<Last updated 17MAY16>
Dogs are den animals and often find security and comfort in a den-like space such as a crate, under a table, or in some other small, confining area. In order for a crate to offer your dog security, it must be “den like.” Crates often work best when they are not a wire cage, but are one of the airline style crates that are plastic or fiberglass, and are enclosed on all sides except for a door at the front. In the wild, a den would typically be enclosed on all sides except for an entrance.
If you have a wire crate, you can convert it into a den by placing a board on top of it to make it more den-like. Make sure the board extends a couple of inches beyond both sides of the crate so you can hang a blanket over the board to close in the sides. You do not want the dog to be able to pull the blanket into the crate. Many wire crates have a pan at the bottom which can make noise and move around unexpectedly, which some dogs may find unsettling. You may wish to remove the pan or place an old towel or blanket over the tray, but make sure that your dog will not rip it apart and ingest it.
A crate should be large enough for your dog to sit up, lie down and turn around comfortably. However, if still housetraining, the dog should NOT have enough room to sleep in one corner and eliminate in another part of the crate.
Some beds are specifically made for dog crates, but I do not recommend them for dogs with anxiety issues, as they will often chew and possibly ingest items like this when left in the crate. Until you know your dog will do well in the crate, and is housetrained, I would recommend you do NOT use any bedding material.
Place the crate in an area that is quiet, but where your dog can still see and hear you. Remember, dogs are social animals and want to be with the rest of the family. They do not like feeling isolated. Putting the crate in your bedroom at night will help to strengthen the bond between you and your dog by allowing him to sleep near you.
Do not to abuse the use of the crate. We want the dog to like the crate so NEVER use it for punishment. If your dog spends a significant amount of time in a crate, it will also need a significant amount of time to exercise and play.
If Your Dog Is Already Acting Negatively Towards the Crate
Some dogs have already had a bad experience in a crate and will panic if you try to put them in a crate. In this case, we need to go slower and start with something crate-like, but different. What I am going to suggest will NOT confine the dog, thus, active management is mandatory, but will hopefully allow them to acclimate gradually to a crate-like environment.
Find a small table, a card table can work nicely for most size dogs, and start practicing the following exercises:
- Toss a treat or a favorite toy under the table, so your dog goes underneath to investigate. Do this a couple of times a day for several days.
- Start feeding your dog his meals under the table. Place the dish right up near the front of the table so the dog barely has to put his head in, to eat. Over several meals, as the dog becomes more comfortable, start putting the dish further back under the table.
- Once the dog is happily eating and spending time under the table, get an old blanket or some pieces of cardboard and cover two sides of the table so that it is now semi-enclosed. The front and back should still be open. Continue the exercises above with this newly configured table, recognizing that you may need to start slowly to get your dog comfortable.
- When the dog is happily spending time under the table with two sides enclosed, enclose the back of the table and continue the exercises you started above. After the dog is comfortable in this setting, try introducing a crate as noted below.
Introducing the dog to the crate
- Remove the door to the crate and let your dog explore it. Toss in a treat or a favorite toy so he goes in to investigate. Do this a couple of times a day for several days.
- Start feeding your dog his meals in the crate. Place the dish right up near the front of the crate so the dog barely has to put his head in, in order to eat. Over several meals, as the dog becomes more comfortable, start putting the dish further back in the crate.
- At the same time, you start feeding your dog his meals in the crate, you can also begin some other crate exercises to practice during the day. Have your dog go into the crate and feed him a high-value reward (cheese, a piece of chicken, something really good) through the door of the crate. While doing this, he is learning he gets the best rewards while in his crate. To keep these rewards high value, he should only get this treat for this particular exercise.
- When your dog is comfortable going all the way into the crate to eat his meal, put the door back on and quietly close the door behind them, but do NOT latch it. Let him come out when he wishes.
- Pick a word such as “kennel” and use it immediately before you put the dog in its crate for eating. When the dog is comfortable with the door closed, start latching it, but stay close.
- When the dog is comfortable staying in the crate eating with the door latched, start leaving them in the crate for longer periods after they finish eating.
- When you can keep the door latched for 5 minutes after the dog has stopped eating, start leaving the room. Be out of site but close by so you can hear your dog if they become anxious. Return after 5 minutes as long as the dog has not become anxious, and let the dog out of the crate. Do not make a big deal out of letting him out. Continue this until you can stay out of site, with the dog in the crate for at least 15 minutes. What we hope will happen is that the dog will eventually lie down and settle in the crate.
- Start using the word “kennel” to put your dog in the crate for short periods other than at mealtime. Give them a sturdy toy like a stuffed Kong or Nylabone to interact with while in their crate. The first time you do this, just step out of site for 5 minutes or less. If the dog does not panic or become anxious, continue to gradually, in baby steps, increase their amount of time in the crate with you out of site.
- When you can leave the dog in the crate for at least 30 minutes, with you just out of site, try leaving the dog in the crate, and leaving the house. Come back in the house after a couple of minutes, listen, and see if the dog is still calm. If so, just stay out of site and continue to work on increasing the amount of time left in the crate. Gradually, increase the time you are outside until you can leave the dog for 30 minutes with you outside.
- When you can leave the dog in the crate for at least 30 minutes, with you outside, leave the dog in the crate, leave the house, get in the car, start it and drive at least 100 feet away. Turn off the car, walk back to the house and see if the dog is still relaxed. Gradually, increase the time you can leave the dog for in the crate with you driving away until the dog can be left for 3 to 4 hours. Remember, if you want to be successful, you need to go in baby steps. For some dogs, this might mean increasing the amount of time you leave them by just 1 or 2 minutes per session.
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