Monday, September 19, 2011

Good Things Come To Those Who Crate

Question: What is one of the most useful things you can teach your dog to like? If you answered "being in a crate” you get a big crunchy dog treat!
I love crates.  
Crates allow us to leave a young dog at home without having to worry that he is eating our electric cords (or cool red swivel chair) while unsupervised.
Crates allow us to house train a puppy (or an older dog) easily, clearly, and humanely.
Crates give our dogs a safe haven-a place to go without concern that another dog or the family cat will invade their space.
Crates are especially useful if you have a shy or timid dog; one that is afraid of visitors or children. Or perhaps for those times when Aunt Alice, who is not fond of dogs (and may actually secretly fear them) pops in for coffee. A crate is also a wonderful place to safely park a dog who is in training, to avoid his practicing undesired behaviors (jumping, charging the door when the bell rings, etc.)
But isn’t a crate a little cage-like? Won’t my dog feel claustrophobic?
If your dog has never seen a crate before, and you pop him into one with no warning, the answer is probably a resounding YES!
He needs time to adjust and learn that crates are good places to be in. This means that crates are never used as punishment and are never used to confine a dog all day long while you are at work. 
Don't get me wrong. I am a big believer in confining dogs to appropriate spaces-if you must confine your dog while you are at work there are other options, some of which I will get into later. The bottom line is, a dog who would otherwise panic when left home alone can sometimes tolerate this state if he is left in an appropriate space and not left to his own devices.
Consider this as well- your dog may one day need medical care. Overnight stays at the vet hospital guessed it... crating (where it is called something else yet again, but it is essentially crating)  
What is a crate? 
Plastic crate
Some are wire (my dog's personal preference) and some are a combination of hard plastic with a wire door. Some are made of fabric and are collapsible and portable. The fabric crates are for dogs who…well…let’s put it like this; my Stoli (a Siberian husky) once chewed his way through a fabric crate in just under five seconds. Know your dog before choosing the material for your crate. Some dogs prefer a darker space, some are better with the more open wire type of crate and some types are not appropriate for your dog at all (in our case, fabric crates)
Why do they work? 
Wild canids, as a rule, generally seek out dens.  A den provides a means to avoid predators and  provides a safe shelter (sound familiar?)
Think of this; if you grew up during the era that I did, it was not uncommon for homes with dogs to have a litter of pups from time to time. These dogs usually chose a closet or the dark quiet spot under a bed to give birth. After the pups were born, the nursing mother licked each puppy, stimulating it to eliminate (in fact, newborn pups must have this stimulation in order to eliminate-remember this if you are asked to bottle feed any orphaned puppies-of course, you are free to use a soft warm wet cloth for this purpose) the end product which she then consumes (you can skip this part as well!) The result: a clean "den". In fact, most dogs given a properly set up environment will not eliminate in their sleeping area, making a crate the perfect merge of natural canine behavior and house training.
A fox prepares to enter her den
Exceptions to this:
Puppies from pet stores, dogs left crated for too long, crates that are too large, or dogs with medical conditions.  
A pup and his makeshift "den"
Pet store pups have no choice but to eliminate in their cage (I use cage here because the purpose of the enclosure is to contain the dog on a full-time basis) sometimes making the transition to a crate difficult. The key to success with this type of dog is to crate for very small increments of time, taking the dog out to your preferred potty place at least 

once an hour during the day and at least every three hours at night.  With consistency, your dog’s natural dislike of  eliminating in his sleeping area will hopefully kick in.
Dogs should never be crated for more than four hours at a time (with the exception of night-time for adult dogs only)  Anything more than this is too much. Puppies are in a class of their own- they have not yet developed sufficient control over their bladder or sphincter to sleep all night in a crate without soiling. Yes, this means YOU getting out of bed in the wee hours to let your puppy out (try to keep in mind how cute and adorable your pup is and how soon this stage will pass as you stumble out of bed)
Crates that are too large will allow the dog to eliminate in a corner, defeating the purpose of crating (not soiling his sleeping area) The crate should be just large enough for the dog to stand up and turn around in. Most crates come with inserts to use just for this purpose.
Of course, your first step in determining why your adult dog cannot hold his bladder/bowels is your veterinarian, right? Yes-it is.  Especially in the case of a dog who has a long history of perfect elimination habits. Do not let well-meaning people convince you that your dog is doing this out of spite. Dogs do not defecate/urinate out of spite. I don’t care what anyone tells you-they don’t. Period.
Wire crate
How to teach your dog that crates are awesome
Start with the crate on a non-wobbly surface (trust me-test this BEFORE your dog tries to enter) with the door open (remove the door, if possible) Lay some little treats around the exterior opening. Let your pup eat them. That’s it.
Lay a treat just inside. Let your pup sniff and explore and eat the treats. That’s it.
Toss a treat inside. Then out. Then in, then out until your pup is happily going IN. Add the word “In” as he goes in and “Out” as he goes out. That’s it.
Place his food in the crate. Let him go in and eat. Then come out.
Place his food in the crate and close the door. When he is finished, open the door.
In other words, make the transition gradual and reward him for staying inside. I am purposely not giving a timeline or formula because each dog is different. Go at your dog's pace. If he is uncomfortable, take a step back to where he was comfortable and stay there a bit. When he is okay with being in the crate with the door closed and alone, you may also add some soft background music, or a talk radio station playing quietly.
Rituals are good
I have a nighty-night ritual. Dogs who go into their crate get a nice cookie or yummy treat when they go “in” at bed time. If I must crate a dog during the day (and I do this periodically even when not necessary just to keep things fresh) they get a stuffed Kong or a special chewie to work on.

What can I use instead of a crate?
If your dog is small, you can use an ex-pen. Another option is to designate and dog-proof a room. You can supplement this by hiring a dog walker to come in during the day to give your dog a nice break.
Make good use of baby gates and place delicate items out of reach. Think child-proofing. You wouldn't say "Well, my toddler should know better and stay out of the cleaning products because I TOLD her to! Just who is in charge here?!"  right? Of course not. You would place latches on doors and baby-proof your home. Yes, you must do this for your dog, yes, even if the dog you had before this one never ever got into anything he was not supposed to unless you gave him permission to. You either got lucky or time has gently erased all of the adjustment period you had with that dog away.

Finally, keep in mind that being alone is not a natural state for a dog to be in. Some dogs can and do adjust to being alone-many others do not. Dogs are individuals, just like people are. My oldest son could be trusted to responsibly cross a street when he was 5. My daughter was 10 before I let her cross a street without a walkie-talkie (this was before 10 year olds had cell phones)
Finally, a dog who chews furniture, drywall, electric cords, and the like when left alone is simply trying to soothe himself. He may be bored, teething, anxious, or just plain having doggie fun. He is not "trying to get back at you for leaving him alone"
Dogs just do not have that brainpower and we should be grateful they don't. If they did, we would all be in BIG trouble.

Happy Training!

Crates made to look like furniture
Best variety
Example of a dog-proofed home
Kikopup's "Teach Your Small Dog To Love Going In A Purse" (same concepts used to teach crate training-for those visual learners out there!)