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Learning to Learn


Crate Training is not Punishment.


The issue of crate training has sparked controversy among dog fanciers for decades...but, we've come a long way in recent years. Now, the majority of dog fanciers recommend using crates, particularly for puppies or older, rescued dogs. There are pros and cons to using crates, just as with any other training tool.   There is a crate in my dining room, kept open all the time.  It has a big squishy bed in it, and the dog and cats can often be found napping in it.  The biggest problem seems to be that people tend to either mis-use the crate, or, they tend not to teach their dog that it's a safe place -- just putting the dog in, shutting the door (most of the time, leaving food and water, but nothing to really occupy the dog!) and leaving. Sometimes for truly extended periods of time!


My personal feeling on this topic is: if you feel the desire to crate your dog for longer than the period you are away from home (normally 8 to 10 hours, for those who work outside the home), then why do you have the dog, in the first place? My own animals are crate-trained -- if I travelled with them regularly, a crate would be very useful -- say, in a hotel room. It would give my dogs that "always at home" feeling. A crate can give your dog a quiet place to nap, away from the kids. A crate can be used to confine your puppy during housetraining, if there is no possible means to install a doggie door, or to keep him from eating the house when unsupervised. It can be the safest place for your dog to be, while travelling in the car.


To properly train your older dog to the crate, you have to teach the dog that his crate is the best place for him to be -- that he should WANT to be in there. So, the absolute WORST way to do this is to just toss the dog in, and close the door (try THAT with a St. Bernard!! {grin}). You've just created a fear-response for your dog -- to the place you would like for him to go into willingly.


When training your dog to accept the crate, the location of the crate is of some importance. His crate will act as his den, a quiet place to get away from it all. The size of the crate is also important. Choose a crate that has enough room for your puppy to stand up, turn around and lie down. If you use a crate that is too large, you may find that the puppy sleeps at one end and urinates or defecates at the other. If you own a puppy that will grow into a 100+lb dog, you may have to buy two different crate sizes or purchase a crate with a divider, or, simply put a box in one end, to reduce the interior size.


It should be understood that the crate is to be used for limited periods, not for the course of a workday. And, the dog should get lots of exercise outside the crate with an opportunity to socialize. As a general guide, your puppy can stay in his crate comfortably for as many months as he is old (in hours), plus one hour. For example, if he is two months old, he can remain crated for 2 hours + 1 hour... making three hours in his crate.


Methodology: Teaching Your Dog to LIKE His Crate Once you've selected your crate, and found a place for it, you're more than half way there. To train your dog to crate use a single-word command. Examples might be "Kennel", "Crate" "Bed". Once you've issued the command, entice him in with a treat that you toss into the crate. Make it a treat that he really likes, not his kibble (it's not interesting enough). Begin the exercise before he has eaten. If he has just finished dinner, he won't be too interested no matter what the treat is.


Leave the door open, for now.  The focus of the beginning exercises is to teach him to enter willingly, then to enter and lie down.

Steps:  (work in short sessions, 5-6 minutes at a time.  When you start a new session, start at the beginning again, working at each step for as long as it takes to get comfortable before moving to the next one).

1. drop a treat just inside the door, and let the dog reach in for it.

2. move back a couple of inches, dropping the reward  through the open bars in the top of the crate, and allowing the dog to reach in.

3. move back more, if the dog has to put a foot in to reach the treat, jackpot (feed several treats individually)

4.  When he's all the way in (whole body), the next step is to get him comfortable being there... by feeding individual treats through the side of the crate as he just stands there, chilling out.

5.  When you think he might be ready, it's time to start sessions (before meals) when he's hungry, and have him 'down' in the crate before offering reinforcement.

6.  At this point, you can have the dog 'crate' at any time that he needs to be in one spot for a few minutes... for meals, before he gets his leash on to go for a walk, to chew on his favorite chew toy, etc.  All of this will help to associate his crate as 'where Good Stuff happens'.

7.  This is where you start adding the cue as he enters the crate, then reinforce when he's in and down.

8.  Start closing the door for the duration of meals, chewing, whatever he's doing in there.  Try not to leave him for so long that he asks to come out... you don't want him to start Barking His Butt Off to get out.  Let him see right off the bat that he gets out when he's calm, not when he's freaking out.

More suggestion/ideas for making the process go smoothly:


Take the door off his crate. Put the crate in the kitchen (or whatever room the family tends to congregate in) so that he'll be able to be near you, whenever he's in there (this will make him alot more willing to spend time in there). If he's past the teething stage, you can put a crate pad, or blanket in there (Saints prefer the cold floor), to make it a little more comfortable. Start feeding all his meals in the crate. Take his VERY FAVORITE toy, and tie it to the back of the crate, so that he has to lay in there in order to play with it. Occasionally, toss a really good treat in there, as you walk past. When he goes in after the treat, say "Crate". This will, eventually, condition him to enter the crate when you give the command "crate".


 After about a week of teaching him that this is a GOOD THING, put the door on. Don't close it, just yet -- you've changed it, so you'll need to give him a couple of days to get used to it, again. Just keep doing all the things you've been doing, including tossing the treat in and giving the command "crate". After a couple of days, while he's laying in there chewing on something, close the door. Just 5 minutes. Stay in the room with him, and just keep moving around, doing things, letting him see that everything is the same -- but the door. Start doing this several times a day. Close the door during meals, when you give him a chewy, whatever, but stay in the room with him. If he starts to bark or whine, ignore him -- but don't let him out, until he stops. If you let him out while he's asking to be let out, you've created a problem for yourself -- you've just rewarded behavior that you don't want to reward.


After a few days of shutting the door for 5 minutes at a time, and staying in the room with him, start leaving the room for the 5-minute period. Everything else remains the same, except that you leave the room. Depending on his behavior while you're gone (no barking or whining), you can return at the end of the 5 minutes and open the door -- if he's been a good boy, tell him so! If he's barking or whining, don't return until he stops. Then, nonchalantly enter the room, and open the door. Tell him what a good boy he is!


You can now start increasing the amount of time that he's crated. Make sure he's had a potty break before you put him in there for any real length of time (more than an hour), and don't leave food in there for him. You can leave small amounts of water, or a bowl of ice cubes, some mentally-stimulating toys, and a chewy for him. Using these steps, you should be able to teach your dog to "crate" successfully.


You can put his crate at bedside, and have him sleep there at night -- this will allow him to feel close to you, but also give him his own space. If he occasionally requires some peace and quiet (or you do!), then the crate is there. If you want to take him with you on vacation, there are hotels that allow dogs to accompany owners, if they're crated. Now that you have successfully taught your dog to crate, remember that he still needs time to play and eliminate. Make sure he takes regular trips outside so that you aren't confining him for too long. If you are housetraining him, take him out at regular intervals and on leash to the same area in the yard where you want him to eliminate. And don't forget to praise him when he is finished.


For the Tough Customer: Don't give him his breakfast.... *yes*, you're going to feel like the wicked witch... but he's going to learn to LOVE his crate. Instead, take the door off his crate, and sit his food bowl outside it. Then, every couple of hours, drop a couple of pieces of cheese, sliced hotdog, liverwurst, grapes -- you get the idea -- INCREDIBLY good stuff -- into his bowl, and walk away.


When he's comfortably approaching the bowl, start sitting it right inside, and do the same. When he's comfortable sticking his head in, move it back a little. Then, far enough that his front feet have to go in. Make *sure* that, whatever you're giving him, you've giving HALF the amount in CHEESE (you can even give him a couple of tablespoons of cottage cheese or plain yogurt) -- this will reduce the chances of digestive upset. When he's got half his body in the crate, start giving him *half-rations* of his kibble, mixed with stuff like cottage cheese or peanut butter -- but put it at the back of his crate. He's gonna be a hungry boy, because it's gonna take 3-4 days to get to this point. Walk over and stand by the crate and talk softly to him, while he eats. When he's comfortable with you doing this, start giving him small rations 3 to 4 times a day, in the same manner, and start using the "crate" command when he enters. Talk to him the whole time.


Then, put the door back on, and do it for an extra day or so, because you've changed it again... he'll need a little more time (and, you might have to put his bowl back at the half-mark for a couple of feedings). At this point, once he's comfortable, close the door til he's finished eating, then let him out. When you've got him back to plain kibble, entering the crate on command, and staying comfortably to eat, it's time to start using the cheese-liverwurst-hotdog deal to start getting him to go in again at night... drop off that last meal, to about half-ration (at about 6 p.m.), and then use the heavy artillery to get him to crate at night. You may never need to board him, again.

Brenda Rushman, CCBC


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