Before adopting Micky, I did a lot of research on caring for a dog. I needed to know what I was getting into. Something I saw over and over — recommended by trainers and veterinarians alike — was: “crate train your dog!” They were all pretty emphatic about it.
My initial reaction was “ugh. I don’t want to put my dog in a cage!”. And I wasn’t alone, I talked to lots of people who felt the same way. Nevertheless, I decided to heed the experts’ advice, and I purchased a crate in preparation for his arrival. At the time, I wondered if we’d ever actually use it.
I clearly remember the day I brought him home. He was 11 pounds, and about 11 weeks old. He sat pretty still in my lap on the car-ride home, and was fairly calm — or so I thought — as I carried him into my home. I remember thinking that as soon as I put him down, he’d be scampering off, tail wagging, exploring his new environment. That didn’t happen. Far from it.
The first thing he did was crawl between the legs of a wooden dining room chair that had bars between the legs across the front and back, and he sat in there, very still, looking nervous. All the articles I read about crate training flashed in my mind… all of them stressed that dogs find comfort and feel safe in an enclosed space. It’s the first thing Micky sought when I brought him home, and I knew then and there that Micky’s crate would be much-used and important. Over time, I realized that giving a dog a crate was akin to giving a child a bedroom. It gives him a safe space that is all ‘his’.
Micky’s crate was a fixture in our home from that first day he came to live with me, until the day we said goodbye to him this past April. As a puppy, Micky was put into his crate for naps and bedtime, with the door closed. As an adult dog, the crate door was always open and he could use it as he wished. He frequently chose to sleep in his crate, voluntarily.
What are the benefits of crating?
When used properly, crates offer several benefits to both pups and owners. Let me start with what I learned on that very first day.
Crates can reduce your dog’s anxiety
Once your dog becomes used to her crate, it will become a place where she is comfortable and feels safe. This is especially valuable for pups who suffer from separation anxiety, or pups who get frightened by unavoidable elements like thunderstorms and fireworks. Micky’s crate was his ‘go-to’ spot when the weather got bad and on holidays that featured nearby firework displays.
This is especially important when situations arise that separate you from your pup… for example, if you travel and need to board your pup, or if your pup is ill and needs to spend time at a vet’s office or clinic. If your dog is accustomed to a crate, these separations are easier for him to bear.
Dogs are creatures of habit and thrive on a routine. Breaks in a routine can be incredibly stressful for your pup. And nothing screams ‘break in routine’ more than traveling. A crate can be a huge help if you travel with a pet… whether you’re flying or taking a road trip, whether you’re staying with family or in a hotel… a crate offers your pup his ‘safe place’ when everything else around him is unfamiliar.
Crates can help keep your dog safe
Puppies get into trouble. They get into things that they shouldn’t. And sometimes those things can harm them (not to mention destroy belongings you’d rather hang on to!). Until your pup outgrows that potentially harmful behavior, a crate can help keep her safe. It’s just not possible to have your eyes on your pup 24/7, and when you can’t, a crate can give you peace of mind.
Crates can help with housebreaking your pup
Dogs instinctively avoid soiling their immediate living area, so a crate can help you while house-training your pup. Regular crating can help you to establish a ‘potty-routine’ for your dog.
Most parents have found the ‘time-out’ to be a valuable tool in managing a young child’s behavior. Not intended to be a punishment, but rather to be a ‘decompression’ technique to calm a child down. The same principal can be applied to an excitable pup, by using a crate. It can provide a controlled environment for your pup to relax.
A crate can be a 'safe place' for your pup
Choosing the right crate and setting it up
As a first step, choose a crate that is appropriately sized for your dog. It should be large enough for your pup to comfortably stand up, turn around, and lay down. But you don’t want it to be much bigger than that or it loses the benefit of offering the safety of an enclosed space.
For Micky, I chose a wire crate that would be the right size for him when he was fully grown. That crate came with an insert that could be used to enclose just an area of it that was a better size for him when he was small. That insert was moved to expand the space as he grew, until he was full-grown and the full crate was the right size for him.
Place the crate in an ‘out-of-the-way’ spot where there’s not a lot of traffic or other distractions, and preferably where you can control the light. You will be using it to calm your dog down, or as a spot for him to sleep, so minimize noise and distractions to the extent that you can.
Make the crate comfortable. Put a dog bed in it, or line the floor with a comfortable blanket. Put some favorite toys in it. You might even consider throwing a blanket over it to block out light or distractions (Micky’s crate had a blanket over it that covered all sides except the front of the crate with the door).
Training your dog to love her crate
Start slow and proceed with patience! Once you’ve set the crate up, open the door and sit down next to it. You might throw a treat or two in it. Let your pup enter it on her own at first, and explore it a bit. Don’t close the door, yet. By starting with it voluntarily, this helps create a ‘positive association’ with the crate. In the beginning, do this a few times a day.
Feed your dog in the crate. Put down her food and water bowl in it, and again, sit next to it and let her voluntarily go in it to eat. This is easy to do if your pup is food-driven, which many are.
Choose a ‘cue’ word (like ‘room’ or ‘bed’) and use it every time your pup goes into the crate. This will be useful down the road because you can use the cue word to direct your pup to go to his crate.
Once your pup is voluntarily going into his crate and eating in there, start with short periods of confinement. Close the door, but stay nearby, and talk to your pup while he’s in there, to reassure him that all is well. Over time, lengthen the periods of confinement, and move further away. Do this gradually until your pup is comfortable being alone in his crate for more extended periods of time, with you not in the room.
If your pup whines or barks in the crate, do not let him out. If you do, he’ll quickly discover that whining or barking will get him released.
A dog trainer I worked with when Micky was a puppy suggested that once Micky was comfortable with his crate, I should use it frequently up until he was a year old. She suggested putting him in his crate a few times a day for naps and at night for bed. She said that after a year, I could make his crate completely voluntary and let him choose where to sleep. That’s what I did, and it worked well for us.
Every dog is different, however, and will adjust differently to training. You’ll need to see what schedule and routine works well for your pup and for you. The important thing is to get your pup comfortable in a crate. That will have so many benefits throughout his life.
Jane Gennarelli is co-editor of LNF Weekly. She also edits the Lavaca & Friends weekly arts and entertainment newsletter.
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