Crate training: a holiday gift for the entire family
The holiday season is both joyous and hectic. Most of us are busy decorating, shopping for and wrapping presents, cooking, cleaning the house, and entertaining friends and family. With all this excitement, the family dog is often under-stimulated and underfoot—a situation that can lead to big trouble!
One thing that can ward off trouble is sensible and thoughtful use of a crate. The crate can provide a relaxing, enjoyable, and safe haven for your dog during the hustle and bustle of the holidays. While there are many techniques for getting your dog acclimated to and loving the crate, please remember that the best gifts to give dogs as the season approaches are not “presents” but “presence.” Dogs need you to make time for them. Even though you are busy, a dog still needs mental and physical stimulation to be well-behaved. The crate is not meant to be a replacement for meeting your dog’s basic needs.
If you have not yet purchased a crate for your dog, you will want a crate that is big enough for your dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down. Click here to read an article describing the pros and cons of the various types of crates that available. When you do have a crate, how can you get your dog to like it? The techniques and games described below will work with dogs that are unfamiliar with the crate as well as with dogs that have determined that crating is an aversive experience.
SURPRISE—Santa came to your crate!
The first technique is really easy. When your dog is not looking, hide amazing treats and yummies inside the crate. Hide a bully stick, a marrow bone, a stuffed Kong or Goodie Bone, pieces of kibble, meatballs, or hot dogs—whatever your dog likes. Imagine your dog’s surprise when he saunters by the crate only to be greeted with enticing aromas that beckon him to enter!
At first, leave the door open while your dog is in the crate. Once he is going into the crate readily, begin closing the door for brief periods of time while he consumes his bully stick, marrow bone, or stuffed Kong, letting him out when he is finished.
I really like this exercise. When your dog knows that really yummy things magically appear inside his crate occasionally, it’s time to make the exercise a little more interesting. Put treats inside the crate and lock the door. When this happens, the dog will often run to the crate, staring at the door. If the item is especially appealing, the dog will often start pawing at the crate, as if to say, “Hey, LET ME IN THERE!”
Well, ok, dog. If you insist!
Perhaps the easiest way to create positive associations with the crate is to make it the place where your dog gets his dinner! In addition to feeding his regular dinner in his crate, make the crate a place where lots of fun things happen—use food-dispensing puzzle toys, stuffed Kongs, and more.In addition to feeding his regular dinner in his crate, make the crate a place where lots of fun things happen—use food-dispensing puzzle toys, stuffed Kongs, and more.
Grab a great movie, a bowl of popcorn, and your dog's meal ration for the evening. Sit next to your dog while watching the movie, dropping a piece of kibble (or popcorn!) into the crate when he is relaxed and quiet. Practicing crating and relaxation while you are at home will prevent your dog from viewing the crate as a predictor of your absence.
Shape the entrance
Capturing—If you play “lock-out” enough, you may be able to capture this behavior. Click your dog when he goes into the crate, toss a treat outside the crate to reset for the next repetition, and repeat until your dog is running to the crate reliably. At this point, begin shaping for the down position.
Shaping—“Free shape” the entrance by clicking your dog for small steps in the direction of the goal behavior. First click for looking at his crate, then stepping toward the crate, then sniffing the crate, one paw inside, two paws inside, four paws inside, sitting in the crate, and, eventually, lying down in the crate.
Remember, ”Don’t name it ‘til you love it!” Avoid adding a cue until your dog is giving the behavior you like reliably. If you want your dog to lie down in the crate, wait to add the cue for “go to your crate!” until he is entering the crate and lying down.
Using a mat—If you’ve already taught a solid “go to mat” behavior, crate training is often as easy as putting the mat in the crate and asking your dog to go to mat. Incidentally, you can also use a well-taught “go to mat” behavior to get your dog on the scales at the vet’s office!
Using a target stick—If your dog follows a target stick, shape the entrance with a target stick. This works especially well with wire crates, hard-sided plastic crates that have ventilation holes on the side, and soft-sided crates with a zippered opening on top. If you prefer, use a target disc instead of a target stick.
