Crate Training - One Approach to Housebreaking, Part 1
You want me to do what?! Put my dog in a cage?!! How cruel!
     Cruel? NO. Done properly, crate training can be the answer to many problems faced by dogs and their owners. Dogs have a natural denning instinct that they inherited from their ancestor, the wolf. Wolves find a small cave, or dig themselves one and this is where they sleep, rest and just “hang out”. It is home. Providing your dog with a crate satisfies his desire to den. No one is going to yell at him for doing something wrong while he is in his crate. No one is going to step on his tail, trip over him or pull on his ears. It is easier to teach small children to stay away from the dog while he is in his crate than it is to yell “LEAVE THE DOG ALONE” every couple of minutes.
First, what is a crate?
     The answer is simply that a crate is an indoor dog house, with a door. It is just big enough for your dog to stand up, turn around and lie down in. This “indoor dog house” is placed in a much-used area of your house such as the living room or kitchen. It can be made of plastic, wire, wood or a combination of all three. It is a place for your dog to relax in when no one is around to make sure Rover is staying out of trouble. It is your dog’s space in your house. It is his bed (or room) and sanctuary; it is his.
Why crate train?
     Many people crate train their dog for the simple reason that the dog can do no wrong while he is in his crate. Your dog can’t piddle on the rug, harass the mailman, chew on the furniture, get into the trash or eat your children’s hamster. He learns to relax and go to sleep while you are away. This in effect is teaching him good habits…SLEEP while his family is away.
     And while he sleeps, you can go shopping, visit friends, run errands or take in a movie and not have to worry about what kind of shape the house is going to be in when you get home. You put your dog in his crate, shut and door and leave for a few hours, knowing that when you return it will be a happy reunion and not a one-sided yelling match, with your dog cringing in the corner.
But what about exercise? I thought a dog needed freedom. Won't my dog be cramped?
     NO. Before putting your dog in his crate each day before you go to work or go off for a couple of hours to run errands, you will have made sure he has had at least a good romp with you. Remember, you won’t be putting your dog there forever. Four or five house while you go shipping, or overnight so you can sleep without having to worry about what your dog is doing is fine.
     He will not have to spend every day of life in his crate anyway. Just until he outgrows that puppy destructive stage, or until you teach him your household rules or until he adjusts to living with you (especially in the case if you have adopted a shelter dog). Your dog will actually enjoy being in a crate after you have taught him that it is his “room”.
     For longer periods of time (generally anything over nine hours during the day), your dog should be confined to a larger area such as a completely enclosed dog run along side your house. Ideally if you need to crate your dog during your work day (5+ hours) then either come home at lunch to let your dog out for a stretch and elimination OR provide a secure area large enough for your dog to eliminate in and yet sleep or play in the other (i.e., a closed off kitchen area, outside enclosed dog run or a very secure backyard area). Again, always make sure your puppy or dog has had a good exercise session with you any time before confining them for the day.
Why crate train at all? Why can't I just leave my dog in the yard all the time?
     Because dogs by nature are pack animals, they are very social. They prefer the company of others probably more so than humans do. They need to be in the house, even when you are not there or when you are sleeping and can’t be interacting with them. They need to feel that they are part of your family “pack” and that means being in the house (the pack’s den), even though you may not be in the house. Depriving your dog of that feeling of “belonging” and of being a part of your family pack can do as much psychological damage as locking a child in a closet for most of the day. They become neurotic or psychotic.
     Problem behaviors such as digging, barking, chewing and escaping develop in a backyard dog. If all you want is a backyard fixture, then get yourself a statue. But, if what you want is a family companion and friend, then get yourself a dog and let him in the house with you, let him belong.
But won't he get terribly bored, being locked up?
     NO. He will learn to just sleep while you are away. That’s a lot better than leaving him out where he learns it is fun to chew on the door, get into the garbage or piddle on the rug. A dog will sleep eighteen hours a day if you let him. And remember a dog’s version of recreation while you are away often involves destroying your house or your yard. Also, it is not as if he must remain in his crate for the rest of his life; just until they get over the destructive period all dogs go through when they are young. Or if it’s an older dog in a new home, just until you, as the owner, feel safe leaving him alone in your house unconfined.
Perhaps I'll give it a try. Where can I get a crate?
     Any of the larger pet stores like Petsmart or Petco carry them. You can also try the classifieds in the newspaper, but they are few and far between there.
What kind of money are we talking about?
     It depends on the size of your dog and where you purchase the crate. Just remember though, a crate is something your dog will have the rest of his life. It is his bed, his room, his space in your house. A good crate will last much longer than your dog will, so don’t worry about it wearing out! Also compare the initial cost of a crate with the cost of destructive behavior. It is much easier to spend money on a crate than replacing your sofa or the landscaping in your yard.
     Shelling out sixty dollars for a new crate is nothing compared to buying new carpet or a sofa, replacing stereo equipment, re-landscaping your yard, trying to find Rover after he has escaped from your yard or explaining hamster heaven to your kids!
What size should I get?
     Your dog’s crate should be just big enough for him to stand up, turn around and lie down in, NO BIGGER. The reason for this is so that he cannot piddle in one corner and sleep in the opposite corner. This teaches your dog control.
What about puppies? I don't want to keep buying crates as my puppy grows bigger!
     Right. You should guesstimate what size your puppy will be as an adult (breed books will be able to help you with this, providing you know what breed or mixture of breeds your puppy is) and buy a crate that will be big enough for him as an adult dog. Then you put cardboard boxes or a wire divider in one end or make the crate smaller. As your puppy grows, you gradually increase his “living space” in the crate by getting smaller boxes or moving the wire divider.
     If you have an adult dog already, take him with you to the pet store to size him for the crate. The top of the crate should extend two inches above his shoulders. The end of the crate should be about two inches from your dog’s rump. Perfect fit.
What's the best kind of crate to buy?
     Plastic is probably the best, although metal crates have the advantage of folding up for storage. Remember though, that a dog will want his crate door left open so he can go in and out as he pleases after he has outgrown the initial purpose of the crate. So, the fact that metal crates can fold up when they are not in use may not be a good reason to purchase that kind of crate. Plastic is easier to clean and does not squeak and rattle like metal does when the dog moves around inside.
     You can make your own crate out of wood, but wood is difficult to keep clean and some dogs like to chew on wood anyway! Some brand names of plastic crates are: Vari-Kennel, Kennel Cab and Sky Kennel.
Once I have the crate where do I put it?
     Your dog’s crate should be placed in the most often used room in the house, and it should stay there. The living room, the family room, the kitchen - wherever your family spends the most time.
How do I teach my dog that this is his room?
     At first most dogs resent being confined because they feel you have left them and are not coming back. However, given some time to adjust, your dog will soon learn to love his crate and the security and privacy that goes along with it. Try feeding your dog his meals with the door tied open the first week or two.