Originally published in the Las Cruces Sun-News August 20, 2015
One of the many reasons I hear for surrendering a dog to the shelter is "I can't handle the mess it is making in the house;" which is sad, because there are many methods to train an animal so that it will be able to live in your home as a companion animal.
The method I want to talk about is crate training, which I use at my own home. The philosophy behind crating is using the dog's natural instincts as a den animal. A wild dog's den is his home; a place to sleep, hide from danger and raise a family. The crate becomes your dog's den, an ideal spot to snooze or take refuge during a thunderstorm. The primary use for a crate is housetraining, which works great because dogs don't like to soil their dens. The crate can also limit access to the rest of the house while he learns other rules, like not to chew on furniture.
A crate isn't a magical solution. If not used correctly, a dog can feel trapped and frustrated. Never use the crate as a punishment. Your dog will come to fear it and refuse to enter. Don't leave your dog in the crate for too long, they can't "hold it" forever.
Puppies under 6 months of age shouldn't stay in a crate for more than three or four hours at a time. They can't control their bladders and bowels for that long. The same goes for adult dogs that are being housetrained. Physically, they can hold it, but they don't know they're supposed to. Crate your dog only until you can trust him not to destroy the house. After that, it should be a place he goes voluntarily.
There are several types of crates available: plastic (often called "flight kennels"); fabric on a collapsible, rigid frame; collapsible, metal pens, which I like because the animal gets a view on all four sides. Crates come in different sizes and can be purchased at most pet supply stores or pet supply catalogs. Your dog's crate should be just large enough for him to stand up and turn around in. If your dog is still growing, choose a crate that will accommodate his adult size. Block off excess crate space so your dog can't eliminate at one end and retreat to the other.
Crate training can take days or weeks, depending on your dog's age, temperament and past experiences. It's important to keep two things in mind while crate training:
• The crate should always be associated with something pleasant.
• Training should take place in a series of small steps. Don't go too fast.
Step 1: The introduction
Place the crate in an area of your house where the family spends a lot of time, such as the family room. Put a soft blanket or towel in the crate. Take the door off and let the dog explore the crate at his leisure. Some dogs will be naturally curious and start sleeping in the crate right away. If yours isn't one of them, bring him over to the crate and talk to him in a happy tone of voice. Make sure the crate door is open and secured so that it won't hit your dog and frighten him. Encourage your dog to enter the crate by dropping some small food treats nearby, then just inside the door, and finally, way inside the crate. If he refuses to go all the way in at first, that's OK; don't force him to enter. Continue tossing treats into the crate until your dog will walk calmly all the way into the crate. If he isn't interested in treats, try tossing a favorite toy in the crate.
Step 2: Lengthen crating periods
After your dog is showing no signs of fear or anxiety, you can confine him there for short time periods while you're home. Call him to the crate and give him a treat. Give him a command to enter, such as "kennel." Encourage him by pointing to the inside of the crate with a treat in your hand. After your dog enters the crate, praise him, give him the treat and close the door. Sit quietly near the crate for five to ten minutes, and then go into another room for a few minutes. Return, sit quietly again for a short time, and then let him out of the crate. Repeat this process several times a day, gradually increasing the length of time you leave him in the crate and the length of time you're out of his sight. Once your dog will stay quietly in the crate for about 30 minutes with you mostly out of sight, you can begin leaving him crated when you're gone for short time periods and/or letting him sleep there at night.
Step 3: Crate your dog when you leave
After your dog can spend about 30 minutes in the crate without becoming anxious or afraid, you can begin leaving him crated for short periods when you leave the house. Put him in the crate using your regular command and a treat or toy. Don't make your departures emotional and prolonged — they should be matter-of-fact. When you return, don't reward your dog for excited behavior. Keep arrivals low-key to avoid increasing his anxiety over when you will return.
Step 4: Crate your dog at night
Put your dog in the crate using your regular command and a treat. Initially, it may be a good idea to put the crate in your bedroom or nearby in a hallway, especially if you have a puppy. Puppies often need to go outside to eliminate during the night, and you'll want to be able to hear your puppy when he whines to be let outside. Older dogs, too, should initially be kept nearby so they don't associate the crate with social isolation. Once your dog is sleeping comfortably through the night with his crate near you, you can begin to move it to the location you prefer, although time spent with your dog — even sleep time — is a chance to strengthen the bond between you and your pet.
• Whining. If your dog whines or cries while in the crate at night, it may be difficult to decide whether he's whining to be let out of the crate to cuddle up with you, or whether he needs to be let outside to eliminate. If you've followed the training procedures outlined above, then your dog hasn't been rewarded for whining in the past by being released from his crate. If that is the case, try to ignore the whining. Yelling at him or pounding on the crate will only make things worse.
• Separation anxiety. Attempting to use the crate as a remedy for separation anxiety won't solve the problem. A crate may prevent your dog from being destructive, but he may injure himself in an attempt to escape from the crate. Separation anxiety problems can only be resolved with counter-conditioning and desensitization procedures. You may want to consult a professional animal-behavior specialist for help.
Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock is executive director of the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley.