Crate Training

This sometimes controversial training method makes use of a dog’s natural tendency to seek a cozy, secure den... by Bardi McLennan

BEFORE we discuss training, let’s get the idea of a “cage” behind us. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that it is first and foremost a member of the family, and family members do not belong in cages. That’s why it is important never to call it a cage and never to think of it as a cage it is a dog’s crate (or bed or den.)

Your dog is not going to live in its crate. The crate is primarily the dog’s bed, but used correctly, it becomes a super training tool. Occasionally, for brief periods of time, the crate is also a safety device, protecting the dog from harm - and from crime and punishment.

The most familiar use of the crate is as an aid in housetraining a puppy, but the crate shouldn’t be thought of only in connection with puppies. The benefits continue through every day of a dog’s life. The result of correct crate training is a manageable dog that accepts your control and leadership and accepts, without stress any temporary stay with the vet, groomer or boarding kennel. The dog that doesn’t fuss about being crated, that feels contented and secure, will get lots of extra smiles and attention from the grateful staff in those establishments.

Crate training works because dogs are den animals. That’s why the family dog snoozes contentedly under a table, behind a couch, under the stairs or (until caught) in a chair that “just fits”. If we do not provide the security of a den, the dog instinctively makes do with what is available. Remember, too, that if you allow your dog to sleep on your bed, the dog will think of that arrangement as sharing your den, which could be the start of future behavioral problems. A crate trained dog knows its place.

So, no more “cages” for dogs. When everyone in the family thinks of a crate as a den, the training part will go smoothly.

Where to Begin

It’s important to get the correct size crate. Crates are sized according to breed, so that’s your best guide, or as close as you can guess for a mixed breed. The fully grown dog should be able to stand up and turn around in the crate. However, you don’t want the puppy to have so much room that it can sleep in one corner and use the rest as a bathroom. It’s a one-room den you’re using, not a condo!

Use a piece of plywood or something similar to block off part of the crate. This way the puppy will be confined to just a small portion of the crate and will not use the extra as a potty area. As the puppy grows you can move the partition to allow the pup more room. This idea will save you from having to purchase more than one crate.

Plan ahead and buy the crate before you pick up the puppy. Be sure the crate sits securely in the car so it won’t slide or tip and frighten the pup. For the ride home, a thick wad of newspaper on the crate floor will absorb mishaps. Put the pup into the crate gently, preferable with a toy or a familiar towel. Lots of quiet talk on the journey will help the dog get used to your voice. When you get home, put the crate where you plan to leave it during the day, and leave the door open. An old cotton towel makes good washable bedding.

Take the pup (on leash) outdoors to the exact spot where you want it to eliminate. Stand there until the pup relieves itself, moving the leash occasionally if the pup isn’t sniffing about. Praise, but don’t overdo it.

Now it can have a tour of the house - on leash - or off leash in its confined puppy area. (Whenever a trip outside has not been successful, return the pup to its area or even to its crate. Do not give it the run of the house.)

Training

Morning. Housetraining begins first thing in the morning. Understand that “first thing” for the puppy may be a lot earlier than what you had in mind, but it gets better with time.

At the first peep, whine or bark in the morning, immediately open the crate door and carry the pup (attaching the leash as you go), or leash-lead a larger one, to the chosen spot. Stand there and let the pup wander about on its leash. (Use of the leash inside a fenced area has many pluses: You can express immediate approval; your dog goes in the spot you have chose; and your dog will be at ease relieving itself on-leash when away from home.) This is not a walk; it’s a “business trip.”

In obedience lingo, this is a “stand-stay” for you; make up a term for the dog. Some common ones are “Potty”, “Go Pee” or “Hurry Up”! Select one word and be sure everyone sticks to it. As the puppy urinates, say “go-o-o-od dog”, followed by standing on your part and more exploring by the pup. If you find you are just staring at each other, move the leash back and forth to get the pup moving. When it has a bowel movement, give more praise (the quiet, approving kind, not ecstasy) and take it back inside.

If there was a mess in the crate before you got there, don’t scold. Set the alarm for 15 to 20 minutes earlier and be sure the pup relieves itself at night before going into the crate. Your goal is prevention, not punishment.

When the dog is older, and if it suits your schedule, you may want to go for a walk right after it has eliminated or before you go to work. Or, if you have a fenced yard, the older pup might like to run around on its own for a while.

Now feed the pup and put down fresh water next to the food pan. If the pup is reluctant to enter the crate, try putting its food pan in the crate for a day or two, using lots of happy talk. “Walk” the pup into the crate (lured with its food) and put the food pan at the front of the open crate door so it doesn’t feel trapped. Never use force to get the pup into the crate.

When the pup has eaten, let it have water, wait 5 or 10 minutes (the time increases as the pup matures), then take it back outside to the usual spot. (You’ll need poop scoops to keep this outdoor area clean.) After the pup eliminates, or if after five or more minutes it shows no signs of wanting to go, go for a short walk or play. Then return to the spot again. It’s important that for the first two weeks, you are right there to say “good dog” as the pup eliminates. (I didn’t say this would be interesting. It’s basic training, though, and will last a lifetime.)

Now take the pup indoors for some supervised freedom, perhaps in other parts of the house, but only with strict supervision. This fun part of the schedule may have to wait until the weekend if everyone goes off to work and school.

Daytime. If the pup will be alone for a while (or all day) in a restricted area, leave its crate door open, put some safe toys in the crate and leave one patch of newspaper for an emergency

If you put newspapers all over the kitchen floor, the pup will decide that it can eliminate anywhere. By putting three or four thicknesses of newspaper in one spot (maybe by the outside door), you have taken charge.

Crate training plays a major roll in preventing separation anxiety by providing the dog with a secure retreat. Once the pup stays happily in the crate and you need to be out for an hour or two, let the pup eliminate, then put it in the crate with a small treat and a couple of toys. Latch the crate door, turn the radio on and leave. (No speeches!) If you will be gone more than two hours, leave the dog in its restricted area, (as in the above paragraph) with the crate door open.

When you return, immediately take the pup out to its spot. This routine repeats itself all day, with the required number of meals and necessary trips outside, until you find you are adjusting to each other’s schedules. After about a week, when the pup is settling down, keep track of when it really needed to go out and performed quickly. Begin cautiously to establish a routine that suits you both.

Keep in mind that when you and the puppy have been successful in your timing for a week or more, the puppy is not housetrained. If fact, there will be accidents (almost always due to lack of supervision) until the pup is 2 years old.

A puppy “grows” on sleep, and it’s very important to allow it to sleep as much as it wants. Puppy play is intense, all-out, noisy racing around, but when play ends, it is followed by hours of sound sleep. Naptime is any old time, so leave the crate door open for easy access.

Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not against dog beds of other sorts. I love the cedar smelling (and flea-inhibiting) mats, the attractive baskets and even the cutesy beds for toy breeds. They’re great, but they’re all for later. The majority of puppies (up to the age of 2 years) are likely to chew fancy bedding to bits. Use them now for supervised TV napping. Later, they can be scattered all over the house.

Bedtime. The pup’s last meal should be no later than 7 PM, followed by a drink of fresh water. Then remove the water bowl for the night. When you’re ready for bed, take the pup out for the last time. You may need to take a flashlight to be sure of its performance. Then put it into the crate with a toy and a plain puppy biscuit. Tell the pup how great it was today as you latch the door and turn out the lights. That’s it.

If possible, at least while the pup is young, take the crate into your bedroom before putting the pup to bed for the night. Do not fall into the trap of talking to it as you’re going to bed or it will try to stay up to keep you company. Your mere presence will be comforting. If you go about the business of calling it a day, the pup will too. Don’t fall for the old “ticking clock and hot water bottle” routine either. The pup was surely weaned before you got it, so it doesn’t need to hear its “mother’s heartbeat”. All you’ll end up with is a destroyed clock, a hot water bottle full of tiny toothmarks and a soaking wet puppy. With the pup in the bedroom, you’ll be right there to hear that first sound that signals only the first of many trips outside.

