Friday, May 23, 2014

It's NOT doggie-jail! The basics of crate training

Roo and Luna love to earn a cookie by running to their crates every morning when I'm ready to leave for work. 

I pick up my keys, I pick up two dog cookies, and I ask them the question they want to hear:

We got each of these dogs as untrained 2-year-olds.  It took about a week to teach Luna to get in her box on command.  She would get in in without prompting, so we just added the command and a cookie as a reward.  

Roo learned what we wanted in about 10 minutes--she is very food motivated, and will do almost anything for a cookie!  

Once they are in the crate, they settle down immediately for a nap.   We put a rug on top of the crates because the cat likes to sleep on top of the crates, close by his dogs.

The basics of crate training:

The crate should be large enough that the dog can stand up and turn around, but not much larger.  A wild dog's den is a snug, dark, quiet place, and that is the kind of thing you wish to copy with your plastic crate.  If you are crate-training a puppy, borrow a small crate until he grows into the adult-size.

Your crate must be secure, with a door that closes and latches firmly--otherwise, the dog will focus energy on getting that door open, rather than on settling down for a snooze.  

"Close the door, I'm ready for my nap!"

Time in the crate should be brief at first.  

I start crate training at mealtimes.  Food is served in the crate, with the door latched.  When the food is gone and the dog is quiet, it's time to go outside for a play session and a sanitary break.  

After we establish that the crate is a place of goodness (fooooooooood!), it becomes the bed.  Put the crate beside your bed, so the dog can still smell you and hear you breathe. Hang your arm off the side of the mattress and place your hand on the crate vent holes. Dogs are pack animals, and they love having you nearby, even when all you are doing is sleeping.  Some dogs will continue to sleep in the crate at night even after you decide to leave the door open.  

Gradually increase the time that the dog stays in the crate, starting with a few minutes at a time.  Eventually, he'll be able to stay there without anxiety for hours.  He knows you will come back, because you always do.  

Always follow the crate time with praise and a sanitary break.  Dogs are clean in their dens, and will try very hard not to soil their crates.  If a dog does pee or poop inside the crate, it's YOUR fault, not his!  Either you left him too long, or he may be suffering from injury or illness.  A quick trip to the vet will sort things out.

If possible, precede crate time with a long walk or play session.  A tired dog is a good dog--and he'll quickly learn that the peaceful crate is a good spot for a nice, quiet nap.

If the dog whines, hollers, or bangs on the crate, walk away.  This is hard to do!  But it's an essential part of the training:  the dog will only be released from the crate when he is quiet.  Otherwise, you teach him that throwing a tantrum will--eventually--result in freedom.  And that's exactly what you want to avoid.

Sometimes a dog might only be quiet when he's taking a deep breath so he can howl again.  Accept it!  Silence is silence, no matter what the intent.  As soon as he's quiet, praise him, and let him out.  He'll think about it.  

Next time, he might be quiet for 5 seconds instead of 3.  Praise him again and move forward!  Eventually he will be quiet for the entire process of you entering the room, releasing him from the crate, and praising him, and that is your goal.

I find that chocolate chip cookies are welcomed by neighbors within hearing-distance of a howling dog who hasn't finished learning that a tantrum will not get him out of the crate.  Anyone who has ever lived with a crying baby will sympathize. 

Important points to remember:
  • Dogs evolved as den-loving animals.  By providing a small, quiet place, you acknowledge your dog’s instinctive comfort inside a secure cave.
  • The crate provides a safe place for your dog when you aren’t around.  Houses and backyards are full of interesting and potentially dangerous objects for dogs to chew.  Chewing empty water bottles is fun, but dogs can’t tell when the plastic bottle is full of slug bait. Strings are fun to yank on, but electrical cords can be deadly. We know a dog who likes to chase paper…and we remember the day she was left unattended in the house and shredded three years of tax documents and a library book.
  • The crate is not doggy jail.  Use a crate to keep your dog out of trouble, not as punishment for naughtiness.  
  • A crate-trained dog will be more comfortable during visits to the vet when he needs to be confined at the office for an hour or more.  The vet’s office can be a stressful place, but the crate doesn’t need to be one.
  • Finally, the crate also provides a safe place for your dog in case of an emergency.  If the house should catch fire, if an earthquake hits, or if the zombie apocalypse finally happens, your crated dog will be easy for you to secure away from danger.
Quiet, comfortable, and safe.

Books that cover the topic in more depth:


Superpuppy by Daniel and Jill Pinkwater

All of these are older titles (which is part of the reason we're writing this book!) but Amazon carries them, and  most public libraries and used bookstores should be able to find them for you.

Questions?  Comments?  Thoughts?  Personal stories?  The comment box is open!