Let’s play a (crate) game

Let’s play a game.

Imagine there is a room in your house that you must go into whenever someone else in your family leaves for the day. There isn’t much to do in the room other than sleep.

At first you liked the room because there were $50 bills in the room and you saw the bills and ran in, then someone closed the door as soon as you got the $50 bills. But now you aren’t into $50 bills. It is lonely in the room and you are worried someone might not come back to get you. You might become anxious. Maybe you pound on the door and scream to be let out. Or maybe you try and find a way out by scraping at the door or the surrounding wood. You might get so scared you poop in the room. You might begin to refuse to go into the room and if someone tries pushing you into the room you might turn and punch them.

This is often the case of a dog that was lured into its crate vs. trained that the crate was just a big fun game. This post is not about a dog with serious separation anxiety or serious crate anxiety. If your dog is injuring itself in the crate or pooping and rolling in the poop while crated, you need immediate help from a certified behavior specialist.

If your dog is reluctant to go into the crate this post is for you. This post is also for you if you are looking for a good way to crate train a future dog or puppy.

squishy face

This dog doesn’t look happy to be in his crate. You can see an uneaten dog biscuit in the background. You want your dog to LOVE his crate and you need to find a reward he finds important.

First, crates are not dens. Many people think the dog loves to be crated because it somehow reminds him of a den. A dog would always be able to get out of a den. The crate is boring box the dog can’t get out of.

Crates are also not punishment. Never put your dog into a crate when he perceives you are angry with him. This makes the crate even more stressful.

Crates are not cruel. They can save your dog’s life. Which is why teaching your dog to love his crate is important. Even if your dog has perfect house manners, it is still a good idea to crate train your dog. In the event of a natural disaster, you may need to evacuate to a Red Cross shelter that allows pets, those pets must be crated. In the middle of a natural disaster is not a good time to crate train your dog.

You may need to travel with your pet. Having a dog that you can safely crate while in a hotel room is fantastic. Young dogs or adolescent dogs may get into things they should not when you are gone, so the crate can keep them safe. Some dogs may be fine living with other dogs or cats while you are home; but there could be issues when you are gone. A crate can keep other animals safe. A crate is a great place to park your puppy or adolescent dog when he or she is annoying you and you can’t train or work with the dog in that moment.

When people first begin crate training a dog, they often toss food into the crate all the way to the back and the dog rushes in to get the food and then the person closes the door. The dog may find this rewarding at first because he gets a piece of food. But soon he is going to figure out this isn’t such a great game. The piece of food is quickly gone, and the owner closes the door as soon as the dog goes into the crate. Plus, the owner just leaves once the crate door is closed and is then gone for hours. (see first paragraph about the $50 bill).

You want to make the crate fun. A place the dog keeps wanting to come back to. I always tell clients the crate is Disneyland and the dog should want to keep getting in line for that favorite ride no matter how many times he has ridden in the past.

So, how do we make crates this fun?

We can teach the dog he has a choice. Instead of tossing treats into the crate, just stand by the crate with the door open and stare at the door.  Do NOT talk to the dog. This is the hardest part. Seriously, don’t talk to the dog. Just stare into the crate. If the dog won’t come anywhere near the crate because he already is terrified of it, move the crate to a new location and set up the environment so the dog must stay with you in that room.

If the dog walks near the crate; toss the dog a treat. Don’t make him come near the crate to get the treat, just toss it to him. If the dog comes closer to the crate toss him a treat. If the dog is willing to stand or sit near the crate, toss him a treat for looking into the crate. Many dogs will look where your eyes are pointing, which is why you want to stare into the crate. Do not point into the crate; don’t talk to the dog. You want the dog to decide on his own to go into the crate.

If the dog sticks his muzzle into the crate, place the treat just inside the crate door.

Gradually, withhold the treat until the dog offers more behavior. For example, if I have been rewarding the dog for sticking his nose into the crate, I might wait a few seconds after he sticks his nose in to see if he will stick his head in a little farther or maybe put a paw in. Then I will begin rewarding the dog for offering this behavior instead. If the dog won’t do that, I’ll keep rewarding for something else, or I’ll quit for the time being and come back later.

