With school and work picking up for the Fall, there is a good chance that your dog is going to be spending more time in their crate if they are being crated when home alone. A crate is a great way to keep your dog, and your house, safe while you are away. Hopefully your dog loves their crate or at least tolerates it. Crate games are a great way to make sure your dog enjoys being in their crate and gets reinforced often so that the crate does become a sad or scary place to be. If all your dog associates the crate with is you leaving (for an hour or for a day), they will quickly learn to avoid their crate. Playing games with the crate while you are home will help your dog keep a positive association with their safe space.
The biggest mistake that we often see people make is forceable pushing or shoving their dog into the crate right before they leave the house and then quickly running to the crate to release their dog right as soon as they get home. What does the dog learn from this procedure? To avoid being crated. The second most common mistake is calling your dog with a “come” or “touch” cue and then rewarding them by crating them and leaving. Not such a great reward for coming when called. In fact, this can teach a dog to avoid coming to you at all, or at least to avoid coming to you at certain times, like when you are running late to work or an appointment.
So what can you do to help your dog learn to love their crate? Crate games! Crate games is really a euphemism for training, but doesn’t playing a game sound so much more fun? Keeping your pet’s crate in a popular living area of your home will make this much easier to work into your daily routine. There are a few different ways to reinforce positive crate behaviors, but the overall goal is to make the crate a rewarding place to be. If your dog is past the chewing stage or generally respects and enjoys soft items, you can put a mat, pillow, or blanket in the crate. Some dogs also like a covered crate so tossing a sheet or blanket over the crate can make it more inviting. Here are a few ways to teach your dog to like their crate when you are around so that they are less stressed out when you’re not:
Commercial break crating!
Keeping your crate near a TV area is a great way to combine relaxation with training and make it part of your routine. Each commercial break, toss a yummy treat into the back of the crate (if your dog really loves their dinner you can mix kibble and treats for this). Once your dog goes in to retrieve the treat, drop another while they are still inside! The longer they hang out in the open crate, the more treats they get. After a few sessions you can begin counting to 2 or 3 before dropping the next treat and slowly add more duration over time until your dog is contentedly and patiently waiting for rewards in their crate. I like having a wire crate for my dogs so dropping treats in the back is really simply from above. If you have a plastic or closed crate, position it so that one of the grills is easy to access.
Using a chew!
All you need for this one is a couple of zip ties and a Kong(c), bully stick, or other longer lasting chew treat. Zip tie your dog’s delicious treat to the back of the crate low enough that they can lie down and enjoy it but the zip tie will prevent them from simply walking in and taking it out with them. The other nice factor is that you can easily cut the tie when you want to remove and wash a toy and replace it easily later. With closed crates, you may need to get creative in how you attach the treat but I have seen yarn work well for some dogs or threading between the plastic shells for others.
Adding a cue!
Once your dog enjoys their crate, you can add a cue so your dog enters it on command. Some people use “kennel up” or simply “crate.” The goal is to pick something easy to say and remember that does not sound like any other cues you use often. Have a few delicious treats ready and simply say your cue and toss one in. When your dog goes to get it, close the crate door for literally less than a second, just long enough to deliver a second treat through the crate door, then open the door and give your release cue- “Okay” works really well. Do this several times before fading out the initial treat you toss. When you say your cue, your dog should walk in and be followed by a treat at this point. Once they are easily and calmly going into their crate, you can begin adding duration by feeding several treats through the closed door before releasing them.
While working on crate games during the evenings and weekends when you are home, you will still need to be crating your dog when you are not home. Try to make the crating process as stress free as possible so you don’t sabotage all the good work you are doing! One easy way to help your dog settle while you are away is to give them something they can do in their crate. If your dog is old enough to have good bowel and bladder control, you can stuff some of their breakfast in a Kong(c) or other easy toy with a few treats, peanut butter, or yogurt and offer it to them in their crate when you leave.
Do not call your dog to crate them unless they already love their crate or you might accidentally punish your recall. Simply get your dog and lead them gently and calmly to their crate and show them the fun item you are leaving them with. Try not to coax or sooth, as you may cause more harm than good, and remain calm. For younger dogs, you can try a good antler or other chew that is not as quickly digested so that they don’t feel the need to eliminate while you away.
Also, never use the crate for punishment! No one loves their time out chair or corner. You cannot teach your dog to love their crate and also use it to punish them. Dogs do not understand context and you are sending a very mixed message. Be sure to set your dog up for success by avoiding situations where punishment may be necessary or pre-empt a potential mistake by giving your dog a better option.
If your dog seems truly fearful or uncomfortable in their crate, you may notice they do not eat or chew until you get home or they eliminate or drool heavily when left in their crate, speak to a trainer about alternative options. Most dogs will learn to enjoy their crate if you make a positive place to be. Many people think their dog or puppy has separation anxiety, a very serious condition with a long and sometimes difficult treatment plan, when in reality they are simply bored or dislike being alone or in a crate. If you are ever unsure, ask a trainer.
Head Trainer-Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator