Dog Crate Training – Do I Need it?

This month we thought we would take a deep dive into crate training as it’s something that comes up time and again in conversation with students.

Questions that came up when we asked were:

  • How do I start the process?
  • What can you put in the crate so they don’t destroy things (bed destroyers!)
  • What’s the right size of crate?
  • How can I crate train without food as my dog isn’t interested in food?
  • How do I work up to them settling in a crate in another room?
  • What do I do about barking/whining in the crate?
  • How do I get them used to a crate in another house?
  • Should I move them to the crate when they fall asleep?
  • I don’t like dog crates – why do I need one?
  • She happily settles on her bed so does a crate add anything?

 

These were all brilliant and very common questions. One of our students Sam Milburn recently went through a period of her Border Collie Buddy going from being very happy in a crate, to refusing to go in, day or night, and barking hysterically whenever he was on one. Sam got to the point where she couldn’t leave him alone, even if it was the next room. Buddy is a high drive Border Collie, and so a crate was a very important part of his training. Without it Buddy found it incredibly difficult to switch off to the point that he started to refuse food and just couldn’t settle anywhere in the house. This is Sam’s story.

History

We started to use a crate from day one and I trained Buddy to go inside in return for chicken. This worked really well for a few months. We never had any problems at night time. During the day, we had one crate in the kitchen, and I would leave him at around the same time every day, on the school run, and in the afternoon I would pop to the shops before picking my son up. We got into what I thought was a good routine so that he always knew what to expect.

I used to leave a chew for him and a few toys in the crate but he never really touched the chews and occasionally I would look on camera and he might play with a toy but generally he seemed to sleep.

One day, I went to get the chicken out of the fridge and Buddy hid. He knew what was coming. He had paired the chicken and the time of the day and knew he was going to be left for a couple of hours. Buddy wouldn’t go into his crate. But I couldn’t leave him out as he was such a chewer! (good bye skirting boards!) So I ended up picking him up and putting him in. After a week of doing this he decided he didn’t like to be picked up anymore and tried to nip when I did. So I then fashioned a pen area for him so he couldn’t do any damage and carried on as normal but then he would start to whine, bark, run around, try and escape the pen and started to get really distressed. Anytime we tried crate training again, no amount of liver, chicken or sausage laden in the crate would get him to go in. He would look at me and bark. This led to then me leaving the room being a trigger and all hell would break loose. Within the space of 3-4 weeks my dog had gone from being happy in a crate to a barking nipping mess and I couldn’t even leave the house.

I came across Nikki at On the Ball when Buddy was about 6 months old and we were just starting to go through this. I needed help but had no idea where to start. I couldn’t see him ever being happy in a pen or crate  – but Nikki knew otherside and had complete faith in me, and a plan!

Ditch the routine

So first thing was that we had to ditch the routine and invest in more crates. I had a crate in the bedroom so he could be with me while I got ready. A crate in the kitchen, which I could easily move into the lounge.  And a pen in another room, which also had a smaller crate in about the size of the car crate. I also had a covered crate in the car.

I started to take Buddy on the school run with me, but didn’t get him out of the car every time. I’d have Buddy in the crate next to me in the bedroom while I got ready and I could casually drip feed chicken in there. He wouldn’t lay down to begin with but he was quiet and I was managing to ping pong how quickly I gave him the chicken.  The bedroom seemed easier as it was a different picture to Buddy, he hadn’t really rehearsed barking in here.

In the kitchen to begin with the crate was too hard. So we started with training him to be left in the kitchen while I showered. Firstly by taking one foot away and rewarding. Then two feet. Then turning my back. Making it easier then harder. Till eventually I could shower for 15 mins and return and he was quiet in the kitchen. I was also putting all of his food into either rewarding calm in the kitchen, (so every time he laid down while I cooked etc he would be rewarded) and easy hooves that he could eat in the kitchen.

Calming Food

One of the key things to getting Buddy calm in his crate was teaching him to eat in there while I wasn’t there. I might be able to hand feed chicken through the bars, but the moment I left he wouldn’t touch anything and the barking would start. So I had to start by firstly playing crate games with no pressure. So we would play shaping games with the crate, and I would use a clicker to mark any movement towards the crate, and then throw the reward away from the crate. Eventually he started to go in when he knew what the game was. When he was going in, I would hold the tastiest kong I could make, while he sat or stood in his crate and ate it.

He felt safe as the door was open, I was with him, and I was holding the kong to make it easy. Gradually I would put the kong on the floor of the crate and sit there, and then gradually move away. I would then drop chicken in there while he was eating his kong as an extra reward. I worked on this for a few weeks in different crates, in different rooms and in the pen.

Once we had rehearsed the eating kongs in there things started to get a bit easier and I could work on shutting the door, moving away and rewarding and increasing the length of time.

Troubleshooting

With the best will in the world, things don’t always go to plan. You have to go out and cant take your dog, or your dog hasn’t slept all day, is overtired and cranky and needs to shut off and sleep.

Buddy wouldn’t go into his crate on cue, but he would if he had a lead on. So we spent a lot of time putting the harness on and off at random times throughout the day, clipping the lead on and off throughout the day so that he didn’t anticipate anything.

