In my house, crate training is vital to my peace of mind. My younger rescue dog has a destructive tendency, and not only am I keenly aware that the more she is allowed to practice this habit, the more she will be reinforced by it, but I am scared she will get into something that will cause her harm. When I first adopted her, I had another dog in the house who was not friendly with other dogs, so they needed to be separated when unsupervised. In a small apartment, I did this by putting them in their own little homes (crates) when I needed to be out of the house. This ended up working out great because my little rescue dog took to her crate wonderfully! I was lucky this time. However, as I will expand upon, not all dogs are that easy and sometimes you come across unexpected setbacks.
Some dogs never see the inside of a crate, but the more we bring dogs into the city and into our lives as family members, the more we are seeing a need for dogs to have their own safe space, one that they can’t get out of and others can’t get into. Even a dog that never needs to be crated at home and never goes on a plane might end up in a crate at the vet’s office someday. It is one of the many things that all young dogs should be trained to understand and enjoy, as it is also one of the many things that takes them time to fully accept. The sooner you start crate training, the sooner you will have a dog that goes in willingly and happily, but it takes time.
Recently, my dog went from running to her crate every time she heard the food bag or saw a peanut butter kong, to cowering and running away when I asked her to “go to her crate”. I don’t know what brought this on, I can only assume that something scary happened last time she was confined (maybe a loud noise or a crash), but I do know that I basically had to start from square one, after over a year of model crate behaviour. So I am going through the motions, refreshing myself on the ins and outs of crate training!
First, I want you to put yourself in your dog’s shoes. I trust my parents, but if my mom told me to go in the closet, I would probably be suspicious. If she told me to go in the closet, dropped a donut on the ground and shut the door, I might like the donut, but I would still be suspicious. If she did all of the above, and then left me in there with the light off for 10 minutes, I probably wouldn’t go in next time – donut or no donut.
Don’t let your dog’s crate become a dark, boring closet that they dread. It should be more like their bedroom – their space to go relax, eat some food, veg out, take a nap. In order for them to get to a point where they see it like this rather than a cage keeping them from all of the fun stuff they could be doing (like, in my dog’s case, eating ANOTHER pen), follow some simple steps, take it slow and keep your goals humble.
Keep the door open and, if it has a removeable lid, take that off.
Put in a comfy bed and a blanket or cover so it can be washed (no one likes a dirty bed!)
Throw some kibble in the crate, or near it if the dog is leary. If they are already suspicious of the crate, I assume they have had a negative experience with small spaces and you can already expect to increase your timeline.Let the dog go in and out as they please. When in, they get kibble. It’s a great place! When they are comfortable going in and out, upgrade to some peanut butter in a kong, but it must remain in the crate.
When they are comfortable lying in their crate for longer periods of time with no door/lid, introduce those. Do not put the lid on while the dog is lying down, this could scare them. The door opening and closing could also be scary, so employ basic conditioning to make sure your dog is comfortable with the movement of the door.
As long as your dog isn’t bounding out of the crate as soon as you open the door, continue to increase the amount of time the door is closed for.
Throw in absences once your dog can be in the crate with the door closed for more than a minute. Go get a cup of water, come back, go out the front door, come back. It’s no use having a crate trained dog if they develop separation or confinement anxiety.
Take lots of breaks and don’t do this all in one day.
There are lots of reasons why your dog might have a setback or react differently than you would expect. It’s very important to never force or trick your dog into going into the crate. It might be a good bandaid solution for when you are in a hurry, but you can undo all of your training in that one instance. Remember to watch your dog’s body language as you train – are they straining with their back legs out of the crate to try to get that far piece of kibble? Do they lower their head or raise a paw when you go near the crate to begin training? Any signs of discomfort probably mean that you should slow down your progress or take a step back. You can also increase the value of your reinforcer!
I am an advocate for happy, relaxed dogs. Most dogs can be happy and relaxed and in a crate, it just takes time and the right method of training. Without these ingredients, a crate becomes a cage. Keep your dog happy by paying attention to what they are communicating with you and, when in doubt, ask a professional.