by Naomi Heck www.trustingpaws.com
This month’s topic is crate training. People seem to view crates in one of 2 ways. They either firmly believe that confining a dog to a crate is cruel, or they say dogs naturally view crates as dens where they can rest undisturbed. I believe it can be either depending on how a crate is introduced and used. Many dogs can learn to like their crates and will choose them as preferred resting spots. A small percentage of dogs never get used to the close confinement of a crate, especially if it is introduced later in life.
A crate can easily be misused. It is very tempting to put an annoying dog in a crate rather than make an effort to train better manners. And a crate can be overused. Crates should be viewed as a short-term confinement tool, not extended housing all day while you are at work. A dog with separation anxiety should not be crated because his anxiety can worsen and he could injure himself trying to get out in a panic.
A crate can help with management and training if it is introduced in a gradual and positive way. The best time to introduce a crate is when the dog is young. A crate is a useful housetraining aid because it prevents a puppy from repeatedly making mistakes. It allows you to establish the yard as the only option for toileting, and makes learning easy (provided you do not confine longer than the pup’s bladder can hold). If your puppy is in a crate when you can’t supervise him, he won’t be able to practice peeing on the carpet. Surface preferences for elimination are developed early in life and are hard to break.
A crate also helps manage a dog that chews and destroys. It allows you to minimize your dog’s opportunities to practice inappropriate behaviors that result in bad habits. You should provide plenty of mental and physical exercise that your dog needs and use the crate sparingly. With judicious use of a crate AND guidance from you, your dog can develop good habits without presenting you with the monumental challenge of undoing bad ones.
An 8 to 10 week old puppy should not be confined for more than 30 to 60 minutes at a time. An adult dog should not be crated for more than 4 or 5 hours at a stretch without a potty-and-exercise break. Yes, there are some dogs that seem “fine” crated for 8 or more hours a day, but this situation is not mentally or physically healthy. Taking the dog to doggy daycare or having a sitter come to the house midday would be better.
There are many articles online describing how to crate train a dog. I believe the best one is on the ASPCA website called Weekend Crate Training (www.aspcabehavior.org). The first step is to take time to create a positive association with the crate BEFORE you ever close the door. You can do this by putting your dog’s meals and treats in the crate with the door left open. If your dog is tentative about stepping foot in the crate, put the goodies near the entrance. As he gains more courage, place the food inside. I love the “Treat Fairy” concept in the article. The Treat Fairy (you) leaves treats, bones and new toys in the crate throughout the day for your dog to discover!
When your dog happily goes into the crate to look for goodies that magically appear, start getting him used to stepping inside in order to get treats from you. Toss a treat inside to lure him in. After he goes in, immediately give him a few more treats while he is still in there. As soon as he finishes, let him come out. Give him treats only when he is inside the crate. If you do this a bunch of times, your dog will start waiting in the crate for more treats even when you tell him he can come out. This is a big milestone!
Now start closing the crate door for just a few seconds, feeding a couple of treats through the bars while the door is shut. Then open the door to let your dog out and stop feeding. Do this a bunch of times. You will gradually lengthen the time the door is shut, but always let the dog out BEFORE he starts to get upset. You want the dog to be disappointed when the door opens because it means the food stops.
Follow the steps in the ASPCA article to gradually get your dog used to staying in the crate while you walk around the room. Then work on teaching your dog to relax in the crate while you sit nearby and watch TV or read a book.
The last phase of crate training is teaching your dog to stay relaxed in the crate when you leave the house. As in the previous steps, do it gradually (a few seconds in the beginning, then a few minutes). It is best to thoroughly exercise your dog for 30 to 60 minutes before crating so it will be easier for him to relax. A food stuffed Kong toy or a chew bone that he only gets when crated will help keep him occupied. If your dog does not know how to relax in a closed crate while you are at home, he is not ready stay in a crate with you gone, so spend more time on the earlier steps.
Make sure to ignore any barking or whining. If you let your dog out of the crate when he protests, he will quickly learn to persist until you cave in because you feel sorry for him. At the first bark or whine, say “Too Bad” and walk out of the room. Wait until he is quiet for 5 to 10 seconds before returning to let him out. Be prepared to do this many times if your dog has already learned that barking works. And never push or force a dog into the crate or reach in to pull him out. That will ruin his view of the crate and possibly your hands!
Is crate training a lot of work? It can be, but teaching any “life skill” is worth the effort in the long run. Once your dog is older and more reliable around the house, you can gradually increase his freedom by reducing the time he spends in the crate. It is much easier (and less expensive) to allow a dog to gradually earn his freedom than to fix a history of house soiling or destructive behavior. I still crate my adult GSP when I leave the house. He runs right in for his treat and sleeps while I am gone. My wastebaskets, coffee tables, countertops and belongings stay undisturbed. I take a crate along when he travels with me so I can go out to dinner without worrying about what he is getting in to. And if he ever needs to be crated at the vet for a medical procedure, confinement in a cage will not cause undue stress. Why change a good thing?