I set up a stage of consequences to help Buddy understand what he needed to do. If Buddy had been to the toilet, was refusing food, and started barking hysterically in his crate, I would put a cover down. The second he stopped barking I would lift it again. If he started barking again the cover would go down. Sometimes this worked. It was like having the TV turned off.

If Buddy still couldn’t cope with that, I would move him to the pen in a different room with some music on low. If that didn’t work I would move him to the cosy crate and cover it. By this time Buddy would usually settle and sleep. But if that didn’t work, then I would transfer him to the car crate and put the radio on. Maybe leave the engine running. Or even go for a quick drive.

Sometimes I stayed near the crate and worked while I waited for him to fall asleep just so he could get that sleep rehearsal in there.

I also had to make sure there weren’t any predictors in there.  A lot of people just use a crate at night-time, and then find their dog starts randomly barking in the night or earlier and earlier each day. This is because just using it at night is a routine. So using the crate at different times, and in different places, like when we go out, before a walk, after a walk, randomly for 10 mins – all adds to the unpredictability. You might feel strange putting your dog in the crate with a kong for ten minutes and then letting them out again, but it builds up that flexibility and your dog doesn’t start to think that the fun has ended.

The important thing to remember was to never shout or take your anger out on your dog. You must do everything calmly. Some dogs are really good at knowing when they need to go and have a rest and others finder it harder and need our help. Its only going to increase their anxiety. If you feel yourself getting stressed out, take a step back and take the pressure off. Try again tomorrow.

Buddy had the worst case of separation related behaviour and I never thought in a million years we would fix the crate. Often it was a case of feeling my way. You can have all the tools and knowledge but there is an element of troubleshooting and trying different things that suit your dog as they are all so different. As much as we would like a step by step guide, all dogs are different and respond to different things so there is an element of working your way through it with a trainer like Nikki who can have your back at every step.

What life looks like now

  • Now Buddy rotates between the kitchen, a crate and a pen throughout the day so he’s never in the same place at the same times.
  • He comes out in the car at various times through the week – sometimes resulting in a walk and others not.
  • He can eat kongs and chews quite happily in there.
  • I can leave without any problem at all and never need to tip toe around his crate when I am in the room with him, or feel guilty as he enjoys being in there.
  • We can have people over, and he can be in a different room and not worry about them. (Buddy gets quite worried by new people)
  • I can sit in the garden without him having FOMO at me being out there without him.
  • The cats can now take it in turns with Buddy to join us in the lounge as they don’t’ particularly like him!
  • Buddy will happily walk into his kitchen crate it’s his favourite safe place now – we even hear him snoring! 🤣

 

FAQs

So to answer some of the questions from the group

How do I start the process?

Start by playing crate games and shaping the crate. (search up shaping online) and always have more than one crate. Move them around different rooms.

What can you put in the crate so they don’t destroy things (bed destroyers!)

Vet bed is quite good but Buddy did use to eat that too so we used towels for a while. I would also leave an easy kong, and a frozen one, by the time he finished the easy one, the frozen one would thaw a little and he’d eat that. When done he would be sparko! Now I can put blankets and vet bed in and no chewing happens.

What’s the right size of crate?

Something your dog can stand up in and turn around and lay down comfortably in. For puppies especially, anything too big and full of toys doesn’t really promote calmness which is what you want. Some of the larger crates can come with dividers that you can take out over time.

How can I crate training without food as my dog isn’t interested in food?

Although food plays a big part in calmness, eg licking is very soothing and tiring, you can play crate games with toys to start with like releasing to a toy etc to get your dog used to going into the crate. If your dog isn’t very foody then book a one to one with Nikki to work out why and how you can build that.

How do I work up to them settling in a crate in another room?

Settling in a crate in another room is adding another layer of difficulty. So use a combination of getting your dog used to finishing kongs in the crate with you there, and then moving away and building up duration, from easy to hard and back again.

What do I do about barking/whining in the crate?

Take crate training back to basics and also look at consequences – what can you do to interrupt the barking?

How do I get them used to a crate in another house?

Again this is just another layer of difficulty that might be too hard to begin with. Are they better in a crate in the car? Can you do some training in the house and ping pong them between the house and the car?

Should I move them to the crate when they fall asleep?

I think this is entirely dependent upon your own dog. My dog for example would not be too pleased about being handled and put into the crate. But maybe you can lead your dog to the crate when they are sleepy if that’s what works for you.

I don’t like dog crates – why do I need one?

Dogs will generally be in a crate at some point in their life, when you go away on holiday, at the kennels, at the vets. So getting them used to being in there is a great thing so that they don’t get stressed out by it. It’s not a punishment – it’s a safe place for them to be. If you have strangers over to do work and don’t have a room your dog can go to for example. Or if they don’t like fireworks and need a quite dark place to be. Crates have so many uses.

She happily settles on her bed so does a crate add anything?

If your dog happily settles on her bed and you are happy with her behaviour when you have visitors etc then that is great! A bed is a boundary just like a crate. The crate is only meant as a training tool. I would still advise that you use one now and again just to refresh her knowledge of what a crate is so that if she did have to use one, she wouldn’t be stressed out by it.

If you want some help with crate training your dog then contact us today and see how we can help. From one to ones to virtual training classes, we have options to suit everyone.