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Crate Training Problems

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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If properly introduced and properly employed, your dog's crate can become its favorite resting place and retreat. Many owners erroneously assume that a crate is just something you have around during a puppy's first few weeks at home to assist with housebreaking. But crates are far more versatile and valuable than this and should really be a lifelong feature.

Dogs are den dwellers by nature and if you give away their crate once they're housetrained they will find other small spaces in which to sequester themselves when they feel like getting away from it all. Why deprive them of their original den and enforce them to hunker down under a coffee table instead? It just doesn't make sense.

Good Things About Crates

  • They are den-like and can provide the dog a place of security and comfort.

  • They serve as the dog's own personal space (like a teenager's own room, away from the family).

  • When traveling, crates provide safety for you and your dog. Also, some hotels require that dogs be crated.

  • Anxious dogs with borderline separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia may elect to go into their crate as a safe haven, especially when their owner is not around (Note: the door should be left open).

    Crate training should begin the moment you bring the young pup home. As you walk in the door, pup in arms, the crate should be there, properly equipped, as a retreat for the youngster from that day forward. If the pup's acclimation to his new crate is performed thoughtfully and patiently, there is no reason that your pup's crate should not become its friend for life. However, if mistakes are made at this critical time, a puppy and, then later the grown up dog, can come to loath and detest this small space that should have become his home.

    Mistakes That Make a Crate Aversive

  • Forcing a pup to go inside a crate when he doesn't want to.

  • Having a crate that is too small for a large pup so that he is physically restricted.

  • Having a bleak interior to the crate (no blankets, no toys, and no treats).

  • Leaving the pup in the crate for too long at a stretch or for too long over a 24-hour cycle.

  • Using the crate as a place of punishment ("time out" in the crate).

    The Result of Crate Aversion

    If a crate has been rendered aversive to a pup by any one of the means listed above, he will not want to go inside it, will complain when confined, and may injure himself in frantic attempts to escape. In addition, a pup that is confined in a crate too long may be forced to urinate or defecate inside it. Once the sanctity of the crate is defiled in this way, it may no longer be a useful tool for housetraining. Pups can't tell you if you are doing something to them that they vehemently deplore, so instead they act out their grief. The behaviors we see in crate-aversive dogs are, to owners, crate-training problems. They are:

  • Pups acting aggressively, nipping or biting as you try and shove them into the crate.

  • Protest barking after you have shut the door, or may scratch frantically in futile attempts to escape.

  • Biting the door of the cage in angst.

  • More passive dogs, rather than acting out in the ways listed above, internalize and displace their thwarted emotions by either a) licking either the inside of the crate or themselves, b) turning in small circles within the crate (if space allows) or c) eating their own excreta.

    All these problems appear to be diverse but, in fact, are all caused by the fact that the pup was not properly acclimated to its crate or that the crate was abused by the pup's owner, rendering it aversive to the pup.

    The Solution

    As usual, prevention is better than cure, but the way forward is similar in both instances:

  • Make the crate a comfortable and cozy place with padded bedding for the dog to lie on. Use bumpers around the side of the crate for the pup to lean on, and place a cover over the top if the crate is made of wire to add that den-like dimension.

  • Make sure the crate is large enough for the dog to be able to stand up and wide enough for him to be able to turn around.

  • Feed the pup progressively closer to the open door of the crate, eventually putting the food bowl just inside the crate so that he has to put his head and shoulders inside to eat.

  • Hide food treats under the padding of the crate and enrich the interior with favorite chew toys.

  • Once the pup has overcome its immediate fear of being near the crate, you can try confining him for short periods of time, say, 5 minutes, immediately after he has finished a burst of highly energetic play and is due to rest. Stay with him and talk to him so he knows he is not alone.

  • Slowly increase the time for which the pup can be enclosed in the crate from 5 to 15 minutes but stay with him and/or have the crate in the same room (15 minutes is a useful period of time to confine the pup for housetraining following an unsuccessful outside "bathroom run").

  • At all other times the crate door should be open and the crate should be enriched in the way described so the pup is free to come and go as he pleases.

    Other Problems

    Pups that are properly acclimated to their crate may still have crate-related problems that are not due to crate aversion. The first of these is non stress-related urination or defecation within the crate.

    An overly large crate may be a contributing factor here. If an owner confines a tiny Parson Russell-sized pup in a massive, large dog crate, the pup can adopt one end of the crate for sleeping and the other for elimination (i.e. it can get away from its mess). Elimination within the crate thus arises because of relative oversize of the crate. While it is important that crates are not too small, they should also not be too big either. Simply fulfilling the minimum requirements for height, width, and length is the way to go, so that the pup is obliged to hold its urine and feces for fear of soiling the area in which it stands. Keeping the nest clean is a natural behavior for pups. However, if thoughtless humans confine the pup for too long this natural tendency will be overcome. The latter situation is not a puppy problem or crate problem, it is an owner problem.

    Another problem that can develop in time is over-protectiveness of the crate. If an owner has done too good a job at acclimating their pup to a crate but has not done a particularly good job at setting limits and conveying their leadership, some pups may become aggressive (barking, bearing teeth, and so on) when their owner approaches the crate or tries to take them out of the crate. A leadership program conducted by the owners will help to alleviate this situation and it may be necessary to move the position of the crate, or even to deny the dog access to it for a while, until the owner's authority is increased.

    Conclusion

    It is well worthwhile spending a little time acclimating a puppy to its crate after its arrival in its new home. Problems related to crate training should be identified early, carefully thought out, and be worked out and/or circumvented. Forcing the issue is never an option as it will tend to make matters worse. Instead, patience and understanding of the pup's concerns are of paramount importance. Perseverance wins the penny. Consider this: There are four things that a new puppy owner should ensure for their dog-to-be to stand it in good stead for the rest of its life. The first is proper veterinary care, the second is some element of training and limit setting, the third is neutering of dogs not intended for breeding, and the fourth is to provide constant access to a crate. "A crate for life" should be the dog owner's maxim.

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