The subject of crate training can be a touchy one. Many people feel it is a cruel thing to do, and depending on how it’s used, it can be. It is cruel to keep a dog in a crate for 10 hours a day without exercise and very little interaction with her human family. However, if crates are used properly they can serve as a source of comfort to your dog and can help her relax and keep her out of trouble. Crates also play an important role in the house training of puppies. It is nearly impossible to constantly keep an eye on a puppy and this is when “accidents” happen. If a crate is seen as a positive thing by your dog it can help with the anxiety of car transport that many dogs experience. With the busy lives that many of us lead, our dogs are going to be asked to spend a good portion of the day away from us. If properly conditioned, the crate can have a calming effect.
There are several different styles of crates to choose from. There are the heavy duty plastic airline crates, or flight kennels. These are mostly inclosed except for the door and a small row on both sides of the crate. They are very heavy duty and sturdy, but can be difficult to take with you in a car for a trip. Collapsible metal crates take up much less space in a car and can be taken on trips. They are open on all sides, but can be a little flimsy. If your dog is an escape artist, it may be difficult to contain him with this type of crate. There are also collapsible fabric crates. These are generally used for transport and are not meant for unsupervised confinement. The crate should be large enough for your dog to stand up, turn around, and lie comfortably in.
The Process of Crate Training
Crate training can happen quickly, or it can takes some time. It depends on the dog, her individual temperament, and her past experiences. Some dogs will take to it naturally, and others may not. It is important to form a positive association with the crate. It should ALWAYS be associated with something positive and NEVER be used for punishment. Go slow! Trying to go too far too fast can cause your dog to become fearful and/or anxious about the crate.
Step 1 The Introduction – The crate should be placed in a room that the family spends a good portion of their time, such as the den or living room. Make it comfortable and inviting by placing a bed or soft blanket inside. Begin to interact with your dog in a calm, yet playful manner near the crate using your happy voice. Begin to throw some of her favorite treats near the crate. Use your judgement here, if she seems apprehensive about the crate, give her treats only when she is calm. If she gets stressed, the treats go away, if she relaxes, the treats come back. Then begin to put the treats just inside the crate door. Be sure the door is securely fastened in the open position so it does not inadvertently close if your dog bumps it (bungee cords work well). Gradually begin to put the treats farther and farther inside the crate. If she seems apprehensive, do not force the issue. Give a treat at a distance that she can relax and then try again later. Once she realizes that nothing bad happened, she will be more likely to approach closer next time. You can even try making a trail of treats that lead to the crate. You can also use a favorite toy and toss it into the crate. This process can take only a few minutes or several days, it will depend on your dog. This is not a race, so go slow. Do not close the door on her at anytime during this step.
Step 2 Chow Time – After the initial introduction, AND after your dog is comfortable with the presence of the crate and going into it, begin to feed her inside the crate. Start by placing the food bowl just inside the door. Gradually, and slowly, begin to move the bowl farther and farther inside the crate. Remember to fasten the door so that it cannot inadvertently close if your dog bumps it. Once your dog is standing in the crate, eating, with the bowl all the way in the rear of the crate, begin to close the door. In the beginning, close it without latching it shut/locking it. The first few times you close the door, reopen it immediately. Don’t make a big thing about it, don’t say anything, just close it and reopen it. Gradually increase the amount of time that the crate remains closed while feeding. At first, open the door as soon as she is done eating. Then, start to keep her in the crate for a short period of time after she has completed her meal. Again, go slow. start with maybe 10-30 seconds and gradually build up to about 10 minutes. If she begins to whine and paw at the door, the duration may be a bit too much too fast and will need to be decreased the next time. If whining and pawing start, you must wait until they stop before letting her out. If you open the door while she is whining and pawing she will learn that this is how to behave in order to get the door to open. These behaviors only have to stop for a couple of seconds. Getting her to sit and look at you before opening the door would be optimal. Next time, try a shorter period of time.
