The dog crate: cruel cage or comfy den

Recommendations on how to get your dog used to a crate
By Laure-Anne Viselé, Feb 2012

Caging a dog?

Canis bonus photography

Over the past few years, the crate has become all the rage in dog training circles. It’s graduated from controversial to mainstream, even in the humane, positive dog training crowds.

The idea is two-pronged:

  1. It takes away temptation: to relieve oneself in the house, to chew an unauthorised object, to beg when people are eating, to jump on the bed and sleep with the owners.
  2. It is a relaxing, safe, resting place. In other words: a den.

It is now parts and parcel of many therapy and training protocols, such as toilet training.

The general approach to introducing a dog to the crate is:

  • Slowly slowly catchy monkey: frequent, small increments at first, starting with very very very short stays
  • Avoiding any negative experiences with the crate; and
  • Boost up all possible positive associations with it (e.g. leaving surprise treats, safe toys, etc.).

Some don’ts before you get started

  • Do not EVER punish the dog in the crate. High risk of creating an aversion, then you’re toast.
  • Do not free the dog just after he has whined. That’ll teach the dog that whining works, buuuut, more importantly,
  • Do not leave the dog in the crate longer than what he is comfortable with (i.e. do not leave him there until he whines)
  • Do not leave the dog unattended in his crate if he has a collar on (it could get caught in the bars)
  • Do not attempt this if your dog already has an aversion to the crate, or has pronounced separation anxiety, or as the only way of toilet training him. Seek professional advice instead of risking making his problem worse.

Now for the method:

0. Motivation boosters: make him want it

Starting now, and continuing sporadically until, well, forever, try to use the following 3 tips:

a. Put special food inside the crate, then don’t let the dog get to it. Close the crate door (with the dog outside). Let him stew for a couple of seconds, and then allow him in. After a few minutes (if he hasn’t left off his own accord already), ask the dog to come out (reward him when he does) and close the door behind him. Message: Crate is a privilege.

b. Regularly leave surprise tid-bits like cheese or sausage, so that the dog will frequently want to explore the crate for a new surprise. Message: Crate is the source of all good things.

c. Leave a safe bone or chew secured inside of the crate (so that the dog doesn’t just go in, grab it, and leave) and, with the door closed and the dog outside, let the dog really want it. When the dog is really keen, allow him in and let him stay as long as he wants. Message: Crate is a safe place to relax and chew.

For all these motivation boosters, do not use a command (e.g. ‘crate’). This is the dog wanting to go in, not you asking him.

1. Getting them used to it: exploration

Depending on the dog, steps 1. and 2. should be possible within one day. Don’t overdo it, though, and stop at the first sign that the dog might no longer be getting bored or anxious. Better be patient now than cause a difficult-to-reverse aversion.

So, first, get the dog to explore  the crate. A nice juicy treat thrown inside the crate should do the trick. Do not intimidate, coerce, or physically force the dog into the crate. Do not even pay too much attention to the dog when he’s doing it. Just a casual (vocal) praise when he gets in.

2. Adding a command

Once you the dog is no longer hesitant to get into the crate, you can associate a command with it (all of this is still with the door open):

  • First say ‘crate’ or ‘go to bed’ or ‘basket’, or whatever (keep using that same word in the future, though). You might have to point to make it more obvious, but you’ll have to fade that gesture out so that he eventually responds to the voice command alone.
  • As as soon as he moves towards the crate, throw a treat into the crate.
  • When all four paws are inside the create, praise the dog (calmly, mind, you don’t want to intimidate nervous dogs, and no touching. Voice alone).
  • As soon as the dog is no longer focused on the treat (i.e. he’s gobbled it up, likely), release him by saying ‘OK’, whatever you normally use to release your dog from a previously given command. Message: He does not have to leave the crate, but he may do so.

Note: If your dog understands the command ‘OK’ and chooses to stay in the crate, fine. If he does not understand ‘OK’, you’ll have to lure him out of the crate after you said it, to help  him understand that it releases him from a previous commanded position. Also start using ‘OK’ to release him from other commands like (e.g. sit, lie down, etc.), to make sure he gets the concept.

3. Fading out the lure

Repeat the above several times, gradually fading away the use of a lure, and increasingly relying on the verbal command instead. You are aiming for:

  • no using a treat in front of his nose to lure him into the crate
  • (make sure dog is looking at you, you can still point if it helps) saying ‘crate’
  • dog goes into crate
  • you give the treat as a reward
  • you say ‘OK’

Note, ‘lure’ is different to ‘reward’. You are fading out the lure at the beginning, but you are still using the reward at the end (a treat which you will be carrying discreetly). ‘Fading out the lure’  will avoid you eternally having to lure the dog into the crate using a treat.

4. Increasing the period of time inside the crate

Now you can gradually increase the period of time between the commands ‘crate’ and the release ‘OK’. Start with bursts of 1 second, and work your way up. If the dog shows the slightest sign of being demotivated, go back a step or two in your time criterion.

 5. Decreasing the reward ratio

When the dog can reliably achieve 2 minutes, you can start rewarding him intermittently, and not every single time he steps in the crate. Replace the treats with systematic praise the instant he goes in. You want to drop the continuous reward as early as you can, before he grows reliant on the bribe of a treat to perform.

The ultimate ratio is one that is very sporadic and unpredictable for the dog (think jackpot-type unpredictability). Depending on the dog’s ability, it should be just often enough to keep the dog motivated (you don’t want him to think that it’s stopped altogether), and sporadic enough to keep him trying hard (think of the gambler’s fallacy. ‘just one more time and am bound to hit it’).

Once the dog reliably goes in when requested, you can reward really really really occasionally.

In the beginning, try to hold in as many sessions during the day as you can manage, but always stop shy of overbearing or boring. During each cluster of sessions, aim for a longer period. In the beginning, progress is microscopic, but once you have hit the 2-minute margin, you can start moving in bounds and you can reasonably quickly try for 15 mins, then 20, then 40, then 1 hour, then 2 hours, etc.

6. Closing the door

Start giving your dog his daily ration inside the crate, and see how he reacts (whilst eating) to your closing the door. He should barely notice.

There are two possible outcomes here:

  1. If he panicks or even looks a little uncomfortable, open the door immediately (but casually). Then you’ll have to work on getting him to tolerate the closed door by giving a treat for every inch that the door closes, spreading this out in separate sessions. Generally there is a tipping point so it’s only a game of patience for the first few steps.
  2. If the dog seems comfortable, see how long it takes before he takes notice of the door. Once he looks like he wants to get out, open the door. Do not let this go into an all-out whining session. The smallest sign of wanting to get out should be your trigger to let him out.

 

The second part of teaching the dog to tolerate a closed door is to now close the door when you put a chew toy in the crate. By now, he should know that the chew can only be enjoyed inside the crate (it is attached), so he shouldn’t even try to get out. See how long it takes before the dog shows signs of wanting to get out and do as the first paragraph in section 6.

Now follow the principles indicated in paragraph 4 to build up the tolerance duration.

7. What you’re aiming for: various levels of difficulty

Ultimately, the dog should be able to stay in his crate all night, and for a few hours during the day.

Opinions vary about how many hours of confinement. You should not even think of doing this for a working day (i.e. 8 hours). If your dog needs to be confined for that long, you need to make alternative arrangements (dog sitter, dog walker, etc.). I should say that 4 or 5 hours is really a maximum, but again, opinions differ. As a final note of caution on duration, remember that a young puppy must be allowed out for his toilet needs several times a night at the beginning.

Other difficulty factors you might want to work on are, for example, distance from your bed (if you feel more comfortable starting in your bedroom at night), or when you are eating. An important aspect to build up is tolerance to being confined inside crate in your absence. You will find some useful tips for this in this article on separation anxiety.

But it takes days, what to do with pup on the first few nights?

