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When it comes to kennel (or crate) training, some dog owners have tried and given up, others think it's cruel, and yet others just haven't given the idea any thought. But crate training is a very practical tool and, when used correctly, is one of the best ways to promote emotionally healthy dogs. Here's what you need to know to have a happier, healthier pet for the whole family.
Let's start with examining the natural instincts of canines. Unlike humans, who drool over soaring, vaulted ceilings and thousands of square footage, canines prefer their homes to be small, cozy dens. It provides protection from predators and warmth in winter months. In fact, a den is crucial for a dog's survival in the wild. A dog that sleeps out in the open becomes easy prey and all dog's know this--that's why they instinctually long for a den. When inside the crate, dogs spend most of the time sleeping. This isn't because they are bored, but because dogs need about 13 hours of sleep per day to function properly. They will be content to get most of that sleep done in their kennel, looking forward to play time when the family returns home. So remember: even though humans deplore the idea of being kept in a cage-like enclosure, dogs will always prefer them.
In every class I teach, most people go home fully intent on crate training but usually give up within the first two or three days. Why? Because their puppy is whining and crying and scratching at the kennel door all night long and they desperately want some sleep. As a result, they toss this wonderful training tool out the window. I find it fascinating that the same people who have the endurance to get through months and months with a newborn baby cannot get through one week of crate training. And that's really all it takes. Within one week, your puppy should be completely acclimated to its kennel. Even though the puppy's instincts long for a den, we still have to understand that this particular den is foreign to them. When the puppy was born, it was born inside its mother's den. That is the den they have come to know and love. So when we take a dog from its mother's den and introduce it to a new one, there has to be a transition period. There are several ways to make this transition period as quick and painless as possible:
1) When you purchase your puppy, bring him home in the morning and plan to spend all day with him. This will give him the most amount of time to get used to his surroundings before going into his kennel at night. Never bring a new puppy home in the evening. He won't have time to get to know you and will be extremely lonely, scared, and will cry for his mother (quite possibly all night long).
2) Some puppies will act depressed on the first day away from their mother and siblings, while others seem to fit in with their new family immediately. Either way, you must begin crate training on the day you bring your puppy home. Start by giving him his meals inside the kennel. Place his bowl of food on the far side, opposite of the door. You may have to coax him into the kennel, but once he's inside, praise him and love on him. Repeat the coaxing and praising until he feels comfortable going inside the kennel. When coaxing him, give the kennel command of your choice, "Go kennel," or "Go to your room," or "Kennel up." Once he is kennel trained, all you'll have to do is point to the kennel and give the command and he should go right in, eliminating the need to chase him down when you're already late for work.
3) When you have a play session, try tossing the puppy's toy into the kennel a few, random times to get him used to the kennel as a fun place to be. Also, if you've started obedience training, toss the puppy's reward treat into his kennel when he does something good. He'll begin to attach praise and good behavior with his kennel.
4) Never use the kennel as punishment. The kennel should always be a place of comfort and safety. If you need to remove your dog from the rest of the pack (your family), pick a small room like the laundry room or a spare bathroom. It's okay for the dog to associate discipline with one of these rooms, but never his kennel.
5) When first starting out, always keep the kennel in the same room as you. If you're in the kitchen most of the day, bring the kennel in there. If your whole family is in the living room enjoying a movie, bring the kennel in there. Soon, your dog will begin to prefer hanging out in his kennel rather than the floor or the couch. My dog spends most of his nap time in his kennel. When he's ready to sleep, he trots back to his kennel, opens the door himself, climbs inside and snoozes until I call him. Everyone thinks he's strange for doing so, but really, he's just doing what his instincts tell him.
6) Always implement tough love. If your dog whines, cries, or scratches, it's not because he is deathly afraid or will die if you leave him in his kennel over night. He whines because he knows you will come to his rescue and let him out. Never release your dog from his kennel unless he is perfectly quiet. This will teach him that whining and crying get him nowhere, resulting in quiet nights for you and your family. If you succumb to the whining and let your dog out, this only shows him that he is actually the teacher--and he's just taught you to open the crate when he whines! Remember, the alpha dog (that would be you) never takes orders from the other pack members. By following your dog's orders, you will ultimately have a confused and unruly dog on your hands--he'll be the boss of some things, but not of others, and this confusion will last his entire life as he struggles to find a balance. It's crucial that you remain the alpha for the duration of your dog's life. Then he will know his place and feel comfortable and happy to romp around within his understood boundaries.
