Rethinking the use of crates

People choose to put their dogs in crates for a myriad of reasons. First there is the thinking that dogs “like dens” and as such they must like crates. Second, people crate their dogs as a lifestyle instead of managing their dog and teaching the dog how to “behave” in their home. Others have chosen to crate their dog when she or he has become destructive as a result of a thunder-phobia or separation distress.

Trainers can also be part of the problem when we advocate for crate training as a way to house train without really explaining that the dog must first learn to feel comfortable in the crate.

In other words, no dog should be forced into the crate. Period! Just imagine if you were forced to go into a tiny room with no windows. With little room to move and worse you have no idea when you will be let out.

You are inside this tiny room without any control as to when you would be able to eliminate should you need to or just to stretch your limbs.

This is what we do to dogs. Unfortunately, the underline mentality of “teaching the dog whose boss” coupled with wanting dogs to “behave” at all times are some of the underlying reasons why folks crate their dogs without first teaching them to feel safe and comfortable in them.

Puppy in crateCrates can be wonderful resources for people and dogs alike but only when they are used humanely. A crate should never be a lifestyle choice but a tool initially to help teach a dog to not eliminate inside.

Notice that the containment element does not teach the dog not to eliminate inside, it just prevents the dog or puppy to wonder off and sneak a pee etc. because he has no access to the outside or he has still not been taught where he needs to go – outside.

The same goes for destructive behaviors. Your dog must be taught what is appropriate to chew on and what is off limits. Also, many dogs are destructive in the home because they are basically creating their own fun. Who can blame them.  Similar I would say to prisoners writing on their cells as a form of killing the boredom and perhaps even anxiety of depression embedded within their situation.

Solutions for typical dog “problems” or more accurately said: problems people have with their dogs must always take both parties well-being into consideration.

When it comes to a dog truly being anxious or fearful in the home, forcing the dog to remain in the crate will only make the problem worse.  Besides how cruel is this? Dogs who are forced to stay in crates when they have not been taught to feel safe and comfortable in them will hurt themselves in efforts to gain their freedom back.

Of course, some dogs really take to their crates and choose to spend time in them because they were taught to do so.  Because their crate is seen by them as a place where they can chill and take refuge when they need some downtime etc.  Take the case of Deuce, my border collie.  He adores spending time in his crate. At night, he has the choice as to where to sleep and he gravitates from his crate to Rio’s crate (almost identical) and his bed in our bedroom.  Now, when there is a storm and we are not around, he will run to his crate in search of some comfort as he is afraid of thunder.

The process of teaching dogs to love their crates can be an easy matter-of-fact event or an arduous one depending on how it is done and the dog’s previous experience or association with the crate.

One last thing:  Crates should be ample enough for the dog to be able to STAND up, lie down and turn around so that they truly have freedom of movement.

Below are some tips in helping your pup enjoy his crate.

WARNING: If you suspect your dog suffers from separation distress (separation anxiety) please do not crate your dog.  Most dogs with this type of emotional  profile become even more anxious in their crates.  The protocol for helping dogs that suffer from anxiety or noise phobia is a different one that may or may not include the use of the crate.

Your goal is to create only positive associations with the crate and your dog.

Begin by placing the crate in a high-traffic area so that your dog feels comfortable investigating it.

Feed your dog either next to the crate or just inside the crate- if he has not had a previous bad association with the crate.  Make sure the door is left open and your dog can go in and out.

Place some high value treats inside the crate and the door open for your dog to find them.  Do this several times for a few days.  Continue to feed the meal next to the crate or inside by moving the food bowl a little more towards the back of the crate.  Take it slow!  If you rush your dog might regress.

Once your dog is eating happily inside the crate with the food bowl all the way inside and the door open.

Begin to do the same but once your dog is eating close the door and remain nearby.

After he has finished his meal let him out without too much fanfare. Repeat.

Slowly you will add time to your dog remaining inside the crate with the door closed and you nearby.

Begin to present a really coveted bone or chewy inside the crate.

Ask your dog to go in and give the bone and close the crate. Stick around. You can praise your dog if you think this will help him relax.

If your dog is not excited about this prospect it means that either: You went to fast on the previous steps- so you need to go back to easy steps until your pup is successful or your pup is not interested in what you are presenting him at that time.  Try this and present him with something different and see how that goes.

Slowly you will have your dog stay inside the crate with a safe chewy- something you have seen him work on without eating at once or small pieces coming apart.  The best choice is a stuffed Kong.  If your dog has yet not learned how to extract food from a Kong you will have to teach him this first.  Remember, that when we skip steps or we push too hard the dog regresses.

If your pup is now happily and relaxed (most likely lying down) and enjoying the Kong, begin to exit the room or the home for a few minutes. Make sure to come back before your dog is done with his project.

Slowly continue to add 1 minute at a time (I know it sounds daunting but the minutes will add fast and your dog will be properly and humanely crated trained).

Continue to offer your dog a favorite safe chewy or a Kong before you exit the front door for a short amount of time.

As your dog continues to enjoy being in the crate because only good stuff happens for him while in the crate you can begin to leave him in there AFTER having him exercised, ready to take a snooze and with an empty bladder etc.

Humane Crate Times After Crate Training:

8-10 week old puppies: 1 hour

11-12 week old puppies: 2 hours

13-16 weeks old puppies: 3 hours

17-20+ weeks old puppies: 4 hours

Adults: 4-5 hours

This is especially important if your dog spends the night in the crate. Please remember that the use of crate is a tool and not a lifestyle for your dog.

I get a lot of pleasure of seeing both my dogs gravitate towards their crates, and you should too.