The primary way that we train dogs is by associating good things with the things we want them to do. For instance, they get a treat when they don't bark when the mailman comes to the front porch. Or, they get praise when they go potty when we take them out.
It stands to reason, then, that dogs can also associate bad experiences with certain things too, and develop fears or anxieties that in humans we might call phobias. Answering the question of whether dogs get claustrophobia in the same way that humans understand a fear of small spaces is a bit tricky, but there's ample evidence that dogs can develop fears of various sorts.
Dogs and fear of confined spaces
A few years ago, a controversy erupted when noted psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren announced that he had gathered evidence that dogs don't like hugs and cuddles. The issue here isn't about hugs, but about the fact that when a dog senses it is in danger its first line of defense is to be able to run away. When it is being hugged — or to extend the analogy — when it is in enclosed or small spaces, the dog feels unable to run away. This can increase his stress level.
A dog's fear of being confined, called containment phobia, can go beyond the fear of being in a small crate. They may fear being confined in anything from the size of a crate or car to a room the size of a bedroom, or even a space as large as a fully-fenced backyard. This can result in panic and escape attempts, or aggression.
There is no agreement among experts on the cause of claustrophobia in dogs. Unleashed Unlimited says it may begin at birth, when the dog is stuck in the birth canal and can't move. Los Angeles-based trainers Dog Savvy suggests it is a genetic trait that is a holdover from a dog's wild ancestors who exhibited a fear of being confined. Either way, this fear exhibits a lot of the same symptoms as separation anxiety, because the panic behavior may set in as soon as the caregiver is out of view.
Take care when crate training
Most experts will agree that crate training a dog is a necessary part of training until they learn good puppy behavior. But if care isn't taken to crate train in a compassionate and positive way, you could end up with a dog who is afraid of small spaces. A crate should be an enjoyable place for a dog to relax while they learn the rules of the house such as where they can go to the bathroom. A crate should never be a place for punishment, or a place where they are left alone for long periods of time.
Repeated attempts to escape from the crate, fearful body language, excessive whining, or destruction of items while in the crate are signs that the dog is anxious about the crate. If your dog can't develop positive associations with being in the crate, it could manifest as claustrophobia later on, or at the very least, an unwillingness to enter the crate.
Other signs of dog claustrophobia or containment phobia can include chewing through the door jambs of closed doors to get out of a room, digging under or jumping over a fence, or breaking through window screens.
Dog counter conditioning
If a dog develops claustrophobia, the best bet is to "desensitize," so to speak, your dog, so that they begin to develop positive associations with the subject of their fear. This is called counter conditioning. Treating claustrophobia in dogs can be a complex issue, so it could be a good idea to consult a dog behaviorist. Dog Savvy calls this counter conditioning "doggie decompression," and says it is done by providing the dog with regular periods of calmness where the owner is present but the dog is separated from them by either a barrier or a tether.
VCA Hospitals says the combination of desensitization and counter conditioning is a powerful tool for combating dog behavior such as anxiety or claustrophobia. Desensitization means to gradually expose the dog to the stimuli which would bring on the behavior, such as claustrophobic anxiety, but doing so in such a careful and controlled way that the dog doesn't get upset about it. At the same time, counter conditioning works to associate the fearful situation (the confined space) with something positive, like a favorite treat.
In a nutshell, yes, dogs can develop claustrophobia, but the causes can be hard to pinpoint. It could be a genetic trait, or a result of inappropriate use of small spaces while crate training, or a negative association from something that happened while the dog was in an enclosed area. Observe your dog's body language and behavior to see if they exhibit signs of claustrophobia while in a confined area. If they do, consult with a behaviorist to learn how to give your dog positive associations with being in a small space.