I am a big fan of crates, even though the amount I use them with my own dogs is minimal. My dogs are out in the house while we are gone as they can all be trusted together and they won’t get into anything (usually), but it is still extremely important that all dogs can be comfortable being crated. There are so many times this can come into play – when driving in the car, if they have to be left at the vet’s office, if they are boarded, or, for my dogs, if they are at an agility/rally trial or show.
The biggest use I get out of crates at home is for foster dogs. Foster dogs are new to our house and our other dogs – they don’t know what the house rules are and there’s certainly the chance a skirmish could happen with a strange dog if we leave them with our other animals unsupervised. In Garth’s case, I am pretty confident he would be fine with the other dogs but he likes to chew things and who knows what he could find lying around if no one is there to supervise him! Garth is also very nervous around strangers, so the crate can be used as a “safe place” to put him when people come over so he doesn’t get caught up in the chaos of new people coming into the house and he can take a break when he is getting overwhelmed.
Well unfortunately, Garth did not agree that the crate was such a great idea.
The poor guy had spent the last couple of months cooped up in a kennel and he was very enthusiastic about his hatred of the crate. This guy has a pretty good sad face, and even better miserable “woe is me” crying noises.
A dog that is upset in his crate is not fun for anyone – the dog is obviously sad and we all have to listen to his pitiful whines. Garth’s initial reaction to the crate was so bad he wouldn’t go anywhere NEAR it so we had a lot of work to do. We are lucky, since Chris works from home, so we never really had to leave Garth alone in the crate for a long period of time before he was ready. We could start small and build up and in the meantime we left him in the bedroom uncrated when we had to go somewhere – he wasn’t thrilled about being left alone either but he got over that without much fuss.
A couple of valuable resources for me in my understanding of how to teach a dog to love their crate are Crate Games and Kikopup’s guide on training your dog to be alone. Both of these teach the dog the crate is a GREAT place to be and add in some self-control training. My initial goal with Garth was just to get him to enjoy going in the crate at all, so we had to start a little farther back than Crate Games (the dog has to at least be willing to go in the crate at the start of that program).
I am the first person who will tell you to throw out your dogs’ food bowls – food is so valuable as a training tool that you should be doing something more with it than just giving it to them in a big open bowl, and I especially do not like free feeding. Kongs and other food toys are a great way for dogs to work for their food, and that is where I started with Garth. For the first day, I would put his food in a pretty easy Kong or other food puzzle and put it in his crate, door open, with me nowhere near it. He was welcome to eat in his crate or take it out and eat outside but he had to go in there and he was starting to make the association that crate = food.
It did not take long before he was eagerly running to his crate at meal time because he knew the food came from the crate. At this point I started closing the door behind him and sitting near him, and then opening it up when he finished (before he got a chance to whine).
NOW we had a dog who really liked going in the crate! After about a week he was spending half an hour in the crate at mealtimes with me out of the room and checking on him every couple of minutes to see when he was finished. We also threw in the occasional bone or other fun chew and would put him in the crate for five or ten minutes at a time during the day. At this point I could start working on stuff like Crate Games and just making the crate a great fun place. He started to get so fond of the crate that getting him to come OUT of the crate took a bit of effort!
He has not been here too long, so I can’t expect a dog that will happily stay in his crate for hours and hours right now, but he is at a good place. He eats all his meals in the crate, we play games with the crate and anytime he has to spend in there while we are gone (only for short trips), we make sure he has something good to chew. We had some people over the other day and while we did spend some time working on introductions and counter conditioning and getting him used to having people in the house, it was better for him to be away from them if I could not be actively working with him so we gave him a stuffed Kong and he contentedly sat in his crate for about 45 minutes – he was happy and everyone was safe, and he wasn’t practicing any negative behaviors or feeling anxious about strange people.
Being able to easily crate Garth is going to be a big help in managing and treating his fear of strangers so making progress in this area has been a big, positive step forward.