So, we’ve established that the crate is not San Quentin or Gitmo.
It is not the attic where the lepers are kept.
The bars of the crate and the bars of a jail cell may resemble each other, but their function could not be more different – in the hands of the beneficent dog parent.
Most of us have heard about the positive ways a crate can be used: housetraining and other types of behavioral shaping, transportation, acclimating to a new environment (including additional pets). The challenging part can be nurturing a positive association with the crate in your dog’s mind.
For some rescue dogs, a crate can evoke unpleasant memories of the shelter or their former owners who perhaps used the crate as a tool for punishment or abuse. Puppies may miss the warmth of their mother and littermates and could react negatively to feeling physically separated from you. Fortunately, dogs can be taught to enjoy some alone time which is good for them, and you.
One key is to make the crate environment enticing, yet practical – a balancing act befitting a seasoned circus plate-spinner. The boy (or girl) “cave” must be large enough to stand up, turn around and lie down in, but not so large that one remote end becomes a cesspool (crates often come with easily-installed dividers to shorten the crate and deter the elimination temptation).
What the crate is made of is another consideration. Plastic crates – opaque along the top, bottom and the sides, metal grates on the ends – shut out peripheral distractions and are frequently used for travel, but they can retain heat. Plastic crates may increase a pet’s sense of containment, which may or may not increase comfort level. Also, it may be easier to train a puppy in a plastic crate than an adult dog who may be more frightened of an unfamiliar, enclosed space.
Metal crates offer a virtual 360-degree view which can be reassuring to a dog, especially if the crate is placed in a high-traffic area so that he or she can watch home life go on normally. If you plan NOT to have your dog sleep with you, the metal crate can be converted into a cozy den by draping a blanket over the top, sides and back (leave an opening by the gate for adequate ventilation). Done ritually each night, your pet will quickly associate the draped crate with quiet/sleep time. In the mornings, just pull off the blanket for some sweet greetings.
Comfy accessories and special toys (associated ONLY with the crate, for best effect) complete the perfect retreat, but be careful with these. Because separation anxiety is the mother of all destruction, start out with gently used snuggle-blankets before graduating to expensive beds or cushy pads. Line your metal crate with protective padding to minimize the chance of injury to your dog from pawing and gnawing at the crate to get out (highly unlikely in the first place if you’ve been patient in crate-training your new best friend).
So the stage (crate) is set. It’s time to road-test this puppy – so to speak. Here are some suggestions, based on our personal experience (and lots ‘o trial and error):
Open the door to the “furnished” crate and walk away. Let your fur-baby explore his new environment on his own. You may want to pop in a few, small treats or “scent” the crate with your sleep-shirt for added incentive.
After your pup has plopped down in her den a few times, shut (don’t lock) the gate with her inside. Praise her as lavishly as you would if she just had her first “potty” outside. Offer a small treat.
Lock the gate, but stay close. Gradually increase the length of time he spends in the crate. Calmly go about your business so that he knows there’s nothing to fear about being in the crate.
In full view of your crated dog, prepare to leave home. Act nonchalant. Speak to your dog in a friendly, even tone. NEVER speak to or look pitifully at your dog!
Leave home for 5-10 minutes to get the mail or run down to the store for a quart of milk. The more times you leave and “magically” re-appear, the more she’s reassured that life goes merrily on.
Increase the length of time you are away, but remember the continence formula: age in months + 1 = the number of hours a dog can hold his bowel/bladder (up to nine hours, maximum). Smaller dogs have smaller bowels/bladders, so be careful!
Once your baby regularly pees/poops outdoors, you can begin to think about re-purposing the crate. Once a latched container to reduce anxiety and prevent soiling or destruction, the crate can now become a chosen retreat.
Using the same, graduated time frames you spent away from home with your crated dog, begin now to leave home with the crate door OPEN allowing your dog to freely move in and out of the crate while you are away.
As you return to a clean, intact home and happy dog after gradually longer periods of time away, the more certain you can be that the crate has fulfilled its primary mission.
You may choose to keep the open crate with all its comforts intact or to remove the trappings (keep them in the same place, for continuity), fold up the crate and stow/donate it.
Crate is great, crate is good.
Let us thank thee, as we should.