Crate Training 101
Many pet owners are faced with the question of what to do with their dog when they leave the house. Do you let them have free rein, gate them into one part of the house, or do something else entirely?
One available option is crating. This can be a good option for nearly all dogs, but it must be done responsibly and should not simply be used as a substitute to training. Also, leaving a dog for long hours in a crate can be detrimental to both their physical and mental well being. If you plan to keep your dog in a crate during the workday, they most likely will need a break. Consider hiring a dog walker if you can't make it home! We will talk more about the pros and cons of crate training, and how to use it responsibly, in an upcoming article.
Though it requires some time investment up-front for training, you'll likely find the benefits outweigh the cost, particularly when you're living in the city where apartments are claustrophobic, noisy, and often leave dogs feeling anxious.
Doing It Right: First Steps
Choosing a Crate
Since you can't get started without the equipment, your first step will be picking out the right crate for your dog.
The most important feature to consider is the size. The crate should be big enough for your dog to turn fully around inside before settling back down. If the crate is too large, your pup will have enough room to go to the bathroom in one corner and sleep comfortably in the rest of the space. For house training purposes, it’s important that the crate not be too large for your dog. If you have a younger puppy, it is helpful to find a crate with a divider so you can adjust the size of the crate as they grow.
So, how do you shop for the precise size? Measure the length and width of your dog, add approximately two inches to both measurements, and then use those dimensions as a guide.
You'll find several kinds of crates available on the market, including metal, fabric, and plastic. As with anything, there are pros and cons to each type. If you’re working on house training, a metal style crate usually comes with a removable plastic floor that’s easy for cleanups. It’s also a good choice for puppies that still have a lot of growing to do. These crates often come with dividers that make it easy for you to give your dog more room as they need it without having to go out and get a new crate altogether.
First impressions are everything, like with any other piece of equipment. If your dog starts off with a negative relationship with their crate, they won't be able to relax while inside it. At that point, all the potential benefits of using a crate will be lost.
Make the first encounter a positive one. Don’t just push them in, close it, and leave! Find a good spot and take some time to slowly introduce your pup. This includes placing the crate in the right spot in your home, adding the appropriate bedding and other comforts, and kicking off the interaction with some kind of positive association.
Picking a Spot
You'll want to find an area in your home that works best for your pup. Some do better in an area that doesn't see much foot traffic, and others like to be in the primary living space. Either way, find one without any immediate safety hazards, like outlets, plants, or an abundance of cords, and find an area that doesn't get too hot or too cold throughout the day.
Prepping the Crate
What's inside the crate is also important. To make the space appealing, you'll want to provide some sort of comfortable padding at the bottom. An appropriately sized bed is an obvious choice, but if your dog's a chewer, you might have to find some special rip-resistant pad. You can also leave treats, chew toys, and distraction toys/treats--just be sure anything you leave isn’t a choking hazard or something that could cause other problems. Most dogs are fine with treats and even chew treats, but if yours has a tendency to try to swallow them whole or to eat their toys, you will need to exercise caution.
You're going to want the dog to check out the crate of their own will, because forcing them inside is detrimental. Accomplishing this is as simple as placing a favorite toy or some treats in the space and then letting the dog explore.
Additionally, be sure to leave the door of the crate open as your pup initially checks it out. This will keep them from feeling trapped or ambushed. The crate must first be comfortable to them on their terms before it is a useful tool for you.
Additionally, there are a few things you should never do with your crate. Don’t ever use the crate as a form of punishment. It’s important to build up a positive association with it, and any use for punishment can undermine that work. Also, if your pup is a destructive chewer, be careful with what bedding or other items you leave in the crate since they can cause severe complications if eaten. And don’t leave them in the crate for long hours without breaks. We’ll explore more of the responsible practices and pros and cons of crate training in another article soon.
Building the Relationship
Now that your dog has been introduced to their crate, you'll need to slowly build up the amount of time they're left locked in the crate. It’s extremely important not to leave them too long. While a crate can be a good tool to help keep your dog and home safe, but it’s not meant to be a place to stash your dog away for long hours.
To build the dog's comfort with being in the crate, leave it open and let them explore it on their own. you can gradually start leaving them in for longer periods of time after feedings. Once they're comfortable with about ten minutes of crate time, you can graduate from using food as a motivator.
Crating the Dog While You're Home
The next step to crate training your dog involves securing them inside while you're still at home. Use a command word to get them to enter their crate, give them a treat for listening, and then go about your business in plain sight for a few minutes.
Things that make this step a success include ignoring your dog while they're crated—do not stare or talk to them too much, though certainly pay attention to their anxiety level—and very gradually increasing the time they spend inside. You should also play with the amount of time you're clearly visible to your dog.
Once you can leave them in the crate for 30 minutes at a time without incident, you're ready to move on.
Leaving the House
One of the last steps is to leave your dog in the crate while you're gone from your home. There are, of course, a couple tricks to making your dog feel more comfortable with this process.
As usual, give them the command to get into their crate and reward them for doing so. Quietly get ready to go and then let yourself out of the house without fanfare. Avoiding riling up your dog before you leave is imperative to making this step work. Making the process a big goodbye will not help to put your pup at ease.
Also important is your behavior when you re-enter your home. Rewarding a dog's overexcitement about seeing you can have negative side effects, such as making your dog anxious about having to be in the crate.
A way to counteract this possibility is to leave them inside for several minutes after you get home. This way they will not associate being in the crate with the upset they feel over you not being around.
Things to Keep in Mind
If you're able to respond to your dog's cues and follow the steps closely, you'll get a lifelong tool that helps with raising and caring for your pup. Just remember that listening to your dog and assessing their comfort level is a huge part of this process. Excessive whining or accidents mean you're attempting to keep your dog inside their crate for too long or you've moved too fast past one of the steps.
In the end, you should have a dog that happily enters their crate. Happy training!