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Crate Training - An Essential Life Skill

izzie keyes

Crate Training - An Essential Life Skill

In this article I will discuss the benefits of crate training for your dogs mental health. Share tips and tricks I've learned over the years and a simple step-by-step guide to crate training the average dog. Let's get started!

Why Bother?

A lot of people I talk to struggle to see the benefit in crate training their dog. Thankfully, that's mostly due to the fact that their dog can be left home alone without issue, well, other then maybe the occasional trash raid. I say thankfully, because I hope this means, there aren't a large number of dogs in my area dealing with extreme separation anxiety, the kind that leads to destruction of property and even self inflicted injury. Most family dogs are content to snooze on the sofa or mind their business in your absence. Although that in itself is a thing to celebrate, it could also be a contributing factor to some less severe, perhaps less obvious behavior issues. Some that could likely be solved with better management through crate training.

Dog's who although seem content in your absence(they don't leave messes, destroy furniture or overall raise concern to their behavior in your absence.) May still be practicing behaviors that have manifested into other areas of your life together. For example, the dog who sits at home peacefully.. Until that mailman shows up! The dog is alerted to the mailperson approaching the house and barks. Mailperson leaves, dog watches them walk away. Dog learns barking makes people go away. They have now created a fun new game for themselves while your gone- Bark at people approaching the house! Your mailman has just started a pattern of training your dog to bark at people arriving at the house. Depending on your dogs personality this could create a pattern of excitement, anxiety, fear, or just simply helping make them more and more aware/wary of noises. How does this transfer back to your presence? Again, depending on your dogs response to the mail person you may now notice a dog who focuses a lot, on looking for things out the window. Your dog may have attempted the same pattern he learned-bark at things to make them go away, out on your walks. If you have a dog who is already prey driven looking for squirrels on walks, they'll be hunting even harder now, after all that window time observing and building their frustration about not being able to get to them. 

                                               Where's that darn... Why I oughtaa...

                                              Where's that darn... Why I oughtaa...

Behaviors that may have manifested due to excess freedom in your absence: 

  • Barking at things out the window-dog's, people, kids. Window fixation-hunting for prey animals. As your dog perfects his stalking skills, these can certainly be seen in owners presence as well.

  • Alert Barking - Especially notable in condo's/apartments. Tenants random schedules coming/going, noises. All can create a dog overly on guard to any noise. Especially if they have freedom of the house to run, jump, bark and work themselves up higher.

  • Barking at people/dogs on walks, or guests.

  • Bathroom accidents, if they have the freedom to do as they please, that'll make a hard pattern to break them of- doing what they please, whenever they please.

  • Over all listening skills may suffer- He's used to making his own games and rules. They may offer great thought before performing a task that was once no problem- Not coming in from outside/getting off furniture, over all lack of respect to your commands.

Crate training your dog and creating a crate schedule so to speak. Helps create structure in your dogs life, instructions to follow, a purpose. Being left to their own devices and being given no guidance on what to do with their time (sleep, eat a bone) leaves a dog ample opportunity to train himself. They're just not going to be behaviors you'll look forward to coming home to, or hearing about from neighbors. They can't watch TV or read a book after all, eventually they'll get bored.. Set your dog up for success by crating them. Give them one simple task to focus on in your absence, relaxing.

Before you Start - Things to Remember

  1. A crate should be a safe and inviting place, avoid any negative associations with the crate by staying calm, cool and collected when putting them inside. Avoid using it for "time outs" after an offending incident. Unless you are capable of keeping a level head. 

  2. Your presence while they're in the crate is an important part of training. If every time they go inside the crate-you leave. Before long they'll associate the crate with you leaving. Which can lead to separation anxiety, etc. The crate is no big deal. Throw them in while you cook, clean, watch TV. It will help them develop coping skills and will reinforce that going in the crate is no big deal and doesn't only happen when you leave.

  3. When crating your dog before you leave for an extended period of time. Especially during the training process. Consider providing them with a marrow bone, or KONG toy, so to keep their minds preoccupied while you're gone. Chewing a bone also encourages calm behavior, simply because they must lay down to gnaw a bone properly. Helping them right to sleep after they've completed.

  4. Do not let your dog out of the kennel right after you've come home, or when they are excited. You are rewarding the state of mind their in, by releasing them in that mindset. Go put things away, check the mail, take your time and release them once they've calmed down, or ideally once they've completely settled. Why? By saying okay, you can come out when you're like this, you reward the behavior you like, making it more likely and quicker to occur in the future. Set them up for success!

