Is the dog potty trained?
    1. If YES => He can have either a plastic crate or a wire crate that can be bigger than he is.
    2. If NO => He needs a smaller crate. The crate should not be so large that the dog can move to one side, or hide in a corner if he eliminates in the crate.
  2. Is the dog experiencing anxiety from the external environment?
    1. If YES => Use a plastic crate with a shell cover (like the one pictured) or buy a cover for the wire crate. Crating should limit what the dog can see, smell, and hear. To decelerate the dog, it’s important to limit the external input.
    2. If NO => Either option will work, although the wire crate doesn’t typically decelerate the dog. The input can still be overwhelming. Dogs may pace or chew their paws or bark. Given there may be times that the dog does experience anxiety from the external environment, consider covering the kennel to limit stimulus input. You can use a fitted cover, or just a blanket.

Deciding where to keep the crate depends on the dog’s behavior.

If the dog is anxious, I recommend putting the crate in a quiet room away from a lot of stimulus. Perhaps a guest bedroom, a laundry room, or some other room that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic. Some people keep the crate in their bedroom. This is fine, provided the dog hasn’t exhibited aggressive modifying behavior toward their owner in the bedroom. (i.e. If your dog has tried to bite you in your own bed, put the crate in a different room.)

I typically recommend the plastic crates because of the way they limit external stimulus, and for the flexibility. You can move the dog’s safe space from one room to another, depending on what’s better for you and for the structured environment. For example, one of our clients keeps her dog’s crate in her home office most of the time, but moves it to a back bedroom when she has (her own) clients in.    

To Summarize:

Dogs are naturally predisposed to crave structure. Your dog tells you what he needs by how he acts and reacts. When a dog is reacting to external stimulus with inappropriate modifying  behavior (barking, growling, etc.), we know he is trying to tell us something. It’s their way of asking us humans to PROVIDE them a framework with a comparable intensity to what they are (biologically) programmed for. It’s up to the owner to use obedience controls (recall, sit, down, stay, and release) and direct the dog’s actions of when to eat, sleep, and exercise. Simply knowing when he will be fed, walked and played with on a regular basis can go a long way to making him feel more relaxed and secure. One of the most important ways you can provide your canine companion with structure is by ensuring he has a crate to decompress in.  


If you have questions or would like a consultation, Call Us (707) 596-8845 or e-mail


John Earle is a recognized expert in animal behavior. He has spent his whole career developing and perfecting an innovative technique to train dogs by integrating Cognitive Behavioral Therapy into his program. John has been a devoted Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) and Applied Animal Behaviorist for more than 25 years. He owns John Earle Dog Training, and is also the head of behavioral services at PetCare Veterinary Hospital in Santa Rosa, CA.  



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