If your dog suddenly leaves the area, don’t call him back. See if he will come back on his own after a few minutes. You want the dog to have choice. It needs to be his choice to play the game. This is a stressful game for some dogs and they may need to take a break. If he won’t come back, consider what reward you are using. You may need to choose something tastier. The choice of treat is important. You need to pay the dog a lot to play this game. Consider meat. I also like to use freeze dried raw food as many dogs find it highly rewarding.

Keep the game short and always stop before the dog becomes too anxious.

Whenever I stop the crate game; I close the crate door so the dog can’t go in. I want the dog to be sad the game is over. I want him to be excited for the next time I open the door. Plus, if I can’t reward him when he goes into the crate; he will think the game is broken and it isn’t fun anymore. I played the crate game with a client’s dog recently. This dog has become extremely anxious in the crate. I worked on him just offering behavior near the crate and in 10 minutes he was going all the way inside. When I stopped the game and shut the crate door (with him outside of the crate) he spent several minutes nudging the crate door trying to make it open again. His owner was amazed. This dog wanted to get back into the crate.

Once the dog is happily running all the way into the crate; begin closing the door, dropping treats in and then immediately opening the door and calling the dog out. Over time walk a few paces away, come back toss some treats; open the door. Once you start leaving the dog in the crate for longer periods, leave him something to do.

You might choose to stuff a Kong with his kibble and maybe some peanut butter and freeze it and leave that for him to chew on while you are gone. Maybe you use a bully stick. You need to leave him something to chew on and which he will want to chew on. I suggest something edible like the food in the Kong or the bully stick.

WARNING: all things left with a dog in a crate carry risk. A dog could choke on something or get something stuck in his mouth. Do not leave the dog in a crate with something unless you have already tested it out and ensured it is a safe item for the dog to have while you are gone.

Basically, we want the dog to understand when you are gone the best things happen in the crate.

Here are a few other tips:

  • Spray the inside of the crate with ADAPTIL before you leave every day. ADAPTIL mimics a pheromone dogs can find soothing. You don’t need a prescription for it, and it seems to have no side affects you must worry about. Spray the crate 10 to 15 minutes before you leave
  • Change your routine. If your dog knows you will crate him as soon as your brush your teeth or pick up a purse or wallet, and if the crate isn’t fun, then the dog may start to become anxious when he sees you do these things. Pick up your wallet and don’t put him in his crate. Do other things so the dog isn’t becoming anxious before you even get to the crate.
  • Leave on classical music. There are studies showing classical music can have a calming effect on dogs. You can also look at Through the Dog’s Ear, which is a collection of music designed specially to calm dogs.
  • If your dog barks at things he sees outside, do not place his crate near a window. If you have a window facing a fenced back yard where there won’t be people moving around, then maybe your dog would enjoy looking out the window. If you live in an apartment or a home with very close neighbors, choose a crate location that ensures your dog will not be hearing a lot of noise from next door.
  • Put a camera on your dog so you can watch him while you are gone. You might be able to find out when something is happening that is causing anxiety.
  • You may need to get a different type of crate. If your dog had a bad experience in a wire crate, get a plastic crate. If you use the cue “kennel” and the dog has a negative association of that word and going into his crate; change the cue to a different word (like “crate”) and retrain the cue. Do not fall into the trap of buying a crate your dog can’t escape from. Getting a stronger crate to contain an anxious dog isn’t stopping the dog from being anxious. It just means it is trapping him more.

Again, if your dog is injuring himself while crated or while left loose in your home; or if he is causing extensive property damage while you are gone; please immediately seek the help of a veterinarian with behavioral experience or a trainer with experience working on this issue in a positive way. For seriously anxious dogs you may need to consult with a veterinarian to see if he or she thinks there is a medication that could help.

Avoid using medication to “fix” the issue. Any medication your veterinarian prescribes should be used in conjunction with training your dog to love his crate. That way you can stop the medication if you retrain the dog to love his crate.

If you can take time to make your dog’s crate experience fun, then you will never have an issue putting him in the crate when needed. You may need to take some vacation time to work with the dog, so you don’t have to just stuff him into a crate if he is truly anxious. Or find another way to contain him that causes less anxiety until you can teach him to love going into his crate.

Again, this is advice is for dogs that you may be in the process of crate training or dogs with only mild anxiety. If your dog has a serious issue in a crate or when left alone, please seek immediate help.




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