7) With puppies, try putting a hot water bottle under the blankets inside the kennel. This helps to mimic the warmth of the litter that your puppy is used to. A cold puppy is a lonely puppy. Warmth helps him fall asleep feeling safe. Try adding a few stuffed animals around him too. This will also help mimic the litter. You need not do this if you are adopting an older dog, as they should be used to sleeping away from the litter. Also, for the first few nights, keep the kennel right next to your bed so the puppy doesn't feel completely isolated. I usually set the kennel on a table so it is the same level as my bed--this way, the dog can see me and feel as though he is sleeping with his pack. After the first week, I move the kennel to the floor beside the bed. Then, gradually, I begin to move the kennel away from the bed until it is in the spot where it will remain most nights.
One of the most important rules of crate training is to never give up! Even if you've tried everything and your dog is still scared of the kennel or still whines, keep trying. If you do, here are some of the benefits you'll receive:
Peace of mind. You'll always know your dog is safe when he is in his kennel. A dog that is free to roam about the house will ultimately get into something at some point. Our homes are not akin to the wild; they are, at times, more dangerous and provide a myriad of ways your dog can harm himself. He could turn over a trash can and scarf down chicken bones or greasy paper towels, resulting in more trips to the vet (and a huge mess to clean when you get home). He may find your shoes irresistible and end up ruining several pairs or swallowing shoe laces. He may even urinate or throw up on one of your favorite rugs. I've known dogs to rip up throw pillows and even scratch holes in doors and window screens. But when confined to a kennel, a dog will spend most of his time sleeping soundly in a perfectly safe environment.
Structure. Crate training provides structured sleep patterns. For those of you who have children, you know the benefits of scheduled sleep. Your dog needs at least 13 hours of sleep every day to function the way nature intended. Structured sleep may result in fewer trips to the vet and a longer life for your pet.
Balance. If you provide safety and structure for your pet, you are demonstrating good alpha leadership. Your dog will never need to wonder who his master is and he will have a balanced conscience. Think of the most well-behaved dog you know. He didn't become that way on his own, no matter what breed he is. Now think of his owner. When the dog is with his owner, have you ever noticed a kind of "harmony" between them? If so, this is because the owner simply demonstrates proper alpha leadership by providing balance. The dog always knows his place and never has to try his owner's patience or test him. He simply knows he can't get away with bad behavior so he just doesn't attempt it. For example: I bring my dog to work with me. He has a kennel at the office and I will make sure that he gets several hours of nap time in his kennel each day, even though I'm right beside him. I notice huge changes in his behavior if I forget and leave him out in the office all day without nap time inside the kennel. He becomes testy and disobedient! Yet when I make sure to keep his daily routine of kennel time, he is the most obedient and satisfied pooch around. It's such a small act, but it goes a long way.
Savings. A healthy dog is an inexpensive dog. Yes, some dogs are born with conditions that require more vet bills than others, but keeping your dog away from household dangers will keep money in the bank.
Faster house-breaking. Dogs that are crate trained are generally house-broken faster than those that are not. This is because the crate mimics den life. In the mother's den, as she is potty-training her pups, she never allows them to soil their living quarters. She nudges them outside the den several times per day so they can urinate. Dogs only soil their crates when they are very young and do not yet have proper control, if they are ill, or if they are kept in the crate far too long. Other than that, they always prefer to urinate outside. If you get into the routine of taking your pet outside right before and directly after they are in their kennel, you'll have fewer accidents, fewer messes to clean, and a faster house-breaking. Fact: dogs that are left outside the crate have eliminated somewhere in the house. And because his owners weren't there to supervise, that spot will ultimately go unnoticed. The problem is, the dog will continue to soil in the same spot year after year because they will keep trying to cover the scent resulting in a house that reeks of ammonia. Do yourself a favor and crate train. You will be able to supervise your dog's elimination. And if your dog soils his crate, it's very simple to clean. Simply wash the bedding and wipe out the removable tray in the kennel. You might have to give your puppy a bath afterwards as well.
Relaxing travel. A dog that is crate trained is a lovely traveling companion. Inside his crate, he will feel safe and will sometimes even sleep during the entire journey. This way, you won't have a dog climbing onto your lap while you're driving and he won't be tempted to chew on the upholstery. Also, most hotels will welcome dogs if they are crate trained, saving you high-priced boarding costs.
Lastly, here are some guidelines to follow when crate training:
- Crates come in all different shapes and sizes. Ask your breeder, vet, or someone at your local pet store what size is appropriate for your breed. A good rule of thumb is that the crate should be big enough that your dog (when fully grown) can stand up and turn around. It shouldn't be so big that your dog can romp or play inside. Crates usually cost anywhere from 30 to 150 dollars. But this one-time cost is nothing compared to what you might spend on damage caused by a dog that is not crate trained.
