A Trainer's Truth About Crates
A Trainer's Truth About Crates
Photographs by Nate Lam|
Q: I keep hearing about how crates are so great, but… I wouldn’t want to sit around in a cage, so why would I want to put my dog in one?
A: Prison or cozy retreat? It all depends on perspective and on how you use the crate. Dogs have a natural denning instinct, normally preferring safe, enclosed quarters for their naps. In the wild, a den is a secure place to get some shut-eye without becoming someone else's meal.
If a dog is properly introduced to a crate as a young pup he will view it as a safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the house (and away from any pesky children!)—a place for peace and quiet and serious snoozing. When wild dogs aren’t looking for food, trying to mate, or taking care of young, they are resting up to save energy for those key, life-sustaining activities. Most domestic dog owners are surprised to learn that wild dogs spend up to 16 hours a day sleeping! Rest periods in snug quarters are a natural part of caring for our dogs’ needs.
But… dogs have many other needs that crates interfere with. Dogs are social animals; they require interaction with other dogs or people. They also need exercise, mental stimulation, and appropriate “potty” opportunities. So, while some time spent in a crate is usually a positive element of dog rearing, too much time spent in a crate can have disastrous consequences.
Choosing a crate
Crates come in a variety of sizes and materials. The two most common models are plastic, such as those required for airplane transport, and collapsible metal wire crates. Provided they are of adequate size (see below), either model will serve equally well as dual-purpose den and training tool. The bottom can be covered with a blanket or thick towel for warmth and comfort. Fleece-covered foam dog beds make for an even cozier cave, but can only be used with non-destructive types; “piranha” puppies will make a mess out of them!
Plastic crates are often preferable for small breeds since they are compact enough to use in the car, and can be opened (most models split into a top and bottom half) and used as snug, high-sided doggie beds once the little one is fully housetrained. Collapsible metal crates are often more practical for large breeds since they can more easily be sectioned off into appropriately-sized spaces during housetraining, and are easier to store. (But if you ever plan to travel by air with your dog, you will need an approved, hard-sided plastic crate regardless.) Any small safe space, such as a beanbag chair tucked away in a corner with a low ceiling or a comfy duvet bunched up between your desk and the wall, can function as a cozy den for the fully housetrained dog with no behavioural “issues” necessitating confinement when unsupervised.
The crate as housetraining tool
Crates are virtually essential for any dog that isn’t yet housetrained. When of appropriate size, it serves as a comfortable, den-like bedroom, something almost all dogs naturally want to keep free of urine and feces. Any crate you use, for whatever purposes, must always be large enough for the puppy or dog to stand up without having to hunch, to lie on his side with legs outstretched, and turn around with ease. But a crate used for housetraining should be no bigger than this, or the dog will have space enough for both a bedroom and a bathroom.
If the crate is of the right size, the dog is pretty well guaranteed to want to take a pee (and maybe a poop as well) when he comes out; so a swift trip outdoors will give him the opportunity to practise doing his business in the right place. In turn, this gives you the opportunity to congratulate him with a walk, game or treat—the perfect housetraining scenario. Used properly, a crate can theoretically lead to a puppy’s never having an “accident” in the house!
The crate as chewtoy habit facilitator
Chewtoy (not shoetoy) fixations are good. And the crate is a fabulous tool for turning any dog into a chewtoy addict. A food-stuffed chewtoy such as a Kong, or a Nylabone with some drilled holes filled with wet dog food, low-fat cream cheese or any other wholesome filling, or a filled kibble dispenser will keep a pup busy for hours. If he isn’t ready for a nap when you put him in, he will be after working away on a well-stuffed chewtoy for a while. Chewtoys keep dogs physically and mentally stimulated and are a wonderful substitute for hunting. Remember: those wild dogs sleep up to16 hours a day because they are working really hard during the other 8 hours! Give your dog lots of chewtoy hunting projects—a tired dog is a happy dog. (But be sure to decrease regular mealtime calories accordingly.)
The crate and the time-out
Yes, you can use a crate for time-outs without causing “crate-hate.” Do you like your bedroom? Sure you do—even if you don’t want to be there on a Friday night. Your dog can like his crate too, even if he doesn’t want to be there while scheming to scam some chicken off the dining room table. Crates are okay for time-outs, because it isn’t the crate that is punishing… it is the loss of freedom in the middle of fun times that is punishing (see my Summer 2004 article for more on rewards and punishment). The same reasoning extends to children: they can be sent to their room as a consequence for misbehaviour without learning to fear or hate their room. Your dog will only become afraid of his crate if bad things happen while he is in there—so never scold him while he is inside. Time-outs don't need to be long; 30 seconds to 3 minutes is plenty. And don’t forget to give your Cool Hand Luke a clean slate once he’s done his time… no grudge-holding allowed!
The crate as management tool
The crates is also a terrific tool for the overall management of dogs. Trainers will often divide the plan for fixing a behaviour problem into two components, training and management. Training is where you actively work on correcting a problem—like teaching Lola to sit to greet guests at the door instead of jumping up or goosing them. Management is where you avoid the situation altogether—like crating her with a stuffed chewtoy when the doorbell rings so that she is physically unable to jump on the pizza delivery man—because you are not ready for a training session at that particular moment. With young puppies we use the crate to manage a whole raft of anticipated problems, such as destructive chewing, nipping at young children, and housesoiling, when unable to supervise them properly. While crated they may not be learning all of the good habits we want to teach them, but at least they aren’t reinforcing any bad ones.
How long is too long?
A good rule of thumb is that a dog can be crated overnight and for up to half the day, provided his social and physical needs are being met while not in the crate. Young puppies need more frequent naps and much more frequent opportunities to “do their business” than adults. A good estimate of how long a pup can wait before needing to relieve himself is as many hours as he is months old, plus one. So a three-month-old pup can manage for about four hours. Overnight he can usually hold a bit longer, usually about 1.5 times the daytime maximum—about six hours for a three-month-old. But don't forget that puppies need to be thoroughly socialized before they are five months old—so those hours awake and out of the crate are very precious for socialization!
How to introduce a dog to a crate
Puppies are introduced to crates quite easily by tossing food-stuffed chewtoys inside when they are hungry and letting them work away while someone familiar is nearby. Gradually they can be left on their own with the door closed, and many will readily go to their crate voluntarily for naps or in the hopes that a stuffed chewtoy will miraculously appear. Adult dogs without any crate experience can be trained to like a crate in the same manner, but it may take longer; and the guidance of a pet behaviour counsellor is sometimes required if the dog is anxious about entering. A great trick for dogs of all ages is to lock dinner inside the crate until poochie is throwing a major tantrum wanting to go inside… then you can open the door and let him in for a yummy meal. He probably won’t even notice when you close the door.
What if he is whining to come out?
The only whining that should successfully elicit crate door-opening services with a puppy is if puppy needs to pee. If you aren't sure, take puppy out of the crate very matter-of-factly and place him outside. (Carry the puppy instead of allowing him to meander at his own speed.) If he produces, it was legitimate. If he doesn't, he goes back in the crate for half an hour… he was just whining to come out, and needs to learn another way of asking (like sitting quietly). The other exception is if the puppy or dog has an anxiety problem such as fear of crates, separation anxiety, or fear of noise in the environment. If this is the case, seek the help of a professional trainer or behaviour counsellor. Otherwise, the rule of thumb for crate whiners or barkers is that they need to be quiet for at least three minutes straight before they get let out. Otherwise, they are learning that whining and barking works—and then who is training whom?