DOG QUEST: Crate-training

Both of my dogs are crate-trained.

A lot of people are very uncomfortable with the concept of crate training: the image of a dog kept in a box just large enough for them to turn around in is upsetting on a visceral level, so it makes sense. I’ll admit that I was extremely hesitant about the idea at first, so I thought I’d share why I turned around on it.

Before we picked the puppy who would become Amos, I decided I should read up on general dog owning, training and maintenance, since I hadn’t actually lived with dogs since I was twelve and I was a bit vague on the details. Also, I presumed that there had been some change to better practice, given the march of scientific progress and discovery, and I didn’t want to use some outdated training technique that had since been shown to be ineffective. There’s a lot of “common sense” guidelines out there, and I’m sure that by now we all know that there’s no such thing as “common sense”, and a lot of it seems to tie in with anthropomorphism, i.e., projecting human psychological traits onto animals.

[one example of “common sense” is the outdated idea that you should rubby a puppy’s nose in their pee while telling them off, so they link the two ideas and learn not to pee inside. This does not work. All you end up with is a traumatised, confused puppy that now smells like its own pee and is getting told off for reasons it does not understand]

Three of three Rottweiler-specific books, chock full with other excellent advice, strongly recommended the use of the crate and made an excellent case.

Two vets recommended it (I asked when we took the cats in).

The breeder recommended it.

Eventually, and after we’d already made the decision, our trainers recommended it.

I was on the fence about the idea even after the books, the vets and the breeder; I was leaning towards it given the weight of the advice, but I still had trouble with the image of a puppy in a cage. And yet, at some point the puppy would need to be unattended, and the yard and deck we were living with were not entirely puppy friendly.

[As an aside here, an eight- or nine-week old puppy is like a demonic cross between a toddler and a slightly advanced small child. They get into everything. They know what they want, they have basic mobility, and they can get up a pretty good speed, but far too often the limbs do not go where puppy expects or wants them to go, and the puppy tumbles. Like kids, puppies do tend to bounce… most of the time. Also like kids, an unfortunate fall from a deck of sufficient height or an ungainly plummet down the stairs could lead to really severe injuries. Our deck was high enough to raise concerns. We eventually worked out a way to make it puppy safe (it involved some tarp and some temporary fencing), and ultimately didn’t even need that anymore as Amos outgrew the worst of his puppy klutziness.]

I had the bright idea of a compromise: we’d get a puppy playpen. That way we could put it in an open space, with his puppy toys, while we did necessary human things like dishes, and vacuuming, and occasionally leaving the house.

Brilliant plan. Brilliant.

There was just one problem. When we brought the tiny puppy home (see picture provided), he hated the playpen. Hated it. Now, when you confine a small needy puppy who has been taken away from his mother and his littermates and his human friends (the breeders and their kids), and then leave his immediate line of sight, you are bound to get some crying. Serious crying. Wailing. Howling. Attempts to climb to freedom. Panic. Abandonment by the pack. Doom. DOOM AND DESPAIR. HOWWOWOWOWOWL.

It tugs at the heartstrings. The advice, as heartless as it may sound, is to ignore it. The puppy learns over time that you will always come back (and that you are more likely to come back when puppy is being quiet and not making the horrible, horrible noise). You are reliable. Puppy is not being abandoned. Puppy is safe!

Unfortunately, puppy takes a while to get this idea.

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The day we brought him home. LOOK AT HIS TINY LITTLE FACE.

So, after cuddling the small sleepy puppy after his long drive, and playing with him a little, I put him in his playpen with a towel and a chew toy. I expected wails and howls of despair. I expected that we would have to wait it out.

I did not expect it to continue for three hours while he batted the walls of the playpen until they started to slide around on the kitchen floor.

I was exhausted. I’d just come back from a conference, I’d driven for a three hour round trip to pick up the puppy, and it was the first day of my period (necessitating vast amounts of sleep). I couldn’t watch the puppy constantly, and Husband had to work.

It was clear to me that puppy needed to know where I was, and that he wasn’t alone, and given how much he’d been through that day and the fact that he was essentially still a baby, I decided that was fair. The playpen wouldn’t fit properly in the lounge room though, so I grabbed a cardboard box (we’d only moved into the house a month prior so there were plenty of boxes around), weighted it down with dive weights (small tablets of lead always come in handy), folded up a towel in the bottom, added a small chew toy, and placed the box next to the couch where I intended to have my nap until the progesterone cut me some slack.

I then deployed puppy into his temporary home.

The first box was a bit of a wash. He just climbed up and put his paws on the side (see picture) to look around. The box began to wobble a bit.

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The flash is a little bit unkind, but this is one of many photos of Amos in his first attempted crate.