Step 3 Conditioning for Long Periods of Time – After your dog is eating her meals in the crate and is relaxed in it afterwards, it’s time to start having her spend time in it while you are home and without being fed. Call her over to the crate. Use your happy voice and be sure to praise her and give her a treat. Encourage her to enter the crate and begin to use the word you want her to associate with entering, I like “kennel.” You can use what ever you want, just be sure it’s one word and one syllable. After she enters, have her sit, then call her out. Repeat this a few times randomly through out the day. After a few days of this (maybe sooner depending on your dogs temperament and reactions) begin to close the door for a few seconds at first and gradually build on the time the door remains closed. Sitting near the crate during this process will help your dog feel more comfortable, but gradually you will need to increase your distance from her. Once you start to leave the room you will need to come back to the crate to let her out, but only when she is not pawing and/or whining to get out. Once she can stay in the crate for about 30 minutes without issue, it’s time to start leaving her in it while you are gone for short periods and at night. When crating at night, it is best to have the crate in your bedroom so your dog does not feel isolated. Gradually, the crate can be moved to a different location. At this point, the crate should be comfortable and inviting. Place a blanket or bed inside. A word of caution, beds and blankets will not be appropriate for all dogs. Some dogs are chewers and will destroy anything left in the crate, even if a favorite toy is in with them. Use your judgement and common sense and avoid items that can be swallowed and may need surgical removal.
Step 4 Crating While Left Alone – Once your dog is comfortable with all of the preceding steps, it’s time to start leaving her in the crate for longer periods of time. Call her to the crate and use what ever command you have decided on to ask her to enter. In the beginning, give her a treat every time, but eventually you will want to vary your rate of reward. Always give praise, but keep it very subdued. Too much praise can cause her to get excited, and that is the LAST thing we want to do before we leave her in the crate for a few hours. You are going to want to vary the time that you put her in the crate during you routine for leaving. For example, sometimes put her in the crate mid-way through your morning routine, sometimes put her in right before you leave, and other times midway between those two times. Leaving a long lasting treat, like a food stuffed frozen Kong, can help keep her busy and distracted while you depart. It is best to ignore her before leaving. This may seem mean, but if you go to her crate and start apologizing for leaving her and telling her to be a good girl while you’re gone, etc… she will only see a look of concern on your face. She will not understand why your body language has suddenly changed, she will just know that it has. This will likely lead to her becoming excited and/or stressed. If you feel bad or guilty for leaving her and you want to give her special attention because of it, take her for a nice long walk at least a half an hour before you leave.
- Too Much Time In The Crate – A crate can serve as a source of comfort and safety for your dog, but too much time in it can be a very bad thing and lead to stress, anxiety, and even aggression. If your dog is crated all day while you are at work, then again all night while you are asleep, this is WAY too much time in the crate. Many dogs live this life, without proper exercise, and it is just not right. Dogs under 6 months of age should only spend about 4 hours at a time in a crate. If this is the situation you find yourself in, please make other arrangements like doggie daycare, having a neighbor come over and let her out/walk/play with her, or hire a professional dog walker.
- Whining/Excessive Vocalizing – This can be a tricky issue, especially in puppies and young dogs. These guys can whine because they have to “use the facilities.” A general rule of thumb to follow is number of hours per month of age, i.e. a 4 month old dog should be given the opportunity to eliminate every 4 hours, even through the night. If the above process was followed and you are sure that she is not whining because she needs to eliminate, try to ignore it. Most of the time ignoring will work. She should only be allowed out of the crate when she is not whining or pawing at the door. Yelling and pounding on the crate will not help and can make things worse. If she wakes you in the middle of the night to eliminate, that should be all that happens. It would be better for you to anticipate the need to eliminate and let her out before she starts to cry. Bring her to her spot outdoors to eliminate and then right back into the crate. Playing with her at this point can encourage her to seek your attention for play time in the middle of the night. If the whining is not because she needs to go out, do not give in to it, otherwise you will inadvertently teach her to whine for longer and longer in order to get your attention. If this becomes an issue, restart the crate training process for step 1. Also, the underlying cause for the whining/vocalizing will need to addressed.
- Separation Anxiety – The crate is not a cure and is definitely not the only part of treating separation anxiety. It may keep your dog and your belongings safe, but your dog will continue to suffer from panic attacks unless this issue is properly treated.
Follow these steps and you will be well on your way to making sure the crate is seen as something positive to your dog. If the crate is seem as something pleasant, it can serve as a source of comfort and safety. Many dogs have issues with car rides, but put them in a crate inside the car and the issue goes away because of the association they have with the crate. The same goes for airline travel, hotel stays, etc… Crate training will also GREATLY facilitate house training. Please share your thoughts and comments, I’d love to hear them!