Once your dog is going in the crate reliably, it’s time to start teaching him to relax in the crate. I call this technique “biofeedback,” and it has worked wonderfully with my young Saint Bernard puppy. He’s can be crated quietly for hours at a time, even when surrounded by unfamiliar dogs and people, while I teach classes, attend seminars, or assist at Karen Pryor Academy workshops. It's a relief to have a dog that not only goes in his crate, but actually sees his crate as a cue to relax.
What does “biofeedback” involve? Quite simply, it means clicking for relaxation. Here’s my basic list of “relaxing” things to click for:
- Licking lips
- Resting head on paws
- Rolling over onto back hip
- Lying on side
- Lying belly up
Because my own dogs get quite excited when they hear the click, I used a verbal marker for this behavior—a low, slow, calming “yes.” I tend not to use high-value food reinforcers for this behavior, as they can create too much excitement. I use a low-value reward, like kibble, eye contact, or a light scratch behind the ears.
Wait to get out of the crate!
I don’t usually use treats to teach this technique. When your dog is in the crate in a sitting or down position, begin opening the door slowly. If the dog begins to stand or rise out of position, close the door quietly and wait for him to resume the position. His butt on the floor of the crate is your cue to open the door.
For dogs that are used to bolting out of the crate, it may take them a while to get used to the new rules of the game. Your dog may get frustrated and bark, whine, or paw at the crate door to get out. Ignore this behavior; wait for the behavior you want. Once your dog remains in the position with the door wide open, work on building distance and distractions. Occasionally reward the release with a treat, scratch, opportunity to greet a favorite person/guest, or favorite game.
There are some additional crate training tips you may find helpful:
- Put your dog in his crate only after he has been exercised and has eliminated outside recently.
- The crate should be placed in a living area so that the dog does not associate the crate with social isolation. Your dog will likely enjoy his crate much more if he's in the living room than if he is crated in a dark, damp, back corner of the basement.
- Practice crating both while you are at home and while you are away from home. When your dog is crated and you are away from home, avoid leaving him with toys that he could chew off pieces and choke on.
- Calming aids in and around the crate may be helpful for some dogs. Some clients have had great success using DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) plug-ins near the crate. I often play Through a Dog’s Ear while my dogs relax in their crates. On occasion I have been known to dilute some lavender essential oil in distilled water and spray it on crate bedding.
- Should your dog have a bed in his crate? Only if:
- He is reliably potty-trained
- He does not chew on bedding, fabrics, etc.
- He does not have a penchant for de-stuffing pillows, stuffed animals, etc.
- If your dog whines in the crate:
- Ask yourself, when was the last time he went potty? If you think he might need a potty break, wait for the briefest instant of quiet, open the crate door, and take him out.
- If your dog has recently eliminated, and is not hungry or thirsty, ignore the whining. Wait until your dog offers a behavior you like (fifteen seconds of quiet, lying down, sitting) before releasing your dog. Quiet behaviors are the key to opening the crate!
- If your dog injures himself trying to get out of the crate, seek the help of a qualified behavior professional immediately.
- Crates are sanctuaries. Dogs should not be bothered while they are in their crates. Children (or inebriated adult party guests) should not be allowed to harass dogs while they are in their crates.
- Crates are great potty training tools for most dogs. Crates tend to be less useful as potty training tools working with puppy mill dogs that have spent their critical stages of development in crates surrounded by their own filth and feces. If this describes your dog, you may find this article from the ASPCA to be helpful.
Crates: rewarding for both dogs and owners
Crates are not cruel. Introduced correctly, crates become a dog’s sanctuary. For a dog, it can be like having his own bedroom. Traveling with your dog or attending a performance event, it’s especially nice to be able to bring that “bit of home” along. It offers comfort and a feeling of security.
Crate training has so many benefits, it is definitely worth the small investment of time it takes to teach your dog to love the crate. Let there be peace on earth this holiday season. And, for pet owners let it begin with crates!