As a trainer I have probably received more effusive “thank you thank you thank you’s” for convincing clients to use a crate than for any other bit of information I have provided. People who have been on the brink of giving up have managed to turn things around using a crate appropriately as well people who have been highly skeptical but have used it from the beginning.
It’s Not Folsom!
Because we often look on our dogs as our “children” we make the comparison of crating a dog to crating a child. I have heard “I wouldn’t do that to my child. Why would I do it to my dog?” This can be a very emotional issue and for some people it feels as if they are failing in the parenthood department. I remember my own struggles with the idea of crating and though for many reasons I knew it was the right thing to do, I felt guilty nonetheless. I clearly remember apologizing, even begging forgiveness. So I completely understand the anguish that can surround it.
On the other hand…if introduced properly and used appropriately it can actually improve your relationship with your puppy and maybe even the significant other in your life. How’s that? If, let’s just say for example, your husband, cannot be trained to pick up his shoes and they have become the object of desire for Fido, it may be easier to crate train him (Fido that is, not your husband.) And because it is well nigh impossible to completly puppy-proof your house, it will actually be safer for your puppy. Perhaps not as much fun, but safety first. Introduced correctly, puppies come to accept and some even enjoy their crate. Think “den” rather than “prison.” And when you return home you will be truly happy to see your puppy and not angry because he ate the coffee table.
Really at the root of parent’s concerns are the haunting questions that all parents deal with on a daily basis: Am I spending adequate time with him? And why am I feeling so inadequate? I’ll discuss these issues in a future post.
Crating your puppy while you are gone will keep your dog safe while you are not around to keep an eye on him. Do remember to take the collar off as I have heard of nails getting caught up and even teeth being snagged. Crate training also facilitates housebreaking as dogs do not like to soil their sleeping areas. The crate should be large enough so that he can stand up comfortably and turn around easily but not so large that if he had an accident he could get far far away from it. So until your puppy can be trusted in the house a crate is a good solution.
Introduction To The Crate
When you bring your puppy home it is best to introduce your puppy to the crate slowly. Place the crate in an area of the house where you spend a good deal of time. Make the crate inviting by placing a soft blanket inside. Feed him in the crate with the door wide open at first.When he becomes relaxed with that, close the door while he is eating and open it as soon as he is done. With every feeding add a few minutes to the time between when he finishes and when you open the door.
Occasionally during the day throw a few toys in there and speak to him happily while you encourage him to go in. In whatever way you can, you want to make this a desirable place to be. To that end, associate all his favorite things with being in the crate. If he loves belly rubs, reach in there and give him one. If he enjoys getting his food out of a Kong this is a great place to provide him one stuffed with goodies.
Depending on your dog’s temperament, getting him accustomed to the crate may go quickly or slowly. Laid back guys generally get the hang of it very quickly. Others take awhile. Regardless, you should increase the time he spends in the crate slowly.
As he becomes familiar and begins to look forward to “dining in” you can start leaving the room while he finishes eating and for a few minutes after he is finished. If he cries, try not to return to the crate to let him out while he is crying. If you do so, it may seem to him that you returned to let him out because he cried, thus reinforcing that behavior. Wait for him to take a breath and pause for a moment in his barking and then go in and let him out. When you let him out, do so calmly and unemotionally. This was always a difficult step for me, especially when I returned after being gone for some time. I was just so happy to see my boy that I made a spectacle of myself falling all over him and playing. The “conventional thinking” here is that if you returning is such a big deal then maybe you being away is a big deal as well. Frankly, I am not sure this would hold up to scientific scrutiny. It is worth thinking about though and letting them out calmly can’t hurt anything. Another advantage to this approach is that if you are calm you can quickly direct them outside to relieve themselves rather than prematurely on the floor, or worse.
The next step is to start using a treat tossed in the crate and a cue, such as “crate up,” rather than a meal. If you are available during the day practice this as many times as possible.
When your dog is comfortably spending some time in the crate, you can start to leave the house for longer and longer periods of time. Always keep in mind that young pups are not likely to be able to hold it for more than 3 or 4 hours. If you can get home at lunch or arrange for someone to take them out midday for a potty break and a stretch, that would be ideal.
Crating At Night
In the beginning you may want to keep the crate close enough that you can hear if they start whining in the middle of the night. It is often hard to decide whether they are whining “just because” or whether they truly have a need to relieve themselves. If, however, you have been careful not to respond to their whines by letting them out, then they probably do need to potty. Young puppies often need to go outside in the middle of the night at least once. It’s funny how you quickly adapt to the routine and hardly notice. I once gave in and started playing a bit with one of mine. That was not very bright on my part as he expected that the next night as well and it set us back in the process of sleeping through the night. Do remember to potty them before you put them in the crate for the night. Although there may be some whining in the beginning most puppies will settle into the routine easily.
Occasionally I see a dog who truly cannot deal with being crated. This is very very rare, and is called “separation anxiety.” I don’t care for that term, as it can be much more than mere anxiety and much closer to a phobia. These are dogs who become some distraught with being left that they do serious bodily damage and can often demolish even a heavy duty well made crate. They become lathered, break off teeth, pull off nails and are just out and out panicked. These individuals need to see a vet and an animal behaviorist. Behavior modification, counter-conditioning and desensitization can help and your vet may also recommend treating it pharmacologically.
Photo Credits: TheGiantVermin on flickr