A crate is a place to confine a dog. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you’re using it.
Confinement can be a very effective management tool in a larger training plan. Crating is often the easiest way to prevent reinforcement for unwanted behavior while you’re shaping up all the acceptable alternatives: A puppy in a crate can’t be peeing on your floor or chewing up your couch, and an untrained adult dog can’t be bowling over visitors or surfing the counters as you cook. A secured crate is one of the safest ways to transport a dog in a car. A dog who can relax in a crate has more options in life—he can participate more easily in dog sporting events or workshops, will be more welcome in unfamiliar homes and hotels, and may feel more comfortable staying at the vet, groomer, or kennel.
But overconfinement can contribute to a host of problems, including hyperactivity and (not surprisingly) anxiety about the prospect of being confined. Dogs with preexisting separation anxiety often panic more if crated. What constitutes overconfinement is up to the dog to some extent, but as a general rule, I don’t advocate crating without a significant and enriching break for more than four hours at a time.
And whatever you may have heard or read about dogs being “den animals”—a common contention that there is little evidence to support—most dogs will need to be taught to enjoy being crated for even that long.
You may have noticed that I don’t often offer explicit training “recipes” in this column. That’s because successful training is in large part about how you set and adjust your criteria—the training steps should be calibrated to the individual dog. But here are some guidelines and techniques that have worked well in my experience.
Where to Put the Crate
Most dogs like to be around their people, so right off the bat, a crate in a well-trafficked area will probably be more appealing to the dog than one that’s isolated. For new puppies, who are often confined overnight to help with housetraining, you might want two crates: one in the main living area and one in your bedroom.
Meals in the Crate
For most dogs, any place dinner is served can’t be all bad. Feed your dog in the crate, with the door open initially. Consider feeding out of a Kong or puzzle toy to extend the time spent in the crate and provide the opportunity to forage, a natural behavior considered enriching for dogs.
To increase a new dog or puppy’s comfort with being in the crate alone, you can begin to step away a little as he is engaged in eating. Come back while he’s still chowing down.
The Party Box
Many crate-training tutorials advocate leaving the crate open all the time so that the dog can explore it freely. Problem is, unless the crate has been rigged (say, with extra comfy bedding studded with hidden treats) to be much more appealing than all the other locations where a dog can relax, many won’t seek it out in favor of the couch, a dog bed, or even just the floor.
So we can use a bit of reverse psychology. The crate is full of tantalizing goodies, but the dog can’t just walk in and get them. He actually has to “ask” to be let in.
- Generously sprinkle kibble or treats into the closed crate.
- Let the dog sniff and paw at the crate. When he comes around to the door, open it for him.
- The instant he sticks so much as a nose inside, say “yes” (or click, if you’re using a clicker) and then start a party, rapidly dropping more treats through openings at the sides and back of the crate for 15-30 seconds.
- As the dog is finishing up, place one more treat outside the crate. When the dog comes out to get it, wait quietly.
- With not much happening outside the crate, many dogs will reinvestigate, if not outright walk back into, the crate. The instant the dog sticks his nose past the doorway, start the party again. The food is now becoming contingent on moving into the crate.
- If the dog doesn’t investigate the crate at all, repeat the first steps until he begins to do so.
- Close the door between sessions.
Building the Behavior
When the dog is reliably heading back into the crate without bait, you can begin to wait for more than a nose in before starting the party. I usually use a clicker for precision in letting the dog know what the current criterion is: initially a paw or two, then all four paws, then all four paws for a few seconds, then turning around in the crate, then sitting or lying down.
At this point, you can switch to giving the dog a Kong or puzzle toy to work on independently. Unless your dog is a puzzle master, it should be easy for him to get food out of the toy at first—the main goal here is that he still gets lots of reinforcement, just not from you. The toy can even be tied to the inside of the crate so that it can only be enjoyed by staying put.
From here, you can add steps like closing the door briefly, closing the door for longer, moving away, leaving the room, and leaving the house. These are stages where it’s especially important to watch an individual dog’s responses and adjust your plan accordingly. A qualified trainer can help you set criteria and troubleshoot as needed.
You can also add a cue at this stage if you like—though opening the crate door has already become one.
And in the meantime, don’t forget to teach your dog what you want him to do when he’s not confined. The more effort you devote to that, the less you’ll need to rely on the crate.