ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Conditioning Your Dog to the Crate

Having fostered something like 45 terriers and terrier mixes in the last 6 years, many of whom came with some kind of crate, I've got this weird fascination with crates.

I teach all my dogs and my fosters to do the same thing in ANY kind of enclosure: chill out. I do this the easiest possible way: I classically condition them to sleep or hang out in their enclosures. While this is a piece of cake with a puppy, I've done it with every single of those adult fosters and many of the probably same number (45) of day boarders or short time residents we've had. So that's about 90 dogs with no problems yet. :)

My biggest gripe about the way most crate training is taught is that people teach dogs to be impatient about getting out because they teach: go in the crate/treat; go in the crate/treat; go in the crate/treat and so the dog gets in the crate, it wants its treat--and then what??? Gulp: I wanna do something! (I've written a whole article about this for the Clicker Journal which will probably appear in the next issue.)

This makes me crazy. When I introduce a dog to my household, I think of the crate as a *long term* good place to be. What do dogs want to do for long periods of time? (And I mean relatively long.) Sleep and chew in privacy. Or eat something big, not something small. So I ONLY put the dog in an x-pen, my choice of first level of increment for privacy/enclosure, when I know it wants to sleep or chew for a while. All of this is predicated, of course, on the fact that I work at home most of the time or can arrange my life so that I"m only gone for a few hours when I have a dog who needs to learn what a crate is for. I can predict when a dog wants to sleep if I do my part to make it tired. This is so easy with a puppy that I feel foolish explaining it but for an adult foster, I make sure it gets good hard physical exercise and some training with some treats but more energy expended than food is delivered; then I give it a small meal and take it out to potty. Then I bother it a while and when it starts to droop, it goes into the pen.

In the pen is a nice big cushion and the pen is in a warm sunny comfortable place to nap. If a dog falls asleep before I can get it in there or resists going in there, I wait until it falls asleep and either move it to the x-pen or rearrange the x-pen around it. (I have lots of beds on the floor and discourage couch or bed sleeping from these dogs.) IOW, I "get the behavior" even if the dog is dead to the world and sound asleep. It is, even if I put the x-pen around it, now sleeping in the X-pen. If the dog is restless, I lure it into the pen and give it some kind of chewie. As I never have fewer than 3 dogs running around and all of them pushy, the x-pen becomes a good place for a nice long chew in private. If the dog doesn't like chewing, I give it a huge cookie and walk away.

I don't let them chew any place else. I don't let them sleep any place else. This is why this is so EASY with puppies. They sleep a lot and they chew a lot. If they start either any place other than the x-pen, I put them in there. I never put them in the x-pen and do anything interesting or even stay very close. I have never once had a dog here who didn't like the x-pen within a week.

Then, like any behavior, we take it on the road. I move the x-pen out into my yard, put it in a patch of sunlight, run the legs off the dog, feed it, do the potty thing, into the pen it goes when its eyes are drooping or I have that chewie toy it's ready for. I slowly start to move my dogs around the x-pen, which means ignoring some complaints. I never respond positively to a dog who is complaining in a pen because I've only put them in there when I know they're tired or likely to chew. They have less energy and impulse for complaining when they're tired.

Then I add my own dogs being excited (barking, jumping for toys) just outside the x-pen. Then other dogs they don't know. I never let these other dogs get too close to the pen as that could be reinforcing or threatening. It's just other "background" or outside noise/action. I don't consider myself done with this level until the dog in the enclosure can stay quiet while my adult dog barks his head off for a shot at earthdog tunnels and then runs them, barking all the time, within a foot or two of the enclosure. If the dog in the pen carries on, we disappear completely, then gradually work out the difference in proximity through smaller increments.

When they're successful at that level, we go to the obedience club to which I belong or agility practice or a friend's house or a park--anywhere I can set up the pen, exercise the dog, put it in there with a cushion, chewie, cookie and then ignore it.If I'm careful, we try different types of crates but often this step has either been beyond my patience or just not necessary.

After about a month of this, all these dogs could go into x-pens or crates, including types of enclosures they've never seen or been in before, and they complain very rarely and those complaints are ignored. Most often, they're so well conditioned they either expect a big cookie and then sleep or a chewie and nothing else occurs to them.

