Crate training can be a confusing issue for some dog owners, especially those adopting a rescue or shelter dog. The idea of confining a dog to a cage seems a little bit cruel – maybe even inhumane – but many dog trainers and behaviorists seem to recommend it. What’s the real deal?
A crate can be a powerful training and management tool, but it is not always necessary. It is most useful under two circumstances: housetraining a new puppy (or adult dog that has not been housetrained, such as some dogs from shelters or rescues) and preventing destructive behavior when you cannot monitor the dog yourself to prevent it. There are other applications, but these two are the most common reasons.
Is confining a dog to a crate cruel? When used properly a crate can actually enhance a dog’s life by giving him or her a comfortable place to relax, especially in high energy and/or multiple pet households. Used improperly it can be cruel and inhumane. Let’s set some guidelines for proper use before we cover how to train your dog.
- the dog is never physically forced into a crate
- the crate is never used as a punishment
- the crate is for short term confinement, it is not a way of life for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
The first step in crate training is convincing your dog (let’s call him Buddy) that the crate is a great place to be. If Buddy is a shelter or rescue dog, he may already associate the crate with long periods of isolation or other unpleasant experiences. If Buddy is a puppy or simply a dog with no crate experience, he may find the crate frightening. We will need to change how Buddy feels about the crate. Creating a positive association, with the help of food, toys and a little bit of interior decorating, does this.
Before we start training , make sure the crate is comfortable and inviting – it shouldn’t look or feel like a cage, but more like a cozy den.
Most dogs prefer open-wire crates to fiberglass or cloth travel crates as their permanent home. They feel more open and tend to be more comfortable, especially in warmer weather. The travel crates are great for travel since dogs tend to remain calmer when they cannot see what is going on around them, but at home Buddy will want to be able to see what is going on.
After you have selected the proper crate, fit it with a pad or blanket and, at least for the initial training, resist the urge to place it in a quiet corner or isolated area where Buddy feels he has been placed in solitary confinement. Being isolated from the rest of the family will be more stressful than being placed in a crate, this is especially true for shelter and rescues dogs, that may have already spent too much time isolated, although puppies can find isolation stressful also.
After the crate is set up, start your The Crate is Wonderful! PR campaign:
- Periodically, when Buddy is not around the crate or not looking, drop some treats into the crate, as far back as you can get them.
- Feed Buddy in the crate, always with the door open
- Give Buddy chew toys in the crate. If he takes the toys out of the crate to chew on them, trying tying them into the crate so he has to stay inside in order to chew on them.
After a few days, Buddy should starting hanging around the crate on his own. You may even catch him sniffing around inside, looking for the magically appearing treats or his chew toys. As soon as Buddy seems to be associating the crate with good things, start to work on an enter cue, such as Go Home. Toss a treat in the crate and then praise Buddy as he goes in and gets it.
Once Buddy is reliably entering the crate on cue, change the exercise slightly – instead of throwing treats into the crate first, tell him to enter, wait for him go in, and then toss him the treat. If he doesn’t go in on his own, just wait – don’t cue him again, and don’t throw the treat in. If he doesn’t go in after waiting for a few minutes, end the session. Try again in 5 minutes or so, still withholding the treat until he goes in on his own after one command. Have patience – he’ll go in eventually.
TIME TO PICK OUT THE CURTAINS
Now that Buddy will enter the crate on cue, our crate training can advance to the next level. Start closing the door for gradually longer periods of time. Close the door, feed him treats through the grate for a minute while calmly praising him, and then open the door. After doing this several times, close the door, give him a few treats, then get up and walk around the room for a few minutes, give him more treats, and then open the door. While you are increasing the period of time the door is closed be sure to keep the experience pleasant and positive and, above all, quit while Buddy is still having fun and before he starts to get nervous. Work your way up to at least 15 minutes, with you out of the room for at least part of the time.
After Buddy is comfortable with staying in the crate for a quarter of an hour, you should be able to quickly advance to a few hours at a time. Try it while you are home watching TV or doing housework.
If Buddy soils his crate, be sure he isn’t in the crate for too long a period of time. You might also have him checked for a bladder infection if he urinates often. This is another common issue with shelter and rescue dogs. If this doesn’t help, contact a trainer for advice. If at all possible, do not crate Buddy for more than 3-4 hours at a stretch without a break.