5 Keys to Crate Training Success
Written by master trainer Sam Ivy
Crate training is one of the pillars of the entire dog training process.
This is a step that cannot be skipped.
It’s one of the core elements of structure to put into place if you want your puppy to grow up to be a happy, well-behaved dog.
It’s a pity, then, that many owners can make some critical mistakes that disrupt your new dog’s ability to develop a good relationship with their crate time.
In this article, we’re going to go over 5 Keys to Crate Training Success that will improve the crate training process and ensure your success.
1. Your Attitude is the Most Important Part of the Process
Dogs are extremely intuitive creatures.
They can understand your attitude and mood better than they can understand your words. If you feel a particular way about something, they’re going to pick up on that energy.
If you treat something as negative, they will start to see it as negative.
A lot of people have negative ideas about crates. From our human perspective, we think the crate is a prison. We feel like we’re caging up our dogs.
A lot of people have guilt over getting their puppy to go into their crate.
Even worse, some people will actually use the crate as a way to punish their dogs. There is nothing worse you could possibly do in the training process! We can not stress enough just how bad this is.
This will not only mess up crate training, but the rest of your training in general.
Before we get into using crate training as a punishment - and why you should NEVER do it - let’s talk about the idea of the crate as a jail and the guilt people have about it.
Here’s something for you to keep in mind: wild dogs and wolves live in dens.
The not-so-distant ancestors of your very own puppy lived in dens.
Dogs naturally seek out these dark, enclosed spaces. It’s in their DNA. Left to their own devices, these are the places they would choose for themselves.
Just think about where your dog goes when they’re scared. If it’s thundering out, where do you find them? Usually under something - a bed, a chair, a table, even a sofa.
Even when they’re just sleeping, many dogs will seek out a place where they can hide under something.
They want to find their den. This is the kind of environment they are seeking.
A crate is better than most other places a dog can find in your house.
A crate with enclosed sides (rather than a simple grate) is the best. For some people who have ‘crates’ that are just wire, many owners find that placing a towel over the top and letting it drape down the sides works best.
Make it as much like a den as possible.
Allow this to become their safe place. Treat it like their safe place.
Whatever you do, under no circumstances should you ever use going into the crate as a punishment.
If you see it as a cage, it won’t matter that dogs normally want to find this kind of den. Your dog will sense that there’s something negative about it.
Even if they don’t know what the problem is, they’ll start to see it as you see it - as something bad.
Get excited about the crate.
Allow it to be your dog’s sanctuary.
2. Take Care How You Introduce the Crate to Your Dog
You know what they say about first impressions. The first few interactions your dog has with her new crate are the most important.
This might not make sense with what we just said about dogs seeking out these places, but here’s the thing: in a normal den, the whole family is there. A dog in a crate in a human household can easily feel isolated.
If we know anything about dogs, it’s that they don’t like to be kept from their pack.
If they feel isolated in the crate, that’s another negative feeling we want to avoid. We want the crate to be a sanctuary, not a prison.
Here’s what we tell our clients about introducing a puppy to a crate for the first time: it’s very important that you don’t just dump your puppy into their crate on the first day and leave them there for hours.
This is too many bad things happening at once.
They just left their old family and are getting to know their new family. They’re in a new environment. The rules are new.
None of the people or dogs from their old life are there to give them comfort or go through it with them. To some extent, they’re already on their own.
Now, imagine that you throw into the mix that you’re going to put them in their crate and just leave them there for hours at a time.
Their whole world has just been thrown upside down and now they’re all alone.
This is a bad experience and they’re going to associate that bad experience with the thing that isolated them - their crate.
What you want to do instead is introduce the crate slowly and deliberately.
Bring it into a place where most the family spends most of their time.
Leave it open.
Find out what kinds of toys they like the most. Buy some new toys of this type.
The first time you give them these new toys that match their personality, leave it in their crate.
Make it comfortable inside.
Sometimes this can mean putting in a dog bed or blankets, but that’s not always the case. Some dogs prefer to lay on the bare crate because it’s cooler. This is especially true of dogs built for cold climates, or during warmer weather.
When you feed them, feed them in the crate.
The crate becomes the place where they get all the nice things. It becomes a positive place.
As they get used to the crate, you can start closing the door behind them when they’re being fed. See how they react.
