Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Crate, Sweet Crate

I've had a run of questions about dogs who could not be contained in a crate in the house lately. As near as I can tell, these aversions are mostly due to owners using the crate as an all-day dog-storage device in the past. So the first thing that needs fixing is the owners' perception of how long it is "reasonable" for a dog to kept in a box with no exercise, no stimulation, no companionship, and no opportunity to pee. (We're talking on a five-day-a-week basis here, not one long day or an epic car ride.)

The second thing that we fix is the dog's perception of the crate as a place he is forced to go. There's a fairly simple training progression that leaves the dog convinced that it is his fondest wish to go to his crate as fast as possible.

The "Go to Your Room" command is easy to teach and normally requires
nothing special aside from a crate and the dog's regular kibble, or
better treats if the dog is not very food-motivated (cheese, dried
liver, dog jerky, whatever floats him). Do not use a fabric soft crate
to teach this command, as the door doesn't swing and shut properly, and
some dogs can be very bothered by the way that they tip and sway. I
prefer plastic crates because the kibbles don't bounce out of them when
tossed in. If you are using a wire crate, you can use cardboard on the
outside to make a solid ring around the bottom part, which will help
contain the bounce. I generally put a rubber-backed bath mat on the
floor of the crate to reduce bounce and eliminate any aversion to the
slippery surface.

Dogs who are absolutely not food-motivated or toy-motivated at all can
still learn this, but it takes a lot of reps to get there, and is done
with mild compulsion (usually mostly body-language) and petting/praise.
One could use a toy with a very toy-motivated dog, but I haven't found
one that is really drivey towards toys who won't do it for food, and
food is easier to use in this particular circumstance. A very
toy-driven dog will typically get very amped up when using the toy to
lure this way, and we want the dog to move towards quiet compliance and

This protocol assumes a dog who is neither crate-trained nor obedience
trained beyond a marginal glimmer of a sit-stay. (This protocol will
also improve the dog's sit-stay, and a good trainer can teach both
skills at once to a totally naive dog; a novice would do better to work
a bit on sit-stay in separate sessions while starting this process as
well.) The dog should be able to take a treat from your fingers without
annexing any fingers. If the dog is averse to the crate, you will have
to go much more slowly, sometimes baiting the dog just to approach the
crate at first. No cooing or "comforting" such a dog! It's crucial that you remain matter-of-fact about this process. If the dog is
already accustomed to the crate, but just doesn't go into it on his own,
you can generally speed the process up quite a bit.

The basic premise is, you are convincing the dog that going into his
crate is his idea. Later it becomes mandatory but initially it's
about getting willing self-crating.

It takes longer to read this than it often does to do it! I've
accomplished the entire protocol, including fading the bait, in one
moderate-length session when it was imperative to "Git 'er done" right away.

Phase 1:

Start with a hungry dog and a crate. Hungry is not optional here,
because you do a lot of reps, and the dog may become quickly sated.
If the dog is fast, bullheaded, impulsive, it's useful to have a tab or
drag-line on his collar. Secure the crate door open at first so that it
is out of your way. Get the dog excited about the kibble (or better
stuff if you need it) and let him get a few pieces from your hand to
ensure that he will "take the money" and is engaged.

Now, walk up to the crate with the dog focused on the bribes, toss a
kibble just inside the door, and when the dog sticks his head in to take
it, tell him "Go to Your Room." Then call him away from the crate (a
few feet) and fuss on him.

Repeat three times with the bait right inside the the crate door. Then
start tossing further into the crate. Repeat "Go to Your Room" as the
dog now enters the crate, and praise him as he picks up the treat.
Make no effort to keep the dog in the crate. This is about going in,
not staying there. The quicker he comes back out, the faster you can
get in more reps.

Repeat until the dog is running into the crate on his own with the
treat all the way at the back wall.

This can be a good time to break and end the session, but if the dog is
staying really engaged, I keep going. If you break and start a new
session later (an hour or so minimum, next day is good), repeat a few
iterations of the dog running into the back of the crate for the treat
to get warmed up. That's true whenever you move on to a new phase after
a break -- reprise the previous session for a couple reps.

Phase 2:

Hold the dog by the collar (FLAT collar) about 3' from the crate door
and toss the treat into the crate. He should be pulling towards the
treat. Keep holding him back (no verbal corrections, no tugging -- just
hold). When he's really excited about getting the treat, let him go and
simultaneously command "Go to your room."

(Those who are familiar with puppy runaways in SAR training will see
where this comes from, and where it is going.)

The dog should shoot into the crate with a great deal more energy and
eagerness than before.

Continue with these reps, tossing the treat into the crate from further
and further away, and holding the dog back until he peaks in excitement,
then releasing him with the simultaneous command. Do this from as far
away as you can toss a treat accurately into the crate. (I find that
cut-up hotdogs are good for distance tossing.) If you have an
assistant, the assistant can stand by the crate and be the treat-weenie
and you can hold the dog from even further away.

At this phase is a good time to start closing the crate door (but not
latching it) some of the time, so that the dog has to use his paw or
nose to open the door. Leave a couple inches for a nose or paw to get
in at first. You want him to be extremely eager to get in before you
throw this roadblock in his way. If you encourage him to open the crate
door for himself at this phase, he will be able to do it later when the
door has swung closed and you aren't there.

In some cases, I will use reverse psychology and actually latch the
door closed when I want to build a strong drive to get into the crate.
I'll unlatch the door and let the dog in when he's pretty much frenzied
to get in there. I generally only do this when we are dealing with a
prior strong learned aversion to the crate. It's a strategy that
carries some risk of the dog generalizing to struggling at the door
while inside, though, so I have to make a call about doing this in any
given case.

Remember to praise each time he enters the crate, and to stop praising
when he exits it.

When he's dashing into the crate from as far away as is practical, and
popping the door open on his own without hesitation or difficulty, go on
to the next phase.

Phase 3:

Have the dog sit-stay about 3' in front of the crate. Toss a treat into
the crate. If the dog breaks, correct him verbally and block him. (Try
to avoid using a leash, but if you have to, do it.) When he's holding
the sit-stay well, release him with your release word and "go to your
room." Start moving him back away from the crate, so that you are
putting him in a sit-stay, walking to the crate, tossing in the treat,
walking back to him, and then releasing him to "Go to your room."

Again, praise as he enters the crate, stop praising as he exits it.

Alternate door open, door closed.

As you can see, this exercise is a good one for improving a sit-stay.

If your sit-stay is pretty good, you can even advance to working from
out of sight/a different room in the house. You ultimately want to be
able to send the dog to his room from anywhere in the house, right?

Begin sending the dog to the crate while you are in a sitting position
-- relaxing in your chair.

Phase 4:

Move back a little closer to the crate. Command the dog to "Go to your
room." When he gets there, close (but do not latch) the crate door, and
offer him a treat from your hand through the bars, while holding the
door closed with your foot. I like to do this from holes in the side or
back, or from the top in a wire crate. I generally switch to some sort
of treat that I can hold while the dog nibbles at this point -- like a
nylabone with some peanut butter on the end. Then I withdraw the treat
(if applicable), and tell the dog to WAIT when he turns his attention to
the door. I keep the door closed with my foot. If the dog scratches at
it, I verbally correct "AAHH AAHH." As soon as he is quiet, I open the
door, but continue to block with my body and verbally correct him for
busting out. Remember, the dog has just had quite a few "jack in the
box" reps, so he's going to try this, and there's no point getting
impatient with him over it. When he's sitting, standing, or lying
quietly in the crate with the door wide open and me about 2' back from
the door, I will release with the OKAY and step aside -- in that order.

I'll do about ten reps this way, not a lot. The goal is to have the dog
enter the crate from some distance, wait for you to give him a treat,
and then wait behind both a closed and an open door for permission to leave.

I do not give the dog positional commands while he's in the crate. He
can sit, stand, or lie down -- I don't care, and I can't effectively
enforce them when he's in there anyway. I'm looking for him to choose
to restrain himself behind both the open and the closed door

Phase 5:

Send dog to crate from some distance. When he gets in there, command
WAIT or STAY. Periodically toss a treat into the open door.

Advance rather quickly to the dog staying in the crate while you are
sitting about 10' or so away. These stays can vary from 1 minute to 30
minutes. In the course of a ten minute in-crate stay (again, no
positional commands, so I use WAIT) I might toss a treat to the dog
twice, when he is at maximum relaxation short of being asleep.
Phase 6:

Send dog to crate from anywhere in the house. Give stuffed Kong or
other ritual treat. Close and latch the door. Correct any whining or barking
with verbal, tossed object (shoe or throw-chain against the crate door)
or a water bottle spray -- whatever it takes.

Continue to send dog to his crate 5-10 times a day and having him wait
there with the door open. Follow up by bringing him a treat one time
out of those 5-10, always when he is most relaxed. Go in and out of the
room randomly while he waits in his crate.

