By Jennifer Kyzer, Master Trainer and Behavior Specialist
Crate Training: Misconceptions, Introducing it Right and All of the Benefits!
“I can't crate my dog – it’s mean.”
“It is like a jail.”
“He just whines and cries in his crate – it breaks my heart.”
We have all heard the above comments; it’s possible you may have even been the person saying them. As a trainer and behaviorist, I hear these and other similar comments often. However, crating can be a positive, calming, and comforting method of training for most dogs.
First, let's address some misconceptions of crating.
“I can't crate my dog – it’s mean.” In fact, it is not mean to crate a dog. When properly trained, the crate is viewed as a den/bed by a dog, and dogs take comfort in a safe, cozy den/bed.
“It is like a jail.” Although a wire crate may resemble bars in a jail, dogs do not make the same visual associations that humans do. A dog that enjoys its crate will never see it as a jail.
“He just whines and cries in his crate – it breaks my heart.” When a dog is consistently making noise in its crate (whining, barking, etc.), it typically means crate training has not been introduced properly nor carried out effectively.
Again, with the correct crate training methods, crating is a positive experience. Often, crate training actually reduces and/or eliminates separation anxiety, destructive behavior, and behavioral reprimands in general.
There are many benefits of properly crate training a dog. Crate training a pup is beneficial in giving the pup quiet time. Crating provides a safe “away from it all” spot, and creates settle time, giving families a time to regroup. This down time also helps prevent destruction. When pups are bored and/or tired, they often look for objects to chew as either entertainment or to comfort themselves. Pups need to nap and nap often. They typically have bursts of energy, varying in time, depending on the breed and energy level, combined with rest times. Using the crate for these rest times gives the parent a good opportunity to crate train while letting the pup rest in a safe environment without having to watch the pup constantly.
When using a crate in conjunction with potty training, time spent training can be significantly reduced. Typically puppies will not eliminate in a crate because it is considered their den. A den to a puppy is a safe place to sleep, not go to the bathroom. I have personally seen a 2 week old puppy, eyes still closed, crawl out of a doghouse to potty. The puppy’s sense of den (place to sleep, not potty) is instinctual, and early crate training is especially helpful to the process. From the time you bring your puppy home, you want to begin introducing the puppy to the crate.
Choosing a crate is personal. There are 3 basic types of crates: metal, plastic, and soft. Metal crates are made of wire with a solid plastic bottom. The advantages are that they are allow air to pass through (great for dogs that tend to be hot), and are typically easy to both move around and store. Plastic crates are airline approved and bulky, but lightweight. They are typically less expensive than metal crates. They are also more “den-like”, as the solid walls project a closed or covered feel to your dog. Soft-sided crates are most commonly used for small dogs and often have handles to carry on your shoulder. These can also be used for experienced crate-trained dogs that travel often, as they are easier to move from place to place than either the metal or plastic crates.
Once you have decided on a crate, begin introducing the pup to the crate right away. Creating positive experiences in and around the crate is crucial. Using treats, positive words, and meal times are good ways to introduce the crate to the puppy. I recommend throwing treats in the crate and walking away, allowing the puppy to go in the crate without the “threat” of being locked in. (For nervous puppies, you may even consider tying the door open so as to keep it from banging closed and making a startling, scary noise.) After the puppy is comfortable with entering the crate on his own, throw the treat in and stay close, encouraging the puppy to get the treat out of the crate while you are nearby. You can do this often throughout the day. This is also a good time to feed your puppy in and around the crate – I often encourage new parents to hand feed their pups to develop a strong bond.
Once your puppy is comfortable with this stage, move on to throwing the treat in the crate, closing the door, then opening it almost immediately. As you practice this, increase the amount of time the door is closed. During times when your pup is tired, tossing the treat in the crate then leaving the door closed while he naps helps transition to a more extended time in the crate. Continue increasing this time, eventually leaving the room and then the house.
Being able to walk away with the crate door closed takes a different amount of time for each pup and should be done at a pace that suits your dog. If you have to leave the puppy for an extended time, before they have reached that point in their training, do it with confidence and without emotion. Remember, practicing this often during the day – 10 to 20 times each day – is beneficial in avoiding nighttime whining and fussing from the crate.
Crate manners are important as well. Puppies should only be let out of the crate when quiet. If your pup makes noise in the crate – whines, barks, scratches, etc. – calming techniques should be used to quiet him before you let him out. One calming technique involves standing near the crate with your back to the crate, breathing deeply, ignoring the noise. Another way to calm your crated pup is to kneel sideways by the crate, giving a calm, soothing “shhhh” sound. In both techniques, reward a quiet moment by quickly, but calmly, letting your pup out of the crate. It is best not to give direct attention to a noisy pup, so do not greet him when letting him out, do not talk to him or make eye contact while in the crate.
Crating should be done very matter-of-factly. Giving your pup commands next to (but still outside) the crate just before crating, before coming out of the crate, and immediately after he gets out, can be very beneficial in relating the crate to “work” for your pup. For example, grab 5 treats and practice commands near the crate, such as sit with rewards; end by throwing the last treat in the crate for last command. To the pup, going in the crate for that last treat becomes another command. Most pups are happy to “work” for you for those rewards, thus creating a positive, happy-to-be-working-for-you (and treats!), atmosphere.
A typical pup's day might look like this: pup sleeps in the crate at night, up in the morning, outside to potty, walk for exercise, play time, several minutes of settling time (possibly chewing a bone while you are getting yourself ready). Pup gets morning meal, then crated for a few minutes of quiet time to help the digestion process, goes outside to eliminate (gets 5 treats for potty training). Pup is crated for 4-5 hours (depending on age and ability), goes out to potty, playtime and/or walk, crated 2-3 hours, out to potty, walk. Pup is out of crate for several hours with crate training for minutes at a time, fed, crated, outside to potty, playtime, crated for overnight. Please consult a professional if you have questions about how much time your pup can be crated. Balancing crate time, free time, interactive time and quiet time is an important part of parenting a pup. Over-crating is dangerous and can add a whole other set of issues to a pup.
Overall, proper crate training can help a pup become acclimated to his new family, new schedule and new life. In my experience as a trainer, I’ve seen it proved time and again over the years – a happily crated pup makes for a happy, pup-loving family! If your pup is having problems acclimating to his crate, please make sure to contact a qualified trainer in your area.