When my Bedlington was 4 months old, he went to a seminar and didn't make a single sound in his X-pen for the time he spent in there all weekend. (And I got him out probably once an hour for 15 minutes.) My dogs don't carry on for my attention or because they're bothered by anything around them because they've gotten used to the enclosure as a divider between themselves and the rest of the world and they LIKE that. It means they don't have to get involved or won't be. They're sleepers or spectators or busy with something they mean to be private.

I have Cabana crates for ease, wire crates for the truck/van, x-pens and a couple of wire crates for the house, enclosed Vari-kennel type of crates simply because I own some and some dogs like the enclosure, and in 6 years not a single dog has tried to get out or chewed anything or pitched a fit because I've carefully taught them what they do when they're inside. My dogs will share crates, they'll use other dogs' crates, they'll sigh and go to sleep even when stacked (because they're small and stackable) in a room full of screaming, chewing, clawing, desperate dogs--and I mean ALL including all those fosters, and I've tested them--because to them a crate is a good place where you sleep and chew or wait quietly; screaming probably doesn't occur to them by the time they're in public and it has a quickly learned consequence: nothing changes. (If I can admit to another pet peeve, it's people recommending things they understand only theoretically or based on a few dogs; I've tested this on 90 plus dogs. That doesn't mean there aren't exceptions but I've not found them, including a few teriers who LOVE to make a scene.)

This became a pet peeve of mine (GAWD,I'm crabby!) when I taught a class at a large club in the hour after flyball dogs had lessons. While my own dogs were patiently snoozing or chewing in their crates, the flyball dogs were barking, often so loudly and repetitively, my students, not to mention their dogs, could barely hear me; the hysteric dogs were releasing anal fluid as well as being prone to bouts of diarhea and spurts of urine; vomiting, chewing, yelping like a leg had been amputated--in short, it was awful for everyone, including the crated dogs. One of my dogs wouldn't even pass the area of crated flyball dogs because it was so distressing. I was told these were dogs "with high drive" and no one wanted to tamper with that. HA! My master earthdog can allow a dog to work a tunnel or a hole with his back turned, his lip zipped and sometimes his eyes closed (although his spine is quivering) when he's simply staked near a working dog and told to "settle." No dog should regard it's confinement as either miserable or CHANGEABLE by annoying action. I work very hard to see that they like it; then it's too bad. But the too bad part is about 1 percent of this if you've done your part to make it acceptable.)

It's simply a matter of teaching it like any other behavior and remembering that you're aiming at a duration behavior, not a quick repetitive behavior, with clear cues. So right from the start, give a long duration reinforcement (sleep, huge cookie, big thing to chew) for an obvious behavior (inside the enclosure) and make your life a lot easier. Last year, I bought a tent for agility trials; my dogs now regard the tent as an enclosure although it's a screen house, often not well staked, and to get out would require only that they flip their noses under some flimsy material and push their way out: they don't. I tend to forget I've not got them in the x-pen and I come back to find out that they've been challenged by a passing dog or just want something (like a lunch from a vendor or they hear me on the agility course with Dash and are anxious to join me) and yet regard the screen material as if it were heavy gauge fencing. Even more often, I don't remember to snap close the ends of my x-pen or even close the crate and my dogs don't go anywhere. It's a small joy and a constant luxury. I have left Dash for 3 hours in a crate with the door wide open. (I did this when there weren't squirrels likely to pass....AND with a friend keeping an eye on him, just in case.) Occasionally when I'm setting up the x-pen somewhere new, my dogs don't even wait until I"ve got it set up but go to the other side of the fencing opposite me and lie down. Once when I was packing my truck to leave an agility trial, someone pointed out that my dogs (at the time 2 fox terriers, a Bedlington terrier youngster of 8 months and 2 part-time (co-owned) Airedales--not exactly passive or easily trained breeds!) were all lying down on the farther side of what was a half-constructed Xpen with only 2 sides: people and dogs passed; they could have gone anywhere. They were staring at me, waiting for the big chewie or just carefully conditioned to chill out when faced with an enclosure.

I haven't a clue how to train a dog to accept/love a crate when your schedule means you must put in there against it's will. I just don't go there.

Victoria Farrington
vlfarrington@earthlink.com
copyright Victoria Farrington

 

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