Do you have a crate-trained dog? There are many controversial things in the land of dog training and ownership. What is the best weight for your dog to stay at? How much time should they spend outside? Should a dog go on a daily walk, or is yard time enough? Dog parks, or no dog parks? There are many opinions, pros and cons, for each of these, but one that I find arises all the time is the use of crates for family dogs.
There are many arguments against the use of crates. Things like, dogs don’t like to be locked up all day, every day. It’s inhumane to keep them in a crate. Dogs want to be with their people, and they don’t deserve to be ignored. While all of these arguments have merit, I am still firmly in the pro-crate category. I believe that just like any tool, a crate can be poorly used. Use good judgement and humane practices when you use a crate. That being said, I believe that (particularly with young puppies or new rescue dogs) crates can be a complete godsend, and having your dog at least know how to be calm in one is crucial.
Here are my top three reasons why crate training is so important, particularly before you bring your new baby home.
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1. Virtually every place aside from your home will keep your dog in a crate.
This is absolutely true. If he has to stay for more than an office visit, your vet will keep your dog crated while not being examined. As will your groomer, your boarding kennel or pet sitter, and your dog trainer. Your dog must be crated to travel on an airplane. If your dog runs away or gets lost, he will be kept in a crate at the animal shelter until you find him and pick him up.
There is a reason for this. Safety. 100%. Outside of your home, your dog is a client in someone else’s business, who likely has multiple dogs at once. It is our job as dog professionals to ensure that all of our client dogs stay safe and happy. This includes keeping them from getting into a tussle with another dog, escaping when not being watched, or even keeping them from eating something they shouldn’t and requiring surgery to remove a serious blockage!
I, personally, do not leave my own dogs loose in the house when I am not home. While my dogs may know better than to do some risky things while I am at here to watch them, that does not necessarily mean that they are completely trustworthy if they are unsupervised. I love and trust my dogs, but if there is one thing that I trust them to be above all others…it is to be dogs. Chasing the cats, eating a slice of chocolate cake off the counter, or blasting through the back door are only a few examples of disasters that can happen when they are left to their own devices, so I choose not to do so.
As a professional dog trainer, I can assure you that almost every single dog trainer out there, whether they keep their client dogs in a kennel building, or like me, they keep the dogs inside their own house, uses crates. We use crates to keep dogs separated during difficult exercises, to keep them safe when we are not able to see them, to transport them safely from place to place, and to help introduce them to new things.
Knowing all of this, you do your dog no favors in the world outside of your own home if they cannot tolerate being calm inside a crate. It is the difference between a quiet and uneventful time at the groomer to a horror show and a seriously stressed out dog.
2. It gives your dog a safe space at home.
Now, I am a big fan of “safe spaces.” A dog should always have a place to go and get away from the busy chaos of a normal day if he chooses to do so. If your dog will not only tolerate, but actually enjoys his crate, it has the potential to be a perfect spot for him to go and relax in the house. My dogs love their crates, and particularly in times of overwhelm or stress, they will seek out their crates for some quiet time.
This becomes particularly important when something big changes in your home, like bringing home a new puppy, or even a new human baby! Perhaps not at first, when your little one is still a newborn, but as your baby grows and becomes a curious explorer (and then grows some more and becomes a super fast, super loud, super excited toddler), your dog needs a space to unwind without having to worry about what your baby is up to. If you do your homework and make the crate a place where your dog is free to go to relax, and you also set the limit for your child that he or she is not to bother your dog when she is in her safe space, you’ve got the equivalent of a teenager’s bedroom for your dog, where she can go to relax and not talk to the family for a little while!
3. It is a great tool for introducing your dog to new circumstances.
When something big changes at home, whether it’s bringing home the grandkids for the first time, petsitting your daughter’s akita for the weekend, or having a contractor come to the house to have a look at your roofing problems, the most effective and safest way to have an introduction is to let your dog observe, and then meet, the big stressor through a barrier for awhile. That is where the crate comes in handy.
When I brought both of my daughters home from the hospital, I did not allow my dogs to come up and sniff, lick, or touch her. I made very clear to them that this was MY baby, and that she was absolutely under my protection. Even the very best dog (and I have some excellent and well-trained dogs) can forget their manners when they are around something as exciting and wonderful as a new baby, so it is important to let them become used to the baby being in their proximity without being able to accidentally (or heaven forbid, purposely) harm the baby.
So now you know some great reasons WHY you should teach your dog to love his crate…but HOW do you do that?
Here are four simple and easy tips for making the crate a great and rewarding spot for your dog to go.
1. Put food and water IN the crate.
This one is the biggest and easiest way to make your dog love his crate, and also the one that I find the most people not doing. Wherever your dog gets fed is going to be one of his very favorite places on this earth. It smells good, it feels good in his tummy, and he associates that place with the joy and glee of eating a good meal. So why not pair that feeling with his crate, rather than your kitchen or mud room or wherever?
Whether your dog is free fed or has set meal times, making it a requirement that your dog go into the crate in order to get fed will take you a long way toward your him loving that crate. You will know you have won when you head to get some food for your pup and he turns and hightails it over to his crate to beat you there!
2. Keep toys, bones, and other goodies inside.
Just like keeping his food inside, putting his favorite toys and chew bones inside the crate build a great, positive association with it. The more that you can make it a place where great things happen, the better.
On top of that, keeping toys in your dog’s crate will help him to settle in and not be anxious, particularly if he does not enjoy the crate to begin with. Giving him marrow bones, hollow toys filled with peanut butter, or even a plastic soda bottle with some of his kibble in it can keep his mind off of the fact that he’s confined and give him something great to think about. After you have done this a few times, he will make the association between his crate and good things, rather than being anxious about being separated from you and confined for awhile.
Be sure to put toys that are difficult to destroy, and not toys that your dog could ingest, in the crate if he or she is going to be left unsupervised.
Please note that the tips I am sharing here are for dogs who are simply not used to the crate, rather than for those who have true confinement phobia, or separation anxiety. If your dog is so upset inside the crate that they are breaking out periodically or hurting themselves trying to escape no matter what you try, you should contact a trainer in your area to help your dog get past those deeper issues.
3. Use a blanket.
There are a few different ways that you can use a blanket. Firstly, if your dog is in his crate and is barking, whining, or howling incessantly for you to open the door, putting a blanket over the crate can make it feel calmer, safer, and more den-like. This can help your dog calm down and settle in without any drama.
This also keeps your dog from being able to see you while inside, which can be a HUGE help when first becoming acclimated to the crate. When I have dogs come to me for crate training, I think one of the biggest helps (aside from being consistently fed inside the crate) is that I do not keep the crate in my living room or my bedroom where the dog can see me. The crate stays in my dining room, where they are able to hear me, and still know what’s going on in the household, without being able to make constant eye contact with me and fuss at me.
If your dog is having a hard time in the crate to begin with, do not put a nice fluffy bed in at the beginning. A regular blanket, an indestructible crate pad, or nothing at all will be your best options. It is not uncommon for an anxious, crate bound dog to rip up a new bed that’s been put in with him to make things more homey. I would suggest waiting on that until you know that your dog is not going to shred it at the first opportunity.
4. Make your dog wait before coming out.
This makes a big difference. Each time you let your dog out of the crate, make them wait until you say they can come out before allowing them to exit, rather than letting them blast through the door when you undo the latch. This serves a couple of purposes.
Firstly, it teaches your dog self control with the crate. If you have a dog who is so brainless with anxiety about being in the crate and separate from you, having the door closed in his face when he tries to blast out is a wake up call that he most likely needs. It encourages him to keep his head on straight when in the crate, even if he’s excited or anxious to be free.
Secondly, it teaches your dog impulse control. Just like teaching your dog to leave food, toys, and other distractions, the wait command is a key to a well-behaved pup. Teaching your dog to wait at the door of the crate is easy to generalize to waiting at the front door to your home so that you don’t have to worry about him shooting into the street each time you try to to leave the house!
Our free mini-course, Leading Your Dog, discusses this idea and others that help you develop a great relationship based on respect and trust with your dog. Check it out here to learn to do this exercise with your dog!
So, to wrap it all up for you…
Teaching your dog to tolerate and enjoy being in the crate should absolutely be something on your list to do as early as possible. Not only will it help your dog get used to your home, new people, and new circumstances calmly and safely, and provide him with a quiet space away from the chaos of a busy home, but it is also a thing he will need to know if you take him anywhere outside of your home at all!
Want to learn other ways to get your relationship with your dog on point? Check out our FREE mini-course, Leading Your Dog!
Do you use a crate with your dog? What strategies did you use to help him love it?