To Crate Or Not To Crate?
If your dog is taught through positive reinforcement to love it’s crate it becomes his own private, safe place much like a bed room for a child. It is somewhere the dog can go where no one will bother it, or when it is tired or nervous. Dogs have a natural instinct to den passed down from their wolf ancestors and many take easily to a crate.
Crate training benefits to the owner are numerous. A properly sized crate (large enough for the dog to stand, turn around, and lay down comfortably) utilizes a dog’s instinct not to mess where it sleeps and helps teach the dog to hold it’s bladder and bowels. This is a huge benefit when trying to house train a new rescue or puppy! Using a crate also prevents your dog or pup from getting into trouble when you can’t directly supervise them. This means at night, when you are at work (provided it’s not too long and the dog gets exercise before and after), when you are busy cooking or anything else that takes your attention directly away from you dog. Crate training also teaches puppies and excitable dogs to have some down time and conditions relaxed behaviour. Dogs and pups can be put into a crate with a yummy safe chew or stuffed Kong to keep them safe, relaxed, and out of trouble for periods of time.
It is important that a puppy never be left too long in a crate. A general rule for how long puppies can hold their bathroom movements is one hour per month of age. I have personally found many can go longer, but don’t expect them to physically be able to hold longer than that. Puppies should sleep in their crates as this will help them learn to sleep through the night. Place the crate directly beside your bed when first training so that your puppy will not feel too lonely and frightened and can wake you easily if it needs a middle of the night bathroom break.
While some dogs take naturally to a crate others are not so easy. If they whine, cry, and put up a fuss that keeps you up at night it’s easy to break and let puppy out to sleep in the bed. It’s supremely important when crate training then your dog or puppy never learns that whining, crying, and barking will get it let out of it’s crate. You must be patient and consistent that nice, calm behaviour is the key to being let out. Wait for even a few seconds of silence before opening the door. You must be strong and make it through the first few nights. Set your puppy’s crate up with a hot water bottle and blanket that has your scent on it as this will help it feel more secure and closer to it felt sleeping with mom and litter mates. Remember, your puppy has just been taken away from his family and everything he knows and is more than likely a bit frightened and confused.
It is best if a dog can be introduced to a crate gradually before plopping him in for the night or long periods. When you first get your new dog or puppy, get it used to the crate by tossing a treat in and leaving the door open, allowing the dog to exit freely. When your dog is comfortable going in and out, toss a treat inside, and close the door for a second or two, then let it out. At this point you can start adding a cue to entering the crate as well such as “crate” or “bed”. Say your word to mean go in the crate before tossing the treat. Before long your dog or puppy should be going into the crate eagerly on cue. If your dog is comfortable with the door being closed for a few seconds gradually increase the time the dog is in the crate before being let out. If this is no problem and it can stay in calmly for several minutes, start closing the door and quickly ducking out of sight for a second then returning. It’s important to be patient and not push your dog. We are asking them what they are comfortable with rather than forcing them to do what we want. Crate training is best done in baby steps. If you can get your dog or puppy comfortable with the crate before it’s first night in it your odds of getting a good nights rest will be greatly increased.
A crate can also be used as an effective humane punishment for your dog. As long as the crate has lots of positive value built up, you will be safe to use it as an occasional time out zone. If you are resorting to putting your dog in a time out multiple times per day for bad behaviour, you may develop a negative association to the crate. It should be used as a last resort, if redirecting to an appropriate behaviour or ignoring the undesirable behaviour does not work. If crate training is done properly, your pup will be conditioned to relax and settle when put inside. Putting an unruly pup into a crate as a time out for a few minutes teaches him to settle and also removes all possibly reinforcing stimulus for his “naughty” behaviour.
I have fostered and raised many puppies and can’t imagine doing it without having a positive association to a crate. In addition to at home, having a crate trained dog will come in handy if you are ever travelling, your dog needs to go to the vet or groomer, or if you plan to compete in any dog sports. Done properly with positive reinforcement and patience, the crate becomes a safe place for your dog and you will find your dog uses it on it’s own when he is tired or will eagerly go in when asked. With very little time, most of the dogs which attend our dog daycare will easily enter the crates in the daycare when we ask. All it takes is an investment of a bit of time and a few treats to have a happy dog and a happy human!
Sarah Fulcher is an owner of Barks and Recreation Pet Services and a Certified Dog Trainer in Trail, BC.