Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, DACVB
What is a Crate?
A crate is a cage. Crate ‘training’ is teaching your dog to tolerate being in a cage. Sales people will tell you that crates are natural; they’re just like a wolf den, they’ll say, and your pup will love it. Some do. However, the ancestral den has an opening (maybe more than one) through which the pack members are free to come and go. The den is shared by the pack; isolation is not a normal canine preference. And the den is certainly much larger than cages currently recommended for your dog’s breed.
To be clear, crating your dog may be very convenient for you. Your dog may even learn to enjoy resting in the crate with the door open, but her preference would certainly be that the door remain open. Some dogs are content in crates eventually, but it takes time for them to get there. It is up to you to prepare your dog to be confined, whether you are home or not. Dogs must not be caged when they have a full bowel or bladder, or if they haven’t a had a long walk and interactive play time with you or a canine playmate to prepare them to be calm in a cage for a few hours.
Crates became increasingly popular when women joined the workforce and there was no one home to take care of the family pet. Crating your dog may seem like an attractive solution to destructiveness or house soiling, or to contain your dog when you’re home and can’t supervise him. However, crates can create and exacerbate behavior problems, too. Some dogs simply do not tolerate confinement and develop claustrophobia. If the claustrophobic dog is now confined in the crate and left alone, you now have set up a higher risk of panic and injury. Many dogs would not have a problem being alone if they were just not crated at all. Cages are not a normal thing for dogs or people.
Crate training has become a popular part of house training dogs. Crates are especially interesting to dog owners who work long hours and cannot keep constant vigil over new pets. The popularity of crates has also been aided by pet stores in your neighborhood or online who want to sell expensive crates. Crates are indeed useful for damage control and some dogs do quite well. However, crates are by no means the only way to house train dogs and are not recommended for every dog. If your pup screams and shrieks, scratches frantically and bloodies his or her paws, has diarrhea or vomits, or repeatedly throws themselves against the door, these should be pretty clear indications of a phobic response that will only worsen with time. There is no rule that states that all puppies must be crated. Some dogs, maybe your dog, can’t tolerate crate confinement and should not be forced to stay in a crate they cannot endure. We must not drive dogs insane trapped in a cage they can’t tolerate and will get injured from jailbreaks (broken teeth, cut paws, impalement on broken cage parts…).
Pups are now often crated while the owner is away at work, absent for short periods of time, or out for the evening. Puppies need time to develop the neuromuscular maturity needed to control elimination just like all babies, especially during anxious or frightening moments like when they are left alone. Pups may soil themselves in their crates, making themselves even more miserable and uncomfortable. Some will learn to ingest their own waste to avoid punishment. In such cases, crate training is not advisable. Crating is for damage control only, but if it causes damage to your dog it must be discontinued. If so, pet parents should look to alternative methods of house training (pen, gates, pet, frequent walks) always based on long walks and play time outside after each meal and when waking up from sleep of any length, with frequent short walks in between. You have to be present to praise your dog for voiding outside; set your dog up to succeed and earn your praise rather than setting him up to feel stressed and fearful of punishment.
Crate Training Basics
Many dogs are initially reluctant in an unfamiliar crate, but this is not the same as the more serious claustrophobic or total crate rejection. To begin, introduce the open crate in its assigned location and just let your dog explore it. Toss in a toy or a treat (or both) and make it a safe place to enter. After a few days, try briefly (30 seconds or less) confining the pup when you are home. Give the pup a favorite treat and shut the door while you remain nearby. Build from there. Feed your pup in the crate to help make the crate as a positive place. Gently close the door during mealtimes and open the door as soon as the pup has finished eating. Gradually extend the period the door is kept closed and let the pup out when s/he is quiet and calm. The goal is to promote the crate as a sacred place. Never disturb, frighten, or punish the pup in or near the crate. It must not be associated with anything negative or your dog will learn to avoid the crate. Never use the crate to punish (‘time out’ doesn’t work for children, let alone dogs). Don’t drag or push your frightened pup in or out of the crate when you are in angry or in a rush.Some whining or whimpering is to be expected. Wait a few moments until the pup is quiet and calm before making an appearance to let him or her out. You do not want to encourage mild and natural attention-seeking vocalization by hovering or by responding immediately. The next step would be for you to move out of sight, just into the next room for just a few seconds (5-10 seconds), and build from there again.
