The dog crate is a valuable training tool. Using dog crates is like second nature to trainers, breeders, veterinarians and animal shelters. However, for novices, the thought of putting their "baby" in a "cage" is nothing short of cruel and unpleasant. Explaining that dogs are den animals and how the crate replicates a safe haven or den-like area for them is helpful. But we all know that seeing is believing. There is nothing more reassuring than watching a dog happily run into its crate and settle down nicely for a bone or a nap.
What are the benefits of using a crate? Apart from using a crate for transportation (car, plane, hotel), they are used for short-term confinement; keeping the dog safe and out of mischief when guardians are not present (physically or mentally); to supervise. New puppies and dogs require constant supervision. Their inquisitive nature gets them into all sorts of trouble. Using a crate protects your house and household belongings from the tolls of inquisitive minds and activities, more importantly it protects your dog from chewing and ingesting inappropriate items which may result in illness or even surgery.
We liken the crate to a child's playpen. You would never leave a crawling infant or toddling toddler unattended allowing them to get into trouble or possibly hurt themselves. Parents use playpens, proactive dog guardians use crates.
Confining a dog to its crate prevents bad habits from developing. But it can also create good, positive household habits as well. Crate training aids in housetraining, creating a chew toy habit, controls and reduces hyperactivity and barking and provides a space to relax and settle down. Equally important to all of the household benefits is the veterinary side. If your dog has to spend any amount of time at a vet's office, whether it is getting spayed/neutered, teeth cleaning or a major operation, it will be confined. Picture a dog which has never seen a crate going into a situation like this. For some dogs, going to the veterinary office is stressful enough, compound that with never knowing confinement and you set the stage for a highly unpleasant experience. On the flip side, if your dog has been properly introduced to crate training the likelihood of a familiar experience equals less stress and an easier recovery period.
Teaching puppies and dogs to accept the crate is a process. The crate should always be approached in a positive manner, and they are never used as punishment. The inside of the crate should be an inviting place. The stage of your dogs' development will determine what goes in the crate. Use something soft for them to lie on. A small blanket or towel is suitable for most dogs, for those that are still in the housetraining and chewing phase, corrugated cardboard or newspaper works well. This is a reminder… crates need to be kept immaculately clean. So if your dog soils inside the crate, remove the contents. Wash everything thoroughly and clean the inside of the crate with an enzyme odor eliminator. If no accidents have occurred, you should frequently clean the contents and inside of the crate so it remains clean and sanitary.
Place the crate in a friendly/people area of the house, and leave the door open. Put a couple of good treats just outside the door and inside the crate. Let your dog explore and find the good stuff the crate has provided. If your dog goes in and sniffs, softly praise and give a treat while he is inside the crate. Continue to let him find all kinds of good stuff.
When your dog is used to going in and out of the crate, introduce a word or phrase to the training. Use "in your crate," "crate," "house," choose something simple and consistent. Throw a treat into the crate as you use your word. This throwing motion will eventually become a signal for going into the crate. For brief periods of time, close the door with your dog inside. Initially this may only be for 2-3 minutes. Gradually increase the time. It is important for your dog to realize that confinement is not for the long haul, but rather for a short and good period of time. Use confinement frequently throughout the day, while you are home. The dog should never see the crate as a place to be only when left alone. What greater way to teach the dog to resist confinement. Instead, we teach dogs that confinement means a comfortable place to relax and settle down.
Feeding your dog its meal inside the crate is another way to encourage them to like their area. Occasionally their bowl is inside, sometimes food is scattered on the floor of the crate, sometimes you hand feed while they're in the crate. Teach your dog to sit patiently inside the crate before coming out to receive a treat.
Play fetch with toys around the crate. Every now and then, toss the toy in the crate. When your dog goes in to retrieve the item, praise and give a treat. Create a chew toy habit by using Kongs and Redi-bones and stuff them with dog food and treats. These can be given while inside the crate, providing the dog with something great to chew. He is rewarded for chewing when the toy releases the food to him. Another way to increase the interest in the crate is to lock a food stuffed toy in the crate while your dog is outside of it. Once most dogs know what stuffed toys provide, they will want to get into the crate to get the toy.
The length of time a dog is confined to a crate depends on whether it enjoys the crate and whether it is housetrained. Confining an unhouse-trained dog to a crate for lengthy periods of time is setting the stage for disaster. Short-term confinement is what helps housetrain dogs. It allows you to keep a close eye on your dog, and to frequently take it outside to relieve itself. The singly best use of a crate is to predict when your dog will need to eliminate. If a dog has to eliminate, the crate alone will not stop it from doing so. Scheduling, consistency and a watchful eye will help determine your dog's housetraining needs. Dogs should not be left alone in their crates for several hours at a time. Short periods, with immediate access to the outdoors will shape the behavior you want. While you are away at work, schedule a dog walker, friend or relative to come in and take your dog out. This not only provides you dog with the opportunity to eliminate in the right place, but also gives them intervals of exercise and activity which they desperately need.
Most dogs adjust beautifully to crate training, and truly end up enjoying their "place." Does it work in every case? Unfortunately… No. Puppies are usually never a problem. Sometimes adult dogs or shelter adoptees react negatively. I repeat, sometimes. This is definitely not the norm. We don't always know why, some may have need seen a crate, others may have suffered a traumatic experience while crated. Recognize, if after all positive means at conditioning are attempted and the result is a dog which is frantic, completely stressed or is trying to check his way out of the crate, stop. Contact a professional trainer or behaviorist for other options. Forcing a dog under these conditions would be considered abusive and inhumane, and that is not what crate training is about.