- Always keep fresh water in the crate. A hamster or rabbit bottle works much better than an open bowl that can be turned over.
- Only keep safe toys inside the crate. If your dog likes to tear apart stuffed animals, do not leave a stuffed animal inside the crate. This may be a choking hazard. Most dogs simply sleep inside their kennels and they do not play, so toys are not necessary.
- Keep the bottom of the crate lined with a towel, pad, or thin blanket. This will help cushion their elbows, keep them warm, and help to soak up accidents, making it easier to clean.
- Always take your dog outside and make sure he urinates before going into the kennel. Then, when it is time to release the dog, take him directly outside again. Never dawdle once the dog has been released, as this could result in an accident on the floor while you're searching for your shoes.
- Never feed your dog right before he goes into the kennel. A good rule to follow is that your dog's feeding time should be right after your family finishes supper. This way, the dog mimics the pack and eats right after they do and then has the rest of the evening to digest. He should be able to eliminate that same evening right before he goes into the kennel for the night.
- A dog should never spend more than 6 hours a day in his crate, except overnight. I believe that if a family must spend over 8 hours a day away from home, only to see their dog for a few hours every evening, they should not be dog owners. Dogs are pack animals and no matter what we do, they will always be pack animals, craving constant companionship. To separate them from pack life and expect them to thrive happily alone for so many hours a day is far more cruel than the method of crate training. If you must own a dog, regardless of this fact, consider owning two or three. At least the dogs will not be alone for most of their lives. A dog left isolated from its pack will demonstrate some or all of the following behaviors: nervousness, shaking, cowardice, loss of hair, chewing on its paws until they are raw, anxiety, disobedience, loss of bladder and bowel control, dehydration, exhaustion from barking all day long, and vomiting. If you have two or three dogs, you may see the same benefits of crate training by simply confining your pets to their own room during the day. A laundry room or spare bathroom works great. Provide food and water, comfy dog beds, and some newspaper on the floor incase of accidents. Make sure there are no hazards in the room like trash cans, and keep items like laundry detergent, dryer sheets, and cleaning products somewhere safe.
- After a few years, your dog should be able to "graduate" from over night crate training. Mine is two and a half years old, and he is just now able to sleep outside of the crate in our bedroom. You will know your dog is ready when he is successfully house-broken and shows independence in his sleeping locations. As dogs get older, they are more sensitive to temperature and may switch from sleeping on a warm fleece to sleeping on a cool, wooden floor several times during the night. Maintaining a satisfying temperature for your dog is difficult inside the crate. When this is apparent, allow your dog to sleep outside of the kennel, but close the door to your bedroom so he cannot roam about the entire house. Give him a special bed to lay on beside your bed and remember to take him outside the first thing in the morning. Continue to crate train when you leave the house.
- I have known a few dogs to "graduate" from daytime crate training as well. These are usually guard dogs, or ward dogs. There is a difference between a guard dog and what I call a "ward" dog. A guard dog is specifically trained to guard the house from intruders whereas a "ward" dog will ward off strangers by means of its large size and intimidating bark. Just because you have a German Shepherd doesn't mean he is a trained guard dog. I owned a German Shepherd that was afraid of squeaky toys--she would not have stopped a determined intruder. But she did have a very intimidating bark and may have warded off some skulking teenagers if necessary. A guard or ward dog in a crate does not do much good, so if you purposefully bought a guard or ward dog, he should graduate within two years. When your dog graduates from day time crate training, particular steps should be taken to make sure your home is free of dangerous objects. Just like you would "baby-proof" your house, you must "dog-proof" it too. But, this is only recommended for guard or ward dogs--not for common pets. I would still recommend encouraging your dog to nap in his kennel. Simply remove the kennel door. He can resort to his kennel for nap times whether you're home or away and still have the ability to leave the kennel if he hears a suspicious noise.
I hope I have convinced some of you to implement crate training with your pets. It is one of the most rewarding methods of training and you will benefit from it for years to come.
Mandy has been a dog trainer and family pet advisor for ten years. She is passionate about matching the right pets with the right families and has fostered countless animals in her lifetime. Currently she is a staff writer for Plugged In Parents, providing parents with family pet solutions and information. Plugged In Parents is also an online resource for up-to-date health and safety, nutrition, and baby info along with recipes, family movie reviews, money and tech tips, and more! Visit pluggedinparents.com today!