Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Do I Really Need to Crate Train?

This was one of my first questions when we got Mocha as a puppy. I mean, I didn’t get this little 3 pounds of love to have him in a crate all day while we worked. But we did crate train him because if we left him out he’d get into trouble. One day I came home and he’d pulled out all my yarn and was playing with it like a cat!

Also, I always use a crate with my foster dogs. Most dogs that come out of a shelter need a little time to decompress. For some, the crate works wonders and will always be a safe place when they need some quiet time. All my foster dogs go in their crate for a little quiet time every day.

Let’s break down this crate training thing a bit:

What is crate training?
This is where you train your dog to spend some quiet time in the crate every day. Most people crate their dogs while they’re at work. We did this when our boys were young. Some people don’t want the dog in the bed, and crate them at night. If done properly, the crate will become a safe haven for the dog. It’s their quiet place.

Crate training pros:
  • Great potty training resource
  • Nice to have if you need them out of the way (painting, teaching, having guests over)
  • Safety feature for car rides
  • Safe place for your dog

Crate training cons:
  • Dogs can get a little stir crazy, especially if they’re crated for many hours at a time
  • May exacerbate separation anxiety, especially if you crate train wrong
  • Can be seriously messed up, and mess up your dog

Types of crates:
Mocha in his wire crate as a puppy.

Wire – These are pretty cheap and common, but I’m not a fan of the wire crate. Puppies will chew on the wires, and can really hurt their teeth. Also, if they have a tray that slides out of the bottom, dogs can really make a mess with that, pushing it out, chewing on it and getting stressed out.  

I’ve also found that a dog is less calm if they can see out of the crate at all angles. If you get a crate like this, you’ll want to put a towel or blanket over part of it.

A word of warning about the wire crate: I’ve heard of dogs getting stressed out and hooking their collar on the crate wires and hanging themselves. This was one of the lovely horror stories we heard at puppy kindergarten. If you do use this type of crate, please take off your dog’s collar before leaving them in it unattended.

Plastic – If I use a crate, I prefer the more solid, plastic kind. Less visibility means they’ll be calmer (generally). It’s also darker inside and noise is better muffled, all leading to a safer atmosphere. You can put a towel over this one too, maybe over the door, to reduce what they can see.

Mesh/soft – We have a pop-up X-pen that we use for agility trials, for when we have guests or for when I’m teaching piano. We spent some serious time training the boys to sit nicely in it. They’re never left in it unsupervised because they can open the zipper or chew/scratch right through the mesh. This is not for long-term, unsupervised crating.

End table/other – There are some cool designer crates out there that fit right into home d├ęcor. I saw one recently that was wood and looks like an end table.

Crate training 101:

1. Get the right sized crate. The crate should be big enough for the dog to walk in, turn around and lay down. That’s it. Any bigger and they’ll have room to potty in there.

2. Feed your dog in the crate. Some trainers swear by this. Giving them their food inside their crate is instant positive reinforcement because at least this one wonderful thing happens in their crate. Feeding your dog in their crate also helps with potty training because the dog won’t potty where they eat and sleep.

3. Start small. When you first start crate training your dog, do it in short increments. Five minutes at first, then 10, then 15. Don’t let them out while they’re barking or crying because then you’re reinforcing that behavior. Also, make sure you’re in the room at first, it helps keep them calm. If you put them in the crate and leave for three hours the very first time, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

4. Make sure they’re comfy. Give them a couple toys, some treats and something soft to lay on. We ended up having to take the bedding out of the crates because our boys ate it.

5. Reinforce while you’re home. This one was key for us. We always crated the boys while at work, so they came to understand that if we were crating them, we were leaving. Then they didn’t want to get in the crate. So every weekend we would spend a little time at home with our dogs in their crates.

6. They don’t have to live like this forever. I feel like once a dog hits about a year to 18 months old and is reliably housebroken, you don’t have to crate them all day while you’re gone.

Here’s my opinion:
I think crating is a useful tool, especially for puppies. It keeps them from getting hurt (hopefully) when you’re not home. It also helps to house train your dog if you do it right. However, I don’t feel like dogs were designed to live in a crate most of the day, like many dogs do. An adult dog that is properly trained and exercised every day shouldn’t need to be crated on a regular basis.

Un-crate training.
Ok, you made it! Your dog grew up, doesn’t chew on the furniture when you’re not looking, and they haven’t peed in the house recently. I think that this is the time you can ease up on the crating.

What not to do – Don’t just leave one day without crating them if they’re used to being in the crate! 
And don’t give them the run of the house at first. Maybe just the kitchen or the dining room at first. You can also attach a wire pen to the crate and leave the crate open to the pen. Just make sure they can't jump out of the pen.

We started small, leaving the boys out when we went out to get the mail. Then we left them out when we got dinner or went to the mall.

Our boys at their customary place: right near the front door.
One day, I came home from work at lunch to walk them and didn’t crate them when I left. They did just fine (I think…). If you’re nervous about what they’re doing, you can set up Skype to automatically answer and go to video when you dial in. We did this for a while with a laptop in our kitchen until I realized they just lay by the door the whole time we’re gone.

Remember, every dog is different. My in-laws’ dog loves her crate, she wants to sleep in it every night and goes in it on her own when they’re not home. My dogs, on the other hand, are much more restless and anxious in the crate, so now we use it sparingly when we need to.

Have you used the crate to train your dog? Share your success or obstacles in the comments below. J

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