No matter where the pup spends the night, leave it! Don’t go back to say goodnight later. Don’t respond to crying, whining or barking if you are certain the pup relieved itself before entering the crate. Your angry “Quiet” is - to the pup - a response to its cries and because any reply is better than none, it will keep it up. Things will get better each night though.

Paper training

Whenever I mention taking the dog to “the same spot”, substitute “newspapers”. For many people who work all day or who live in an apartment building, paper training is the best solution. Newspapers may be left in any convenient, easy-to-clean area - a shower stall, for example.

About those newspapers, I suggested you put by the door for emergencies. I’ve found the best way to handle it when the dog has used them is to say
nothing at all - no praise, no comment and no correction. You’ll find that for the dog’s entire life, you can leave newspapers down when you aren’t sure how long you’ll be gone and they’ll be used only in an emergency. This is kinder to the dog’s conscience and its kidneys.

Crating the Adult Dog

When working with an adult dog, follow much the same routine, without the frequency of trips outside or the numerous meals. If, however, a rescued dog (with an unknown history) has had a bad previous experience with a crate, you will have difficulty reintroducing it as a positive factor. In this case it’s very important to have the crate in your bedroom at night and in the center of activity during the day. This allows bonding and crate-training in one. Your attitude toward the crate and your patience will win out.

Car Travel

Dogs that have been trained to think of a crate as a happy place to be are easier to obedience train, travel well and remain calm when boarding if necessary.

There are so many times when a crate is truly a godsend: when you’re having painters or other workmen in the house (going in and out, leaving doors and fence gates open); when anyone who doesn’t like dogs, or is afraid of your dog, is visiting; when children are noisier than usual and the dog becomes overexcited, any party or holidaytime (crate at least until most of the guests arrive); and when letting a wet dog dry off (after toweling first). It is a safe, secure place for the sick, injured or recuperating dog, or while any household chores would put the dog in danger or in the way.

As the pup settles down and gets used to the crate you can begin using the word “Crate!” in a happy voice as it enters the crate, followed by “Good dog” and it will soon catch on. For a dog, a crate should always be a safe happy place.

PUPPY TRAPS

If you train your pup carefully, you will be rewarded with a happy dog that knows its place. When you are crate training any dog, though, it is important to avoid the following common mistakes.

Never shove the dog into the crate, not even once. The dog should always walk right in, perhaps enticed by treats or toys. (Although force is out, trickery is okay!) When the dog enters, do not slam the door shut behind it. Let it go in and out several times so it feels the space belongs to it.

Leaving the dog crated for too long during the day can lead to socialization problems. A pup should be crated for no more than a couple of hours at a time; an older dog, only up to four hours (and only for an unavoidable emergency). Overnight is a large enough chunk out of 24 hours.

No matter what the dog has done or how annoyed you may be, never punish the dog by putting it in its crate. A good place for times like that is the bathroom, because it is a very boring place to be.

Walking a dog for elimination purposes instead of standing in one spot will only confuse it. People do this and then are surprised when the dog waits until it gets home to take care of this function. Dogs are territorial, and elimination is their method of marking their territory. It is also very uncomfortable for the dog to be dragged along by the neck when Mother Nature is calling. Walks are walks and “duty” trips are just that.

Bad habits begin with good intentions. Do not: hold, cuddle or stroke a pup until it falls asleep; leave the radio on all night; leave a nightlight on all night; leave the crate door open at night; or leave the crate door closed during the day. Avoid scolding the puppy if it has an accident in the crate. It’s your fault for misreading the signals. “Oh, poor puppy” is quite enough.

It takes a vast amount of patience to train a puppy, but seeing your puppy grow into a loving, obedient companion is ample reward for the effort.

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