A guide to crate training
by Kate Mallatratt A Dip CBM, ICB, PPG, Canine Behaviourist
As the owner of a Golden Retriever with a cruciate ligament injury I know only too well how quickly an unsupervised dog can cause further damage with a sudden twist or explosion of movement. But no owner can watch their convalescing pet 24/7 and to enjoy a speedy recovery back to full health they must be well managed to avoid such set-backs. Thankfully, crate confinement can help prevent further injury.
Advantages of crate training
Aside from post-operative or injury recovery management, crates are excellent for supporting behaviour modification training and for daytoday care. Family and friends can inadvertently reward unwanted behaviour, such as begging for tit-bits from the table or jumping up to greet people, which can be avoided if a dog is crated at these times. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act owners can be prosecuted if their dogs are unruly in their own homes and for everyone’s peace of mind if your visitor doesn’t love ‘man’s best friend’, please crate your dog. Crates are handy when visiting friends, or when in hotels with restrictions such as no dogs allowed on the bed or in the dining area.
Children can learn to respect a dog’s space by leaving him alone when he is settled in a crate. Crates can help with housetraining too, as puppies will not usually soil their bed, and are ideal for safe car travel and for managing multidog households. Most importantly, crates provide a ‘go to’ place of safety in the home that a dog can call his own.
Turning to practical considerations, size and placement of a crate needs careful thought. When buying a crate, an adult dog should have room to comfortably stand up, turn around and have enough space to lie in a lateral recumbency, with access to water and a comfortable bed. Site the crate in a quiet spot in the home with three sides covered to reduce light streaming in and to minimise visual stimulation. A dog who is constantly watchful cannot easily rest, and this is especially true of sight hounds and border collies who fixate on movement.
The correct sized crate situated in the right place supports good quality sleep, which is essential for normal body functioning. The amount of sleep needed varies considerably between species: the average dog spends nearly ten hours in quiet non-REM sleep and around three hours in active REM sleep in any one day while puppies sleep for up to sixteen hours. Dogs recuperating from illness and elderly dogs require more, and some drugs such as benzodiazepines will affect sleep patterns. If the room is too well lit at night this may disturb bedtime as there is less efficient production of melatonin, an important hormone that helps maintain circadian rhythm, and one cause is light pollution from switches on electric appliances.
How to train considerately
Crate training requires a structured plan, preferably from puppyhood, taught with positive reinforcement. A reinforcer is anything that maintains or strengthens a behaviour, such as food, toys or play. When first introducing a crate, it is vital that a dog feels emotionally comfortable in his crate to enable him to settle. Dogs are sentient beings and through emotional classical conditioning anything that has been sufficiently paired with strong feelings, both positive and negative, has potential emotional consequences.
Owners should open the crate door so the puppy investigates on his own. Choice is a powerful reinforcer, and will encourage further exploration. Place a plug-in diffuser by the crate such as Pet Remedy, which enhances the production of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, or Adaptil, which mimics comforting speciesspecific pheromones. According to trainer Jo-Rosie Haffenden from The School of Canine Science, crates should be filled with food and toys and the door closed to prevent access, to ignite a puppy’s curiosity. With an eagerness to explore, the puppy will ‘ask’ to go in and the door into his good
ie-filled den can be opened.
Before increasing the training criteria, evaluate the puppy’s level of comfort with some key questions. Does he remain settled in the crate if you open the door? Does he settle if you close the door, or ask to come out? If so, let him out and then add more ‘yummies’ to the crate, close the door and wait until he asks to go back in. When he begins to settle inside his crate with the door closed, start to leave him alone for a few moments, potter around the room and then return, gradually building up the time he spends alone. If a puppy is always left with exciting things to do, this sets him up for future successful home-alone training.
Mealtimes are fabulous training opportunities and stuffed KongsTM or other interactive feeders may be placed inside the crate. For dogs who remove KongsTM, thread a knotted rope through one end and tie the KongTM to the crate bars. These interactive feeders increase the time a dog spends eating and provide puzzle solving opportunities, which are tiring and encourage post-prandial relaxation. Treats can be folded into towels, hidden in fleece rugs such as Snufflemats®, or tucked inside fabric training mats like PickPockets, and placed inside a crate too. Foraging is an innate behaviour that engages the brain’s seeking circuit - about one eighth of the brain is dedicated to olfaction and a dog’s sense of smell is at least 10,000 better than ours. Nose work is therapeutic, and a powerful management tool.
