Dispelling the Myths of Crate Training
Written by Naomi White
When you say the word ‘crate’ you never quite know how someone may react. Some people will say it’s an essential part of their dog’s life, while others will find it quite offensive. To some people it feels like a prison; a punishing way of confining a dog.
Everyone has their own opinion and crate training isn’t for everyone. However, there are many benefits to crates so it’s important to consider these when deciding whether or not to go down the crate training route.
Why Crate Train?
We often neglect to provide our dogs with their own space, they are a central part of our families and it perhaps seems odd to think they may actually want to escape that sometimes. Most of us have our own rooms or places where we can get some peace and quiet within our homes. Our dogs need this too. A crate provides a simple way of allowing your dog to have his own space, somewhere he can go if he wants some alone time. The crate should act as a ‘safe place’, where he feels completely secure and calm.
This can be particularly beneficial for nervous or anxious dogs; they need somewhere they can go to relax and get away from stressful events within the home. It’s equally beneficial for dogs who struggle to settle, perhaps because they always want to be involved in what’s happening at home, or because they keep getting disturbed when they’re trying to rest. The crate is again a safe place where they can learn to settle and relax without disruption.
It can be particularly beneficial to begin crate training with young puppies, not only does the crate promote calm behaviour, it’s also a great aid in toilet training and avoiding unwanted chewing or destructive behaviours at home. Dogs will rarely toilet in their own space, so using a crate while you’re not able to supervise your puppy will reduce the likelihood of accidents and also teach your puppy better bladder control. They will be quicker to learn that toileting outside is most desirable and rewarding, because their opportunities to toilet inside will be much more limited.
Crating your dog can really give you peace of mind that he’s in a safe place and can’t get up to any mischief! Many dogs will entertain themselves when we’re not around to supervise them and when this involves chewing or destroying items in the house, it can become very dangerous.
It can also be an essential tool in dealing with more challenging behaviours in our dogs. Crate training can be a lifesaver for keeping everyone safe if you have a dog who displays aggressive behaviours, perhaps around food, toys or visitors. While you’re working through aggression issues, management is a key part of the process, and the crate fills this role really effectively. For dogs who react badly to unfamiliar people in the house, a crate provides a safe place for your dog to stay while they’re in the house. If your dog can’t tolerate people near his food bowl, he can be safely fed in the crate until his training has progressed further.
We don’t like to think about it but accidents happen and sometimes our dogs get injured. Depending on the injury, crate rest may be part of the recovery plan. The crate is crucial for keeping an injured dog calm and stationary during recovery. If they’re already well-practiced at settling in a crate, it makes life much easier and less stressful for them.
One of the biggest benefits of crate training is that it can promote rest time and calm behaviour. Most dogs simply don’t get enough sleep, they struggle to ‘switch-off’ properly and this can lead to many challenging behaviours. We often label our dogs as ‘full of energy’ or ‘tireless’, like they need more exercise than we can ever give them … but actually they would probably really benefit from more regular rest time during the day. Using a crate and building a positive association with this being a calm, resting place, will enable your dog to learn to settle and relax during the day. It’s a proper chill-out zone where they can take a breath!!
Training the Crate
So you’ve decided you want to try crate training. Where do you start?! There are many ways to do it and some dogs will need different approaches, but as a general rule, go at your dogs’ pace and always keep it fun, positive and calm.
Start with food … scattering food in the crate, feeding meals in the crate, tossing treats in for him to find. Do lots of quick sessions where your dog steps in the crate and the comes back out. This keeps it pressure free and avoids any scary ‘door closing’ happening too soon. You want him to feel great about going in and out of the crate. You can surprise him too by hiding tasty treats in the crate while he’s not looking, then just leave the door open and wait for him to go looking in there.
Let him explore the crate and when he chooses to step in, drop some treats in for him. Keep it all calm and easy, try to avoid too much bribing and over-excited reactions, you don’t want to make it a huge deal because ultimately you want this to be his calm place where he chooses to go … so start as you mean to go on.
Once he’s happily exploring the crate and he’s confident about going inside, start closing the door BRIEFLY. Don’t shut the door and lock him in for an hour – start small and gradual:
- Push the door shut, feed lots and then open it and let him out … repeat!
- Push the door shut, lock it, feed lots, open it and let him out … repeat!
- Add duration, closing the door for a little longer each time and reducing the frequency of rewards before letting him back out
- Add long lasting chews or enrichment activities, sometimes have the door open, sometimes close it. Stay close by initially so you can watch him and let him out before he becomes unsettled
The Benefits Crate Schedules
Dogs who struggle to settle in a crate or protest about being in one often do so because they’ve not developed a good association with them. They may have been forced into one or been left for a long duration without prior training. They may also have realised that creating a scene of barking or whining is a very effective way of being let out. These are common issues but having a regular crate schedule (and working on the above methods to create a better association) is a good way to overcome the issues.
- Use the crate for short, frequent sessions. Get your dog in and out of the crate as many times as you can throughout the day. This makes it a normal, repetitive event and not a one-off, unpleasant thing associated with you leaving
- Mix it up. Make it unpredictable. Sometimes he’s in the crate for 2 minutes, sometimes he just steps in and out, sometimes he’s in there for an hour or two (depending on age and training of course)
- Make it part of the daily routine. The crate shouldn’t be something which you put the dog in when he’s being annoying or when you need to go to the shops once a week. It should be totally normal for him. Make sure you use it lots. If you don’t want him to be in the crate while you’re at home then just pop him in for a minute or two a few times a day.
This approach often eradicates any issues with dogs linking the crate to being left alone, or protesting about being put in there when they just want to be involved in whatever else is going on. They will learn to rest and sleep when they’re in the crate which is hugely beneficial for dogs who otherwise struggle to settle themselves down.
Crates need rules. Not so much for your dog, but more for the humans in the household. Particularly with puppies or a new dog in the home, we just want to smother them with attention and spend all our time with them. While this is completely normal, it’s not always healthy for our dogs. They need their own space too, and it’s important that they learn to enjoy spending time on their own, because at some point this will probably happen and they need to be prepared and able to cope with it.
In busier households, particularly when younger children are in the family, it can be harder for puppies to get proper rest. We have this temptation to always be playing or fussing the puppy and children can sometimes struggle to give a puppy space or allow it to sleep without being disturbed. The crate can be used as a clear signal for when the puppy needs some alone time. If this is respected properly then as the puppy grows up, he will learn to take himself to the crate when he wants some space. Without this a puppy may find it harder to settle himself or he may start to show clearer warnings when he wants to be left alone, and this can quite quickly become dangerous and scary as he grows up.
The Basic Rules
- The crate is for alone time
- No pestering, waking the dog, or disturbing him in the crate
- No intruding on space … no sticking hands through the bars, people getting into the crate or generally bothering him when he’s inside
- Choose a quiet location in the house to encourage sleep and rest, and to make a clearer definition for his own space
- Cover the crate to make it less exposed to other events in the house. There’s less for him to watch and get excited or anxious about
Remember that the crate is primarily a calm, safe space. It’s not there as a punishment so DON’T use it in anger. Naturally our dogs can annoy us sometimes, they steal things that aren’t theirs, they create noise we don’t like and generally behave in ways we don’t always appreciate. It can be tempting at times to use the crate to punish the dog for the naughty things he’s done. Resist this temptation because it certainly won’t help the situation and it may damage the crate training you’ve done.
A crate can provide an excellent ‘time-out’ zone. If your dog is pushing your buttons and frustrating you then actually taking a break from each other, before one of you snaps, is a great idea. The crate is perfect for this because it’s somewhere safe and secure where your dog can’t continue winding you up or find anything else naughty to do, he should also associate the crate with being calm and resting. When using it as ‘time-out’ make sure you still maintain the positive, relaxed association, no matter how frustrated or upset you’re feeling! Calmly encourage him into the crate and scatter some food around or leave him with a chew to keep him busy. By doing this you WON’T be rewarding him for being naughty, you’re simply maintaining his excellent crate skills and giving him time to calm down (while you do the same!).
Remember to also keep the process of going in and coming out of the crate a relaxed, non-event. Making it an emotional event will make the training more difficult so most importantly try to withhold from the over-excited greeting when returning to your dog. After being away from him for a while it’s only natural to react to his excitement with even more excitement but try to remain calm. The more exciting you make your return, the more he will anticipate this and find it harder to see the crate as a calm place, so keep calm initially and wait for a few minutes before you engage in an excited greeting.
Crate training isn’t always easy. Some dogs take to it instantly but many others find the concept more challenging in the early stages. It takes time and commitment but the benefits of a crate-happy dog are worth the effort! If you need help with crate training then seek advice from an experienced, force-free trainer. At Adolescent Dogs, we have lots of experience working through crate training challenges and offering guidance and support through this process, so get in touch if you need some extra help.