Crate Training Steps

Whether your dog is 8 weeks or 8 years, this is the procedure.

You will need: your dogs daily meal rations, yes you're training for their supper, a clicker(not required but helpful) and a collar/leash attached to your dog.

  1. Step 1: With your dogs breakfast in hand and dog with their leash attached. Approach the crate, throw their kibble into the crate. Wait. Let them investigate on their own, once they move towards/inside - mark that moment by saying "Yes! :)" or clicking and throw more food inside/or out, depending on your dogs interest level. Repeat several times until your dog is looking to/moving towards the crate for a reward.

  2. Now that your dog associates the crate with magical food appearing and they're offering us interaction with it In hopes of more food appearing. We can start waiting for them to move towards/in on their own. *Important: we are not throwing food lures in anymore* We are raising our criteria. When your dog enters/paw in/etc, mark with a "Yes! :D" and throw the reward into the kennel. Repeat several times, once your dog is consistently offering to enter the crate on their own, eating their reward inside and then exiting out to repeat the process fairly consistently. Move to step 3.

  3. Now that we can easily predict that and when our dog is going to go in the kennel, we can start naming the behavior. I call this "Kennel." Some say 'house, box, crate' it doesn't really matter, but it should be 1 word while we start. Not  "go to your .. Kennel." So as our dog is entering the kennel and they're at the point where you know they're committed, the feet are going in, say your cue "Kennel" and then when your dog is in, mark Yes! Like you have been before. Repeat the process several times, over several days.

  4. Now our dog knows what the kennel is, 'knows' the command, and associates the physical box with pleasant things. We can start closing the door. Although hopefully you've been just moving it around throughout the process, a little movement from it shouldn't matter much. So we start closing the door, dog stays in place, we mark Yes! Throw food in, open the door. We are making an association of door closing=good things! Rinse and repeat. Start locking the latch. Moving away 5 feet, backing up, opening a door, etc. and moving back to the crate fairly quickly-in the beginning, to keep Rewarding the dog and marking their completion of the exercise with Yes! Before coming back to reward. We're telling them, if you're in there and I do this, this, this, this, you're fine, good things will come, I like what you're doing in there. If the dog noses to try and push through at any stage in closing the door, stop, asses, and either move back a step or interrupt immediately with a verbal NO, use your leg against the crate door to 'block' that attempt and push the door back into their space-with authority. This can startle some-which is the desired outcome. It also makes them more respectful to the door itself, because woah, it just came flying at me! To build up duration, continue your moving around, leaving the room, and when you return to feed good behavior mark it with 'Good' and continue the walking around, walking to the door gestures.

When we use 'Good' and reward, it means keep doing what you're doing, when we say 'Yes' we are using it as terminal marker, meaning good job, you're off the clock here's your paycheck. Try to avoid adding emotion ex: "good girl! who's a good boy." Keep them very simple, clear, marker words!*

Now we don't need to formally train this step as much, if you've been casually putting them in there throughout the day for short periods while you're around-and have been able to drop a kibble or treat in when they're behaving calmly and quietly, helping you to move on to a more random reinforcement schedule. But training the process of closing the door, can be helpful for some dogs, especially those with known mild  SA. As we start this step we can also easily mark the 'wrong' behavior (pawing, whining, etc) with a quick verbal NO, or PC(Pet corrector) so our dog clearly understands what gets him rewards, and what does not. Ie: Making a bunch of noise in the box is not allowed and no you may not try and practice bad behaviors.

If your dog struggles with this stage, implement a structured KONG/Raw bone schedule for times when you MUST leave your dog alone, and crated. This will greatly help counter condition their negative associations with the crate and you leaving.** it's not just getting a yummy bone that encourages better behavior in the crate, but the simple fact that dogs must lay down to chew bones/raw hides/Kong's. Laying down is much calmer habit to get into then sitting, circling, etc. With high value items like these, you have guaranteed time that your dog will be engaged in it and not thinking about being in a crate, let alone where you went! When they've finished a couple hours later, they're ready for calm rest. They have been mentally engaged in an activity/practicing their down, for such a lengthy time, they happily nod off to sleep. **

If you follow these steps and advice, you'll have a happy adjusted dog in no time. If you are still struggling, or dealing with a more serious crate related issue. Please, don't hesitate to contact us right away.

Happy Training!


Izzie Keyes, Owner/Trainer

The Balanced Pack - Dog Training & Daycare

Regina, SK