You may do two things:

  1. Bite the bullet and hope for the best. Put him in an open-topped cardboard box at night (not his crane, so he won’t be developing an aversion for it if he becomes anxious in the box), with a safe chew toy, and let him out as often as his bladder requires (work it out before hands, do not rely on his whining as a trigger to releasing him). Just do the crate training during the day. Only once he is comfortable with his (closed) crate for several hours, switch over to sleeping in his crate at night.
  2. Do not confine him at night and let him sleep with you. That way, you’ll feel him moving about if he needs to relieve his bladder, and he won’t be suffering from anxiety/solitude. Getting a dog out of the habit of sleeping with his owners can be really difficult, though, so you’re only postponing the problem of sleeping alone at night by doing this, in my opinion. I do not recommend this.

Further references

Donna Hill’s guide to getting your adult dog used to the crate

Conclusion

There are many ways to skin a cat. The method I describe here is science-based and humane, but may be subject to  many variations. I hope you find it useful!

Comments

I love to read your comments, so leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Want to share your experiences (good, funny or bad) with a dog crate; and
  • are strongly for, or against, the use of dog crates
  • Have other tips.

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5 Comments

  1. Claude
    Posted 24 February 2012 at 11:41 | Permalink

    We wanted our dog to be used to a crate, as he has to fly every now and again. The crate is outside, and we get him to go into it, and wait patiently while we prepare his meals. This taught him to wait calmly for his food (rather than whining and leaping around) and that the crate is a good place to be. Now he often goes in there while I’m outside, or just voluntarily to sit and chill out. We don’t put him In the crate when we go out, but next time he has to go on a plane, I’ll be very glad that he thinks his crate is a safe and comfy place.

    • Posted 21 March 2012 at 20:27 | Permalink

      Hi Claude. Thanks for the comment!

      That’s kind of what got us to use the crate too. Just in case he would have to if he ever had to have surgery or get transported.

      It’s funny, hey, how they start liking their crate?

      Good one on teaching it to wait patiently for its food. Can get really annoying otherwise.

  2. Posted 26 February 2012 at 01:14 | Permalink

    I do believe in crate training dogs because I think it’s the safest way for them to travel in the car. I think it’s also an important skill to know if they ever need to be hospitalized.

    However, I am generally opposed to crating as par for the course, being left at home in them alone, or being left in them at night. I prefer to give my dogs the freedom to move around & to have the run of the house. I foster for a rescue & sometimes that’s not possible – either because the dog’s behaviour is not yet known vis a vis the other dogs, or because I’m worried about them hurting themselves in the house – I dog proof as much as I can but until you live with a dog for a while, you don’t really know what they like to get into.

    I think dogs’ lives are already SO circumscribed, they’re really prisoners in our house – for their own safety of course, & the realities of urban living makes that a necessity for the most part. But I think because of that, we need to be extra careful to give them as much freedom to choose their space, their surfaces, their view as possible.

    I also don’t have a problem with dogs sleeping on people beds or on couches. None of my actually do with any regularity btw. One sometimes spends an hour or so on my feet but usually leaves to stretch on the floor as he likes to have more room.

    Oh yeah, & for those dogs that like to den? Easy. Provide a crate or many crates throughout the house, but leave the doors OFFf. If a dog REALLY loves their crate, they’ll choose to go in & rest on their own. But if at all possible they should be able to leave it & stretch their legs, investigate what’s at the window, lie down on a cool floor or over the heat register…..

    • Posted 28 February 2012 at 14:44 | Permalink

      Hi Hornblower. Fabulous points, as usual.

      The main objective of crate training for me is also as a humane way of not adding to the stress of transport or vet stays. It can be a useful management tool in the early stages of some training programmes though, like really damaging separation anxiety or when learning to be house-trained.

      Am not a big fan of confining a dog for hours on end, am really quite against it actually. Very good point, and thanks for putting more focus on this.

      On ‘ye ole bed debate’, I don’t feel very strongly about it either way. I am grateful that our entire 1st floor is off-bounds for the dog, as that’s one place we don’t have to worry about dog hair. We also like to have our own dog-free and kid-free space (my own bedroom). So it’s a comfort thing rather than a strong dogma for me.

      Our own dog had a crate for a long time, with the door constantly opened, and it was one of his favourite spots. But then again I’d conditioned the hell out of that, so not exactly a fair experiment ; P

  3. Posted 31 May 2012 at 19:16 | Permalink

    Thank you so much for the kind comments.

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