Crate training your dog

December 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

I frequently get questions from dog owners about crate training. Some are wondering whether to begin crate training their new puppy. Others wonder whether they can successfully crate train an adult dog with housetraining difficulties, destructive tendencies, or separation distress. The crate can be a useful tool for dog owners in all of these cases, so I will present here some tips on how to best utilize the crate and teach dogs to enjoy their time in the crate.

The crate should be large enough that the dog can stand comfortably with at least a couple of inches above his head. He also should be able to turn around and lie down comfortably in the crate. For housetraining purposes, the crate should not be so large that he can comfortably urinate or defecate in one corner and sleep in another. (One of the uses of crate training is to house train, as it often takes advantage of the dog's "denning instinct", or tendency to keep his immediate resting area clean of urine and feces.)  

The two guiding principles of successful crate training are gradual exposures to the crate and positive associations with the crate. Neither of these strategies is necessarily easy to implement (much of dog training, as in child rearing, requires time and energy), but both are well worth their weight in creating a dog who enters the crate happily, rests in the crate peacefully, and exits the crate calmly.  

To begin gradual positive exposures to the crate, put your dog into his crate for just about 5 minutes at a time as you sit on the floor next to the crate. Provide him with a chew bone or toy (one that he is actively interested in chewing on throughout the 5-minute period), or provide a bite-sized treat about every 30 sec through the bars of the crate. After 5 min, open the crate and remove his toy or bone as you call him out. Repeat about once every hour. (It is helpful to sleep next to your pup's crate in the beginning as well, and to inch further away each night over the first few weeks until you are sleeping in your own bed.) Each day you should increase the amount of time the dog is in the crate by about 2-3 minutes during these training exposures, and you should begin to move a few inches further away from the dog each day while he is crated. Continue to provide either continuous access to a yummy chew bone or provide a treat about once every 30 or 60 sec while he is crated. Providing a chew bone often allows owners to move more quickly through this phase of training because the chew bone will consume the dog's attention continuously during these important early crate exposures. 

By providing something to chew on or eat in the crate, your dog will come to associate crate time with access to this delectable item (one he should get at no other time of day). Through basic processes of associative learning, he will come to view the crate as a positive place in the same way many of us feel happy and content at the ice cream parlor. By sticking by him initially and moving away from the crate only gradually, you will gently teach your dog to remain calm even when separated from family members. 

As with most pet behavior problems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That is, it is much easier to crate train a new puppy than it is to crate train an adult dog with an unknown or, worse yet, negative history of misguided crate training attempts. In cases such as this, or with dogs who are suffering from separation distress, aggression, or other behavior problems, more sophisticated crate training techniques must be used and owners should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist for assistance in these cases.