Like many dog owners, Jim DiPaolo had strong opinions about crates. “I thought it was mean to keep a dog cooped up,” he says. “I didn’t believe in crates.”
Then, his 6-year-old Labrador Retriever, Nemo, had hip replacement surgery, and DiPaolo had no choice. The veterinarian warned him that if Nemo put any weight on his back legs, the thousands of dollars DiPaolo had spent to make sure his dog could walk without pain would be for naught.
So, he bought a crate, threw a dog biscuit in it, and waited to see what would happen. Nemo walked in, ate the treat, and stayed. “He went right into it,” DiPaolo says. “He loved it. No problem.”
Put Out The Welcome Mat
DiPaolo was one of the lucky ones. While you can coax most dogs into using a crate, not all will take to it as readily as Nemo, particularly older dogs used to having the run of the house.
“It all depends on the dog,” says Dave Skoletsky, a certified pet trainer. “For some dogs, it’s a piece of cake. For others, it’s tough. Some animals don’t feel comfortable in them at all.”
The key is to make the dog crate as attractive as possible. The main things you can do to make it a welcoming den for your dog: Use small but yummy treats or, better yet, his favorite toy; put the crate in a place in the house where your dog won’t feel isolated; and ensure the crate fits him just right.
And, most important, don’t use it as punishment. If your dog associates the crate with the consequences of doing something wrong, he will learn to hate the crate.
Establish Limits Properly
“A crate is a management tool,” Skoletsky says. “It can be used properly or used improperly.”
If you use a crate properly, you can easily and painlessly establish limits for your dog, particularly if you’re away from home for long hours and can’t monitor your dog’s behavior. A crate can also be a safe haven for your dog when you have a house full of people, and he doesn’t feel like coming to the party. Similarly, crates can provide a refuge for dogs who get spooked by thunderstorms, fireworks, or other unfamiliar noises.
Ideally, you should introduce your dog to a crate when he’s a puppy, which is the best time to establish household rules. Instead of yelling at your puppy hours after he has chewed up a favorite pair of shoes or gnawed through the cushions of the couch, you can put him in his crate so he doesn’t get into trouble in the first place. Dog trainers agree that scolding your dog hours after he has done something wrong accomplishes nothing. Your dog can’t equate your hysterical rant with something he did hours — or even minutes — before.
A crate can also help housetrain your puppy. It doesn’t necessarily take the work out of housetraining. It just makes it easier to monitor when he has to go outside — and easier to clean up if you don’t get to him quickly enough. Put your puppy in the crate, then take him outside after meals and naps, and perhaps when he whimpers, scratches, or paces. Praise him mightily when he goes outside. Soon, he’ll catch on.
But buy a crate that fits your puppy. If it’s too big, he might use part of it as a bathroom.
You may have more difficulty luring your older dog, unaccustomed to confinement, into a crate. Nonetheless, the same rules for acclimating your dog apply.
Choose The Correct Size
Get a crate big enough to allow your dog to stand up and lie down comfortably. Put the crate in an inviting place, where he can still enjoy the household’s activity.
Initially, keep your dog, particularly a puppy, in the crate for short amounts of time (five to 10 minutes) while you’re home. Sit near the crate until you’re sure your dog is comfortable. Then, go to another part of the house for about 15 minutes before returning to check on him, letting him know you haven’t abandoned him. Once he can stay in the crate for 30 minutes without anxiety, you can begin leaving the house for short amounts of time — 30 minutes to an hour — or begin putting him in the crate at night while you sleep.
As your dog becomes acclimated to the crate, lengthen his stay. But never leave your adult dog in his crate for longer than eight hours or your puppy for three or four. Puppies can’t control their bladders for much longer than that.
“After the initial training, your dog need not spend time in his crate when your family is home and can keep an eye on him,” Skoletsky says. He uses crates for his own dogs in just two cases: “When I can’t supervise them or when I’m leaving.” Other dog trainers and owners find crating useful for occasional time-outs to help anxious or over-excited dogs calm down.
Once a non-believer, DiPaolo now says he’s sold on crates. “I’ve lost couches, dozens of pairs of shoes, and important books. He even ate my wife’s homework once,” he says, remembering Nemo’s early days. “If I ever got another puppy, I’d definitely use a crate just to get through that teething stage.”
This article first appeared in the February 2004 issue of DOG FANCY magazine.