Not everyone is in favour of crate confinement, however, with some owners and animal welfare groups having concerns on compassionate grounds. In Finland and Sweden, crates must be a minimum size and crating a dog for non-essential reasons is illegal and considered animal abuse.
On the other hand, in the USA crating for hours at a time when owners are at work is generally more accepted, according to New York canine behaviourist Tori Ganino of Calling All Dogs. Having advised clients on serious behaviour issues arising from long periods of confinement, she expresses strong opposition to this practice adding that owners should find better alternatives such as a good doggy day care or dog walker. In the UK crating for long periods is frowned upon, although no law exists to govern this. Under normal circumstances, around two hours is the maximum time a dog or puppy should be confined without good medical reason, with puppy pens or baby gates being better for longer periods.
As a young puppy Molly, a delightful and inquisitive Portuguese Water Dog, refused to go in her crate and would lean in on her tiptoes to reach for her dinner. One explanation was that the metal base rattled when she walked on it, frightening her. Molly’s owner, Alison Eastland, called me for help when Molly was 14 weeks old.
Firstly, to minimise noise, a towel was placed under metal base to reduce any rattle. Three sides of the crate were covered with a blanket, and familiar toys were placed in there. With the door left open, Molly could explore.
Molly’s feeding times were enriched with stuffed KongsTM, and throughout the day foraging skills were built. Molly initially enjoyed these activities outside her crate, to avoid any negative association with crate confinement. When interactive feeders were placed inside her crate, Molly happily entered and the time she spent there was gradually increased. Her bed was also sprayed with Pet Remedy.
Molly now loves her ‘bedroom’, running to her crate in anticipation of her dinner, happily playing and choosing to sleep in there. Meanwhile, Alison continues to build solid foundations for the future by positively reinforcing her crate time to ensure that Molly continues to enjoy it.
Puppy Molly enjoying her crate
The fallout of poor training
A sudden need to confine a dog due to injury can be fraught with difficulties if crate training has not been taught positively in the lead up to illness. Removed from his siblings and isolated in a new environment, an anxious and bewildered puppy is frequently shut in a crate in the kitchen on the first night. Not only is this his first introduction to being alone, but also to being confined. Over subsequent days the negative feelings of being crated can stack if the puppy is only shut in at night, confined when owners go out in the day, put away for ‘time outs’ when displaying unwanted behaviour such as chewing, when over-exuberant or when ‘naughty’. With nothing to do in the crate, it quickly becomes a place of incarceration.
Crates are not places to confine dogs that suffer from separation anxiety or who are destructive when left alone, as the root causes need addressing. A puppy should not be left in a crate to bark or cry, either. These behaviours, which are often reinforced with attention, verbal reprimands or being let out, are signs the training has progressed too quickly. Good crate training should leave a dog happy to spend time there and indeed my own English Springer Spaniel pulls his crate door open and takes himself off for a snooze.
Returning to my Golden Retriever’s rehab, she is now on her way to full recovery with careful management and increased use of her crate. Having been crate trained as a puppy, she is perfectly content being confined with her teddy bear friends, licking out stuffed KongsTM at mealtimes, foraging in a Pickpocket or gnawing on raw marrow bone and the use of her crate has, thankfully, made her convalescence easier and minimised the risk of further setbacks.
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2. Mercola, J (2010). Want a good night’s sleep? The never do these things before bed. Available from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/10/02/ secrets-to-a-good-night-sleep.aspx 3. Beaver, B V DVM (1999). Canine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians. WB Saunders Company.
4. Landsberg, G et al (2003 second edition). Handbook of Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat. Elsevier.
5. Haffenden, J R (2015). Training your puppy to love his crate. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPheiar_6k0
Kate Mallatratt is a founder member of International Canine Behaviourists and member of Pet Professional Guild for force-free training. She is author of Home Alone – and Happy! and has worked in television as assistant animal trainer for Plimsoll Productions. Kate holds an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour Management and her area of special interest is errorless learning, a concept she incorporates into problem prevention, behaviour modification and enriching the home environment for the family dog.
Kate has owned and trained dogs for many years and runs her behaviour and training business, Contemplating Canines, in East Devon, UK.