You must make it clear, once your dog well understands what the command
means, that you will require the dog to go to his room on command -- it
is not a suggestion. I generally accomplish this with nothing more than
voice and body language, but some stubborn dogs may require a physical
correction (collar correction using a tab, e-collar tap, or light swat
on the butt or poke to the shoulder) when they don't wanna go. Do not
start using compulsion too early in the training, or your dog will
become dependent on it and will not crate willingly, but as an escape
tactic-- this is particularly true of "threatening" pointing to the
crate and gruff/angry commands.

Proof with children and other animals running around (whatever kind of
chaos your house has). Practice when traveling -- at a relative's
house, in a motel.

Set your dog up for doorbell rings, and send him to his room when your
stooge rings the bell. Reward him mightily when he gets there, close
the crate door, answer the bell. Advance to answering the bell with the
crate door open, correcting any breaks from the crate. You must do
this with planned setups -- you can't proof your dog's training and sign
for the Fedex man effectively at the same time.

Some of my clients have made the doorbell ringing a signal for their
dogs to run to their crates and wait. Very handy, and easily done. I
prefer my guys to be visible at the door when I open it, so I don't do this.

So that's how you get your dog to run to his crate on command, willingly, from anywhere in the house. The training can take a few days or several weeks, depending on the dog and the work ethic of the owner.

Young Wylie, nee Ace, is awaiting a long flight to his forever home here. Three weeks before this photo was taken, he was in a rural dog pound, and had almost certainly never seen a dog crate. Here he is relaxed and secure; he hopped into this airline kennel quite cheerfully when asked, and later repeated the feat for airline employees who one must assume are not hired for the their dog-handling chops. Some simple training made it possible for him to travel without undue stress.


  1. How about containing a Lab/Pit mix, first 1 1/2 of her life unknown (from the pound)currently about 2 1/2 yrs old, she LOVES her crate, will spend all day sleeping in there if allowed. She has no qualms whatsoever with her crate. My husband works from home with our 2 yr old, so she is not left alone very often. She is alone on Sundays for about 3 hours, and various times when we all leave - not very often and never for long periods of time.

    She does need more exercise, but where I live I won't risk a broken leg on the ice, which is pretty constant until spring. She gets out of the crate by pulling the door inward and bending it (we've tried new crates, nothing can stop her). We've tried bungee cords (she chews through it), putting her in a bathroom (destroys it - biting the metal doorknob and scratching at the door). When she gets out she destroys the blinds and gets trash all over the house, eating anything edible in there.

    I can't give her a Kong - she destroys it in about 5 min, into tiny pieces. The only thing she can't immediately destroy is a Nylabone - but her front teeth are chipped - and one will have to be pulled soon which is cracked into the gum.

    She's a great dog otherwise - loves people, endless patience with my toddler. She gets anxious with storms too, I put her in the crate and she settles right down, because we are home.

    We've only had her for about 3 months. She knows basic commands, will not touch her food until I say so. She gets too excited (friendly) with visitors, but getting better as we work on that.

    "Indestructible" steel crates are $500, and I'm afraid she will destroy her already not good teeth. Help?

    JB in the North

  2. I completely defer to H. on training, but you might want to check out the SitStay.com boards for "tricks to teach your dogs during the winter months."

    SitStay is a Internet pet supply store, but they are located in Nebraska and lots of folks on the boards don't want/can't get out in winter. So, to keep their dogs occupied, they spend the winter teaching their dogs new tricks.

    Take some time to read the boards and print out some "winter tricks" you and your husband can teach your dog -- it will at least take the edge off while the real trainers around here give you some advice on how to deal with the rest! ;-)


  3. For more winter exercise idea go here:

    Also, though while at $500 those industructlbe crates are spendy, in the long run they cost less than ruined houses or vet bills to surgically remove ingested pieces of whatnot.

  4. Hi JB --

    It sounds as if you have a serious enough escape/anxiety problem that you need to consult with a competent trainer hands-on.

    It is beyond the scope of this blog to give specific training advice on developed behavior problems. I don't do that for money when I haven't seen the dog.

    Get a reference from your vet, try www.nadoi.org and www.dogpro.org and find someone who can help you hands-on.

    But one word. Excuses -- even good excuses, even I'm in traction -- are not a substitute for exercise. You will have to find a way to meet the dog's exercise needs. Period. Non-negotiable. Has to be done.


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