The crate (maybe a second one) may be placed in your bedroom overnight if you don’t want your dog wandering or joining you in bed. Crating overnight when a dog is crated all day in your absence is unfair. To train your dog to stay in a dog bed near you, use a pen or gate, or simply tether him on a short leash. Remember, it’s abnormal for wolves to sleep apart from the pack. A rejected wolf cub would develop all kinds of neurotic anxious behaviors, why do that to your dog? It is not normal to isolate dogs at any age and we can’t expect them to be happy about it. If you only crate your dog during the daytime or when you can’t monitor them for short periods, position the crate near the kitchen or other active places in your home where the puppy can monitor your return and still feel connected and secure.
Pups should be crated for just a few minutes at first, until they gradually tolerate longer periods. Ultimately, even adult dogs should not be crated for longer than 6 to 8 hours, and this too can be too long for many dogs. If you expect to be away for more than your dog can comfortably and reasonably manage, arrange for someone to visit him and take him out for some fresh air. A friend, neighbor, relative, or professional dog walker or pet sitter are options. You can also arrange for ‘doggy daycare’ at a local kennel. Some folks can go home during lunch hour. Dogs deserve any effort that improves the quality of their lives. Their happiness is your happiness, too. If it’s not, maybe you shouldn’t have a dog.
To help your pet cope with the initial 30 minutes of your absence, which are usually the most difficult and emotionally intense, leave a special treat. Goodbye gifts must be higher in value than the anxiety your dog feels or they will not touch it. Dogs release anxiety by gnawing/chewing (so do we), so licking something may just not be enough. Offer a chew treat such as a dental chew, rawhide strip, or cow/pig ear that you can ‘dress up’ like an hors d’oeuvre with peanut butter or cream cheese, sliced veggies or fruit, or pieces of cheese or dog biscuit. Food puzzles or rubber toys that can be stuffed with treats and chews are also options. These can also be used for crate training and as goodbye gifts when your dog is ready to be left crated in your absence.
The crate should be solidly constructed and easy to clean. The crate must withstand attempts to escape and not injure your dog on his or her way out. There must not be sharp edges anywhere, or large spaces where your pup’s head or any other body part might get stuck. Get a crate that comfortably fits your puppy now and that it can grow into or get new crates along the way to accommodate her growth. Measure your dog from tip of the nose to the base of the tail when she is standing normally and add at least 6 more inches! That is the minimum length the crate must be. Regardless of his or her age, the crated dog should be able to comfortably stand, turn, and back up or move forward to change positions. It is untrue that a crate should have ‘just enough’ space; even laboratory animals are required to have more generous housing requirements.
The crate size recommended according to breed size by manufacturers and pet stores (down the street or online) may not even pass caging requirements for laboratory dogs. Measure your dog’s length (nose to base of tail) and height (to his head standing tall) before you buy any crate. Then add at least 6″ to these measurements to determine the minimum height and length requirements for the crate. Your dog needs to be able to stand up comfortably with head in a normal position, and add at least 6 more inches of clearance. She should be able to stand, lie down, move back and forth, and turn around easily. If anyone tells you the crate should be smaller so your dog won’t soil in it, don’t believe them. If you were locked in a phone booth (remember those?) for hours you would not be able to control yourself either. Please refer to the chart above for minimal space requirements.
There are many styles of crates. Some are made of wood to look like furniture (you can use them as end tables). Other cages are made of steel grids; your dog feel more sheltered if you cover the sides with a sheet but still leave a view, of course. Airline type crates are sturdy, but some dogs will break out of anything when they want to. Some manufacturers offer ‘chew proof’ crates, but realistically they may not be chew proof for every dog. Travel crates should be hard sided if your pet is to travel in cargo, but can be soft sided if they can travel in the cabin.
Always check with each airline’s requirements before deciding to take your pet along, and have your veterinarian evaluate your pet’s health before travel. It is important for your pet to be healthy enough to get through the stresses of travel, and you will likely need travel documents as well. If you are going on a relatively short trip, it is usually better to leave your pet at home in someone’s expert care. Always consider the risks and stress to your pet of traveling with you or staying at home. Sedation during air travel is not advisable and the American Veterinary Medical Association agrees. For road trips, some pets are better crated and others are better uncrated. It is better not to sedate them for car travel, but if this seems necessary do discuss this with your veterinarian long before any planned trip so that you can test the prescription before the day of travel. You might need to adjust the dose or try another medication choice, so don’t leave it for the last minute.
If you decide to crate train your dog, choose your dog’s crate after careful consideration of all these options. Remember that crate training is an option not a requirement, and may not be right for your dog. It is your job to prepare your dog to be confined and left alone until you come home and can be together where you belong.
© Dr. Stefanie Schwartz for www.CivilizedPet.com 2019