Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Benefits of Crate Training

(I had a several people email me asking for more information on crate training, after I mentioned using it for Lucy. I apologize for the delay - here, at last, are my thoughts on crates and the techniques I use).

The concept of crating dogs took me some time to get used to. When I first heard of the practice, as something people did to their pets and not just to contain dogs in shelters, veterinary offices and airports, I was appalled – who in their right mind would want to put their dog in a CAGE? After all, aren’t cages horrible things, like jail cells?

Not so. Since I began taking animal care seriously, fostering and adopting older dogs, and getting involved in animal rescue, I have done an about face and now see crates as an essential part of a dog’s environment. I consider crate training a pup as important as teaching the pup to walk nicely on a leash or to wait for a command before barreling out of the car.

Almost all of the people I know in rescue with a true commitment to helping rescued and shelter dogs become adoptable, family-ready, companion animals recognize the value of crates. We want our dependent family members, whether children or animals, to be good citizens, to be social, to have some manners, and to feel safe and secure. My dogs are far from perfect, but they are easy to live with. And crate training has been partially responsible for that.

Before I go on, let’s first look at my choice of words: cage vs crate. A cage confines, a cage keeps the people outside the cage safe. A cage is what was once used in zoos before we better understood the need for animals to have as natural a habitat as possible. A crate also confines, but it also protects the contents – think of a shipping crate, for example: sturdy, safe, protecting the precious cargo it carries. But I digress.

Dogs tend to like crates. Why? Because dogs are, by nature, den animals. They like to feel secure, to curl up in a safe space where they can relax, sure that nothing can harm them. Most of us have dogs who feel safe within our homes whether in their crate or not, and many of those dogs have their own favorite corner or bed or couch or even closet in the home. But it’s hard to fit that couch or closet into the back of the family vehicle. Crates are portable and can go along on vacations whether to grandma’s house or camping by the lake.

Having a dog that enjoys a crate is useful, too, when the dog is faced with stressful situations. Being used to a crate means that when Fido is stuck at the vets, the wire door won’t be quite so scary. And when Fifi pulls a cruciate and has to be confined “on bed rest” for weeks, liking her crate makes that sentence a whole lot easier! Crates are useful, too, when the house is full of busy company (human and/or canine) and a dog just wants a place to chill.

I believe every puppy should be crate trained for all the above reasons, but also because it is easier to housetrain them, and to keep them safe during those times when there is no one home. A crated dog will not usually soil its den, and it certainly can’t chew up the electrical cords, tear off the plastic hose at the back of the toilet, eat through the drywall, or make a feast out of your favourite antique table (and yes, I have had pups do all those things in my pre-crating life!).

Like any other piece of equipment, crates have to be used responsibly. If a dog is to feel safe and comfortable there, it needs to be a safe, comfortable place. A soft mattress or blanket provides a comfy place for doggy knees and elbows to rest. Happy voices and rewarding treats make going into the crate fun. Crates should never be used as punishment, and a dog should never be shoved in there by a human yelling at the dog in anger. Nor should dogs be left in crates for long periods of time – a few hours at most, though I do know of people who crate their very happy adult dogs while they are at work all day – but are committed to giving their dogs lots of daily exercise as well. Crating all day would certainly not be appropriate for young pups, who can only comfortably hold their bladder about an hour for each month of their age – a four month old pup may be comfortable for a maximum of four hours, but no longer. And if the dog is high energy, a vigorous play period or a really long walk will do both the dog and the human a whole lot more good than sticking the dog in the crate. A tired dog is a good dog – and a tired dog is happy to have a nap in his nice, safe, comfy crate.

What kind of crate to get?

Crates come in both wire and plastic or fiberglass models, as well as the fabric ones sometimes used for travel or shows. The fabric ones are quite easily torn or even flipped with the dog inside, and, in my opinion, are best kept for short term use only. Wire ones provide more visibility than plastic – which some dogs like and some don’t. Wire ones fold flat, making them easier to transport or store. That giant sized plastic kennel just isn’t going to fit in the back seat of the Honda Civic very well. However, many dogs prefer the fiberglass/plastic crates as they give a more secure den-like feeling.

My dogs prefer the wire ones. This may be because they were not crate trained until they were older adults and they consider the whole house their “den” and the crate merely one of several beds in it. Charley was trained to an x-pen, which we still use for travel today, and she is quite happy with the wire of an xpen or the wire of a crate around her. Sadie isn’t terribly happy with either – perhaps she has a learned fear of being confined when her beloved family disappeared and she scratched at the wire of the shelter kennel until her paws were raw and bleeding. However, even she voluntarily goes into the open wire crate in my living room for a nap from time to time, and will happily stay in there with a frozen stuffed kong.

Some dogs like wire crates better because they are cooler – Charley and Sadie both have very thick coats and really suffer in the heat, so the more limited air circulation of the plastic crates does not suit them. That said, there are plastic crates with built in fans available – though I am not sure how efficiently they work and whether some dogs would object to the feel of air being blown on or away from them. And small skinny hairless dogs who feel the cold more may well like the warmth of a plastic crate, no fan needed!

One good compromise, especially if you have a long haired dog who will be hot in a plastic crate in summer, is to get a wire one, but toss a blanket over it. For a price you can even buy special cloth or canvas crate covers that look very nice (or if you are a zillion times more talented at sewing than I am, you can make your own to match your d├ęcor!). That way, you can provide a covered den-like crate, with the option of good ventilation and visibility by removing the cover.

Getting the right sized crate for the dog is also important. Used crates are always available on online classifieds like craigslist, so sizing up as the pup grows is not a big issue. However, there are also crates that have an adjustable interior “wall” so the crate can grow as your pup does. Too big a crate for a little pup and they may not feel secure (and may well poop at one end of the crate). Too small a crate for your adult dog, and you can cause pain in its neck or limbs. The right size crate is one in which your dog has three or four extra inches of head space when standing or sitting, and is long enough and wide enough for the dog to turn around and to lie down.

Teaching the dog to like the crate:

Getting a dog of any age – pup to senior – used to a crate is not usually too difficult, unless, like Sadie, they have experienced a traumatic event associated with being kenneled. Whenever I foster or adopt a dog, every new dog to my home is introduce to the crate by eating all his or her meals there. At first, that may mean just putting the bowl on the floor of the crate just inside the door and letting the dog stand outside the crate to eat. Then I gradually move the bowl further in until they must go right inside the crate to get the food. Then I begin closing the door while they are in there eating, but opening it right after. Then I make them wait a moment or two, slowly increasing the wait time. I also hide treats in the crate for them to find, or put them in the crate with a high-value treat like a bully stick, or a long lasting treat like a frozen stuffed kong.

I make sure the crate is somewhere quiet but central – usually in my living room alongside a wall, or between a couch or chair and the wall. I want them to feel part of the family. Depending on the dog, I have at times had crates in my bedroom as well – Belle used to like to sleep in a crate in the bedroom, whereas Charley has always preferred her “own” room at night time. She says my snoring keeps her awake.

When crate training, I try not to let a dog out when she is whining – I want to catch her being quiet in her crate and THEN open the door for her. Sometimes that may mean dropping a toy or treat in at the far end of the crate to distract her, and when she stops whining to go investigate, whipping the door open and telling her good dog. Otherwise she will learn that whining will get her what she wants. If she goes in voluntarily and lies down for a snooze, I wait a few minutes and then go over with a treat for her – good dog, crate!

Just as kids can learn to like their own beds and rooms, dogs too learn to see their crate as their favourite place to be when they can’t be with you.

Here’s a couple of good links about crate training:

1 comment:

Anita said...

Good article on crate training Jean. It's the ONLY way to go.

So my litle Mitzi isn't the only dog who likes to eat sheetrock!!! And I was there -- in my office and could see her rear bobbing up and down (thought how good she was and that she was working on her nylabone -- WRONG!)