Take it slow.
As the weeks go on, you can close the door on them for longer and longer times.
If you have a puppy, be careful with this because they need to be taken outside often. The very last thing you want to happen is that they have a few accidents, and the crate becomes a place where they’ve gone to the bathroom before.
3. Be Mindful Where You Put the Crate
Keep in mind our theme of wanting the crate to be a good place.
One mistake people often make is that they keep the crate somewhere where the dog will be by themselves. A lot of times, this is in a bedroom, but the absolute worse place you can put their crate is in the garage.
This means that every time your dog goes in his crate, he’s alone. It’s somewhere he goes when he’s not allowed to be with the rest of the family.
When the crate is kept away from the family, the crate, itself, becomes associated with the feelings they get when they have separation anxiety.
It becomes a negative space.
Obviously, there will be times when she really will be alone in the crate, but you don’t want this to be the whole experience.
We always tell our clients to keep the crate in the area of the house where most people spend most of their time.
Keep it in the living room, if this is where you hang out.
Have your dog go into his crate in the living room while everybody is in the living room with him. This will allow him to be in his safe space without having to be separated from his pack.
4. Crates Need to be the Right Size
Most people make the mistake of getting a crate that’s too big for their dog.
This makes sense. They love their dog and don’t want them to be any more confined than they have to be.
They’re still operating under the feeling that the crate is a prison. They think, “Ok, if I have to put her into a prison, I’ll put her in a prison that’s as big as possible.”
The truth is that this defeats the entire purpose.
If the crate is too big, that allows the dog to sleep in one corner and poop in the other corner. That’s not going to help anything.
A crate should be exactly big enough so that the dog can stand up and turn around. When she stands up, she should be able to lift her head up fully. She should be able to lay down comfortably.
That’s exactly how big the crate should be. You don’t want it to be bigger than that.
If you just got a puppy that will grow up into a big dog, you may be wondering if this mean that you’ll need more than one crate to accommodate your dog as he grows up. You will. This is something that people don’t always think of at first.
For people who want to save money, we often suggest buying used small dog crates at the beginning. This is because your dog won’t need to be using them as long. It doesn’t need to be a fancy dog crate because it won’t be your dog’s forever home.
Alternatively, there are crates out there that come with dividers. This allows the same crate to grow with your dog as she gets bigger and bigger.
5. What To Do If Your Dog Doesn’t Like Their Crate
Every dog is different. When it comes to almost anything in dog training, there is going to be a lot of variation in how dogs handle it.
A lot of dogs love their crates immediately.
It’s a safe dark place. It reminds them of the dens they’re instinctually drawn to. It’s also a place they can retreat to if they’re overwhelmed.
Other dogs resist.
Even if you’ve done everything you can to make their crate a positive place, some dogs will not want to go in.
Every dog has a mind of their own, but some dogs are more determined than others to do whatever they want to do. They want to run around and be wild no matter what you have to say about it.
When these dogs are told to go into their crate, they may do the same thing young children do when they don’t get to do what they want - they throw a tantrum.
Just like a toddler might have a meltdown in the store if they don’t get the candy they want, your dog might have a tantrum if they have to go into their crate.
Just like with children, the key to dealing with a dog throwing a tantrum is to treat the behavior for what it is. It’s your dog having a fit because they’re not getting their way.
If your dog gets into his crate and starts whining and barking, the absolute worst thing you could do is let him out.
Do not give in!
If your dog starts whining and you let them out, they now know that whining gets them out of their crate.
Now you have a real problem on your hands.
From now on, your dog will persist in whining until he gets what he wants. He’ll bark and whine even more than before.
When you start your crate training, this is the most important part. If your dog is not happy with her crate, you need to hold the line.
Their feelings will resolve.
Dogs are adaptable creatures - she will acclimate to the situation she finds herself in. If you hold your ground, it won’t take long for her to get used to the crate. She’ll understand that this is where she is, and she has to make peace with it.
What we’ve found time and again is that even dogs that don’t like their crate in the beginning come to be very happy there eventually - it just takes them some time to get used to.
Here’s our recommendation: if you continue to run into serious problems with the crate training process, book a free consultation with one of our dog behavioral experts.
They can help you if it becomes especially challenging, and show you how keep crate time from turning into a big fight.
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