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Crate Training

By: Lisa Giroux, Western Newfoundland, Canada

Crate training is like a playpen for a baby…a place to be safe while Mom needs to do something else. Puppies in particular can learn to be housetrained in only a few days when a crate is used properly. Dogs that would happily rip down your curtains and mambo on the loveseat can be kept in check. Animals that like to eat inappropriate items when unsupervised can be placed in a crate with appropriate chew items.

Housetraining and crate training go hand-in-hand for young puppies and new adult dogs. Please see housetraining for more details!

Often, the initial reaction to the suggestion of crating is “I could never put him in a cage, it would be cruel.” But the facts are that dogs have a natural denning instinct that makes them LIKE to have a small cosy space of their own. Wild dogs and wolves create tiny, cramped (by our standards) dens to raise their young and have a place to hide. They don’t dig huge antechambers and enormous tunnels! Small spaces are the way to go. They draw a feeling of security and comfort from small, confined sleeping areas and hidey holes. How many times have you seen a dog jam itself under a table or a bed and happily go to sleep? When introduced properly, a crate becomes that den. Many dogs actively seek out their crates for sleeping, chewing goodies, or just relaxing.

Choosing to crate train can prepare the dog for unforeseen circumstances in later life. A dog that has learned that confined spaces are safe will not be stressed should they need to be confined at a veterinarian’s office, groom shop, or boarding kennel. If an adult dog has no previous experience with being crated, these situations can be terrifying. Older dogs can easily learn to adapt to crate training. Specific tips for older dogs are included at the end of this article.

Size of crate-The dog must be able to stand up, lie down, and turn around comfortably. For housetraining and settling purposes, a crate should be just large enough for comfort. Any larger, and the dog might be able to pace up and down (unable to settle) or eliminate in one end and lie down in the other. If you have bought a crate that is appropriate for the adult size of the dog but is much larger than your new puppy, block off the back end with some stacks of bricks or old canned goods, or make a wire partition. Better yet, cruise garage sales and flea markets for a smaller, more portable, crate. After the puppy outgrows it, donate it to the local shelter!

Type of Crate--Store-bought, home-made, wire or plastic? It really doesn’t matter as long as it is safe, secure, well-ventilated and easy to clean. Store-bought wire cages can often be folded up like a suitcase (check before you buy, not all fold!) and plastic airline-type crates can be stored and transported with the top inside the bottom. Make sure that you can fit your crate into your vehicle easily. For true dog nuts with very little space in their home, airline-type crates substitute well as end tables!

How to Start a Puppy

If possible, ask your breeder to begin crate training prior to your puppy coming home. If the puppy has experienced a crate at 5-6 weeks of age, formal “training” is usually unnecessary.

Introducing the Crate

  • Start with a hungry puppy. Place some of his regular food on the floor of his crate with the door left open. Show him the food and let him go in and eat it up with the door left open. Then place the rest of his meal in the crate, let him go in and close the door. When he’s done, he’ll probably snuffle around the crate a bit and then come to the door. Let him out immediately. If he vocalizes before you can let him out, wait for a moment of silence before opening the door. You MUST NOT allow him to learn that noise makes his crate door open.
  • After he has toileted and had a good play, place him in the crate with a particularly smelly and interesting bone. Close the door and ignore him until he falls asleep. Do not speak to him or otherwise acknowledge him if he vocalizes. Pay close attention to him…when he wakes up, remove him BEFORE he starts to vocalize. If he is making noise, get a moment of silence by clapping your hands or tapping the top of the crate. ONLY OPEN THE CRATE DOOR WHEN HE IS QUIET.

The First Night—Baby Puppies

  • Begin preparations for sleeping long before bedtime. Feed no later than 5:30-6:00 p.m. and pick up water no later than 6:30. Remember that allowing free access to food and water will make for irregular bladder and bowel movements which are hard to predict. Free feeding almost always lengthens the housetraining period. Most puppies do best on an initial 3-times-a-day feeding plan, reducing to twice a day as they mature. Consult your veterinarian about feeding plans if you have a very tiny toy dog puppy (which can easily become hypoglycemic if not fed quite often when young), or a dog with health issues.
  • Most puppies of this age have an activity period at approximately 7-8:00 and afterwards go into a deep sleep period. This “heavy duty nap” will leave them floppy like a rag doll and often unwilling to go outdoors. GET THEM OUTSIDE ANYWAY and don’t come in until they relieve themselves. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the puppy is down for the night and should be left alone. If you do not get them up and out, they will wake up twice or more during the first night. Make a point of getting the puppy outdoors for the last time between 10:30-11:00 for the first week, even if this is past YOUR bedtime.
  • Place the puppy in the crate, ideally close enough to your bed that you can hang a hand over the edge of the bed and stick your fingers in the crate. When he wakes up (usually between 2-3:00), reach down and put your fingers in the crate and speak soothingly to the puppy. Remember, he has slept with a pile of warm puppies until tonight. Puppies wake often during the night, and at first do not know how to get themselves back to sleep, especially if in a new and strange environment. If the puppy remains settled and calm, he probably will go right back to sleep. If he gets up and becomes restless, the activity will cause him to need to relieve himself. If you keep the crate far from your bed, he will definitely wake up and become active and restless before you can try to soothe him back to sleep, and guaranteed will need to be taken outdoors. Save yourself this trouble and plan on having the crate near your bed for at least the first few nights. You can always re-position the crate after routines are established.
  • If the puppy is really “up” and awake, take him outdoors and do not come inside until he has toileted. DO NOT BE INTERESTING OR PLAYFUL with the puppy or he will learn that 3 a.m. is a great playtime and will continue to wake up and expect it. Be boring and businesslike, come inside and place him back in his crate. He may vocalize a bit…ignore this and he will eventually go back to sleep.

Using the Crate on a Daily Basis—Settling and Housetraining

  • The crate is a place where the puppy will probably attempt to “hold it” and will be less likely to toilet. Puppies need to sleep often for the first few weeks (about 75% of the day at first) and desperately need to toilet as soon as they wake up. Learning to settle down in the crate will allow them adequate sleep time and will also prevent the puppy from waking up, wandering 2 feet away and toileting.
  • Get the puppy into the cycle “toilet/playtime/toilet/naptime.” The time period on these “cycles” should be: toilet, play for 15-30 minutes, toilet, crate for a 1-1 ½ hour nap, toilet, play, crate…repeat this schedule throughout the day and you are likely to prevent almost all accidents. Do not let the puppy follow you to the door…pick him up and take him outside. He will not be able, or even see the need, to hold it until he arrives outdoors. Puppies almost never relieve themselves when being held in your arms, but will always relieve themselves right after waking if allowed to walk more than 2-4 feet, no matter where they are. If the puppy is allowed to sleep loose on the floor and you are not watching him, he can wake up and have an accident in less than 10 seconds. Each accident he has teaches him that the house is a great place to relieve. The crate allows you to prevent these types of accidents.
  • Never allow the puppy out of your sight for the first few weeks. If you are preoccupied, place the puppy in the crate. Many terrible housetraining problems begin with leaving a puppy loose while owners take a shower or tend to children.
  • As you place the puppy in his crate, begin saying “in your bed” or “load up” and the puppy will begin to learn to go into his crate on command.

As Life Goes On

  • Use the crate whenever you have to leave the puppy alone to prevent destructive behaviour and to help the puppy feel calm and safe when it is by itself. Restless, anxious pups often resort to destructive behaviour to make themselves feel better through chewing. Dogs rarely pick the “appropriate” chew items at a young age if they are left loose in a home! Remember that puppy chewing is not just a hassle…a remote control or pair of eyeglasses in the gut of a dog can cause quick and painful death.
  • As the puppy gets older and is becoming very reliable about housetraining and basic home behaviour, start cycling the puppy out of the crate by allowing access to one small room that has been “dog-proofed.” Start with short periods of time, such as while you are hanging out laundry or making a quick trip to the convenience store. Make sure to leave attractive, safe chew items on the floor so the dog has something to do while alone.

The Older Dog

Older dogs can easily be trained to be comfortable in a crate. However, you can’t just stick them in and expect them to like it right away! It is NORMAL BEHAVIOUR for an adult dog that has never been in a crate to react with alarm if placed in a cage. Does this mean that “they don’t like it” and it won’t be possible? Far from it.

  • Place your crate in a room where you spend a lot of time. Using a crate as an end table is great! With the door open, place the dog’s meal at the back of the crate (starting with a very hungry dog is a good idea; he will be more motivated to go get his food). Sit back and IGNORE the dog. Don’t attempt to coax him, don’t point out the crate in ANY WAY. He might interpret your actions as a warning, “look at this, be careful!” Leave the door open at first. Simply sit down, read a newspaper, and let him go and eat his food. Don’t even praise him as he’s doing it! If he is a bit anxious, anything might make him back out and stay away.
  • Begin to feed each meal in the crate. Don’t give up and don’t give in. If he’s hungry he’ll go eat. If you take it out after he has repeatedly been anxious about going in, he will learn that if he waits long enough it will come out.
  • Randomly throughout the day, scatter a few treats in the crate while he is outdoors or preoccupied. Allow him to discover them on his own and eat them. Leave the door open.
  • After your dog is comfortably going in and out of the crate for his meals and treats, buy an especially smelly, gross, lovely (to a dog) chew item. Make it something he hardly ever gets, something he will regard as very special. Throw it in the back of the crate, let him go in, and shut the door. Ignore any protestations. Sit in the same room with him until he settles. Hopefully he will begin to chew the bone. If he does, GREAT. Let him chew for a bit, then open the door, take him out and put the bone away for later use. Only allow this particular, special bone when he is in his crate. If he doesn’t chew the bone, simply wait until he settles down and then let him out.
  • Begin closing the door as he eats his meals and treats. Allow him to wait in the crate for a few minutes after he finishes.
  • NEVER open the door if the dog is vocalizing. Also, do not give any undue attention to noise in the crate. If given any sort of attention for vocalizing in the crate (even eye contact or being spoken to), dogs quickly learn that making noise is the way to go and then you’ve got a really serious problem. Initially, when the dog first realizes that they are confined, almost every adult dog will vocalize a bit. The key is to only open the door when they are QUIET. You only need a moment or two of quiet (create this if necessary by clapping or tapping the top of the crate) and then you can open the door.
  • NEVER make a big deal of going into or coming out of the crate. Stay blasé. Overt praise on coming out of the crate can teach the dog to over-anticipate getting out, and cause anxiety and restlessness. Businesslike and calm is best when crating or un-crating your dog.
  • After the dog has shown an ability to settle in the crate with the door closed, leave him in for short periods of time while you are in the home (initially 5-10 minutes, building to longer). Start leaving for short periods, returning and letting him out.
  • Start using a command such as “in your bed” or “load up” each time you put him in his crate.

General Advice

  • Crates need to be the equivalent of a comfortable bedroom. Do not use your crate as a punishment. The dog should make only positive associations with crating.
  • If you are using your crate on a daily basis with an adult dog, remember that dogs desperately need mental and physical stimulation. Provide tasty and interesting chew items in the crate, and many varied activities outside the crate.
  • Take your crate along when visiting other’s homes or staying in a hotel. The dog will be able to relax in its familiar personal “bedroom.”
  • Use your crate to prevent the dog from learning to become very excited at doorway greetings. Dogs quickly learn that doorbells or knocking means “time to greet.” Place dog in crate as you hear the doorbell, and release only after he has calmed (usually a few minutes). Dogs that are allowed to go wild at greetings will only learn to get wilder and wilder.
  • A young puppy cannot be confined for more than 1 ½-2 hours during the day, depending on age and rate of development. An older dog should not be crated for more than 4-5 daytime hours at a stretch. At night, dogs can be confined for 8 hours or more because they are in a resting period anyway. If you must leave your dog alone for more than 4-5 hours, please consult a trainer for options. No dog should be crated for a full working day as part of a regular routine. It is the equivalent of placing a child in a room alone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, with nothing to do. Over-crating will create mental and physical distress, resulting in behaviour problems and a very unhappy pet.
  • Ideally, crating should be used less and less frequently as the dog matures. A dog that is calm, reliably housetrained, and “trustable” in the house when loose should be your end goal. Most owners can achieve this goal by the age of 7-8 months on average, some much sooner and some much later. Mentally active dogs, especially the working and herding breeds, should be expected to take a bit longer to cycle completely out of confinement because of higher levels of mental and physical “busy-ness.” Breeds such as Lhasa Apsos, Shi Tzus, and spaniels tend to take a bit longer to become reliably housetrained. Crate your “trustable” dog occasionally throughout his life, even when it isn’t necessary, to maintain comfort levels in a confined space.

What If I Really Don’t Want to Use a Crate?

Crating brings many benefits to dogs and owners alike, but it is realistic to assume that some people cannot use a crate for various reasons. There are ways you can mimic the advantages of a crate with other methods.

  • With baby gates or doors, confine your dog to a small room that has been “safed.” Be aware that non-housetrained dogs will ALWAYS have accidents, even in a very small room. A bathroom with the shower curtain draped up over the rod, the trash can picked up, and toilet paper removed is a good choice. Pick up the toilet brush (makes a very interesting chew toy to most dogs)! Kitchens can be a good choice as long as counters are cleared. Make sure cabinet doors are closed tightly, with no access to the various cleaning products normally present in kitchens and bathrooms.
  • To prevent wild greetings of guests, put the dog behind a baby gate as they enter and only release after the dog has calmed down.
  • Be aware that if you do not crate-train, confinement in a cage at the vet, a groom shop, or boarding kennel will be highly stressful to the dog. Inform staff that the dog is not crate-trained and ask if there are other options for confinement.

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