Mama Sally: Last week, our Training Tip was all about the pros of using a crate for your special needs dog. For these dogs, it can really be a safe refuge, and a wonderful spot for them. How crates are introduced can be a deal breaker for a dog, so I’m going to tell you how you can make this fun, and create games and play with your crate! Even if your dog loves his crate, you can play these games, and have fun together!
I let dogs get used to crates over time. Don’t set a time limit….let your dog set the pace. it generally goes much faster if you don’t rush the process. I set up the crate and just ignore it for a few days so that the dog can sniff and investigate without fear, going in and out without anything negative happening to him. I toss in little bits of food when he’s not looking, so that the dog sees it as a “treat pooping contraption!” I let him eat the food and come and go at will. I place toys in the crate as well, so the dog can go into the crate, grab a toy and bring it out. After a few days, the crate is no longer a novelty, and the dog is comfortable with it in his space.
Once the dog is comfortable investigating and coming and going on his own, I introduce a cue word: Crate up! I toss the food in, while saying, “Crate up!” The dog runs in and grabs the food. He comes back out. I continue to do this a few times, and let him come and go. Over time, the dog will often eat the food, but stay in the crate, looking for more. When that happens, I give him another little nibble while he’s still in the crate, and add a release cue: “You’re through” as he leaves his crate.
After he’s comfortable with this game, I add in closing the door….but don’t latch it! So…”Crate up!” and the dog runs into the crate for his treat. I gently close the door, and give him a treat through the closed door. I quickly open the door and say, the release, “You’re through” and allow the dog to come back out. It’s really important that you don’t make the dog stay in his crate long. He needs to know that he will be able to leave it quickly.
As your dog becomes comfortable with this step in the process, you can latch the door, and continue to offer treats through the closed door. This way, you’re building time with the crate, but in a positive way. Always offer a release command as your dog leaves his crate. It’s important that he understand a command to go into his crate and also to leave it.
When your dog is comfortable with you standing right by his crate, you can add in walking a short distance away, and coming right back to treat and praise. Eventually, you’ll be able to walk around the room and step out of sight, coming right back to treat and praise while your dog is quiet. You’re building time and helping your dog feel safe and secure.
A really great way to get your dog used to his crate is to feed him there! If that’s where he eats, he’s really going to enjoy being in his crate! I don’t do this if I have a dog who resource guards, to avoid any territorial behavioral associations with his crate.
Remember, your dog’s crate is not a jail cell! You can put PB Kongs and toys in his crate to help him enjoy being in there and help with boredom. If you freeze the Kong, it will last longer, and help prolong the fun and work for your dog. I hang a rabbit bottle on the side so that Rugby can have sips of water throughout the day as well.
For dogs with separation anxiety, a crate is often the tool that I use to teach the dog calm behavior while his owners are gone. However, I have encountered some dogs who simply can’t tolerate a crate for one reason or another, so I use a small confinement area, like a bathroom, or utility room with a dog gate in the doorway. I use the exact same methods to introduce the confinement area, so that the dog makes a happy and positive association with that space. Dogs often do better in confinement if a gate is used rather than a closed door. It’s less likely to make them feel shut out.
If you take your time, and introduce your crate or confinement training with several small games, you’ll find that your dog will adjust more quickly and will be happy in the process!! Happy training!!