The Crate: Beyond Housetraining

The crate is one of the best behavior management tools, with benefits that extend way beyond potty training. The best way to teach a young dog to “hold it”, pending access to his potty area, is to place him in the crate.  Most dogs don’t want to soil that spot and adjust to it, even love it, with patience, planning, and diligence.  It can and should become a routine part of your dog’s day. Many situations occur when the crate can make life easier and keep your dog safe.

Many young puppies arrive in their new homes without a solid introduction to crate confinement.  At some point, you are likely to hear vocalizing and/or observe “let me out” behavior, such as raking at the door. Rather than bailing out on the crate, use a technique to gradually help your puppy adjust.  Newly landed puppies are working out an enormous and scary change:  an unfamiliar environment without the huddle of their litter mates. Dogs try many behaviors to learn what “works”. Only calm and quiet behaviors “make” the crate door open. During a dog’s adolescence, crate use helps interrupt emerging undesirable behaviors and prevents them from turning into habits.

Puppies may go into and out of their crates at will with the door open.  This is a good start, but it’s different when you ask them to go in or place them in.  Now confinement is on the human’s terms.  Feel free to place a safe chew toy in the crate with your dog. The safest and most appealing option is a stuffed Kong®.

A Chill Out and Safety Spot

For dogs who struggle to simply be still and bodily quiet, the crate can help develop this ability. Every dog has a threshold that, when crossed, results in unruly and mindless behavior. Low threshold dogs tend to have many triggers. It doesn’t take much commotion to stoke their fire. Some dogs are just busy. Routine use of the crate establishes times and a place where the dog settles. Extend crate time beyond bedtime and home alone.  Pre-empt over threshold behaviors by placing your dog in his crate before guests arrive.  Try a meet and greet after he has time to adjust to new people in the house.  He can chomp a chewy, take a snooze, or quietly observe household activities. Crate activity options are limited.

Fear-related behaviors can be interrupted and changed using a crate. It serves as a fearful dog’s safety spot. Fearful dogs look to their humans for protection and depend on us to keep them out of (what they perceive as) harm’s way.   Unfamiliar guests, kids’ playdates, and tradespeople in the house are scary for a fearful dog. Don’t set him up for an aggressive “keep your distance” display. Recognize his stress signals, teach him to go into the crate (preferably with a delicious stuffed toy), and ensure that no one encroaches upon his safety spot. 

Adapt to Home Alone

Many dog owners use the crate almost exclusively at night and during their absence. Dogs are very contextual, so such use makes bedtime and home alone time highly relevant in association with the crate. It isn’t surprising that often dogs reach a point when they’re reluctant to go in.

Routine crate use diminishes that relevance, because it carries no particular association. The dog is directed into his crate. So what? Dogs are social animals, so being alone can feel unnatural. Dogs are also highly adaptable. Hanging out in the crate with the family at home but out of sight helps your dog adapt to solitary time. Puppies and young dogs can go in and out of their crates numerous times during the day.

Crate use also helps with general independence training.  Your dog learns that he does not always have to solicit human attention to be engaged and relaxed.  No one wants to raise an attention hog.

Crate as Punishment?

This is a frequently-asked question. The crate is a metal object. It is OUR DEMEANOR that sets the dog up to perceive it as a punishment place. Sometimes undesirable behavior is permitted to go on past our patience breaking point. Dogs readily detect our escalating frustration, and it isn’t helpful in the heat of a situation. This pattern can turn the crate into a punishment place.

So….keep your cool. Few words are needed, only swift action – before human frustration sets in.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2018 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Behavior and Training LLC