With a sigh, and cradling my lower abdomen, I got a larger box, transferred dive weights, towel, chew toy and puppy to it, and put it back next to the couch. He couldn’t climb up the side of this one, and he couldn’t see me from it (which was why I’d chosen the smaller box in the first place).

He curled up and went to sleep.

Right there.

In moments.

Back to the crate situation: I’d read that dogs can be trained to like crates because crates are essentially dens. They are small safe places – much the same reason that cats like boxes (documented Internet reality). Not all dogs will adjust to a crate (I’m presuming past traumatic experiences with confinement or claustrophobia), but most deal with it quite happily.

Amos had just told me, in his own way, that he didn’t want a playpen. Yet he seemed perfectly happy in his box.

So I went to Petbarn the next day and bought the largest crate we could find, with a movable wall so we could make the space bigger as he grew. Crate training has the advantage of speeding up toilet training as well; dogs won’t crap or pee where they sleep if they can possibly avoid it, so if they sleep in a small space, they’ll hold it as long as they can, and whine when they need to be let out.

Puppies physically can’t hold it in for very long, so this meant I got woken up by a little puppy whine once or twice a night to take him outside (in his tiny puppy collar on a tiny puppy lead – see picture) and wait for him to do all his business, at which point he would get lots of praise and a couple of treats, and then we would go back inside and put him back in his crate until morning.

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Tiny Amos on his lead. He has no idea what is expected of him, except that I won’t let him play, and I won’t take him back inside. The traumas of toilet training, because honestly, I want to go back inside myself, but I can’t until he takes a crap. CRAP, DOG. JUST CRAP.

[Another aside: I was writing up my thesis at the time, and Husband had a couple of days a week that he could work from home while I went in to do some paid lab work, so we had the enviable situation where Amos was not left home alone for more than about an hour until he was six months old. This also sped up toilet training considerably, since it meant that he could be taken outside whenever it seemed like he might need to go. There were still lots of accidents, but he seemed to learn pretty well]

Crate training meant that we could avoid wholesale destruction of our property overnight, since puppies chew.

Puppies chew when they are bored, or happy, or playful, or sleepy, or, incidentally, breathing. This is a truism of puppies. They can be taught to chew only their chew toys, and not, say, tables (or people), but it takes a while – time, patience, repetition. In the meantime, while we did a “puppy check!” every night before bed (removing loose cables, glasses, and pretty much any loose object from the lounge room where he was confined), there are things you can’t move, and in addition, a puppy won’t whine to go outside to pee if he is perfectly capable of finding a nice corner of loungeroom to wee on.

So for a long time, Amos slept in his crate at night. He was occasionally put in his crate if we were too tired or busy to watch him, but for the most part it was a sleeping place or a resting place. Over time, we noticed that he seemed to be chewing things less, and was very comfortable with the notion that toileting was an outside activity, so we left the door of his crate open overnight.

He still quite often slept in the crate, but now he sometimes slept on the couch.

When we moved to our current house, we had him sleep in the crate for a while just until we were sure he was comfortable with the new place (and that he understood that toilet business was also an outside activity at the new place). Then we eventually just took the crate away, folded it up, and put it in the carport.

Enter Abby.

Abby came to us decidedly not toilet trained (much to our surprise, since she was eight or nine months old). She also had some separation anxiety (this was not surprising, since she was a rescue dog). Her foster carer had already started crate-training her, so we had that advantage.

Abby still sleeps in the crate overnight (see picture). We don’t entirely trust her not to pee in the lounge room, but it’s not just that. We don’t trust her not to steal objects off the coffee table (or graphic novels off the sideboard) to chew, but it’s not just that either. It’s largely because we have a sneaking suspicion that she will try to play with Amos throughout the night.

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Abby sleeping in her crate. I had to take a photo, because who sleeps in that position, seriously?
(note: shaved area and stitches due to recent desexing)

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“I just woke up and you’re taking photos of me sleeping. DUDE THAT’S CREEPY.”

Firstly, puppy play between two rottweilers is not restful, and I need sleep. Secondly, Amos probably won’t want to play (he likes his naps), and he will express this refusal in a way that is also not restful. Abby doesn’t get a clue at this stage (Amos used to be the same, so we’re reasonably confident she’ll grow out of it). She’ll just keep trying to play with him, and then disaster will ensue (in the form of growling and whining and thumping and Abby getting her ear chewed).

We sometimes put Abby in the crate at mealtimes (we’re letting her out more and more because she can’t learn how to behave around human food if she’s never around it), and sometimes when she just won’t settle and stop playing with Amos in the evening (inside time is quiet time, dammit).

The only other time I’ll put Abby in the crate is if I’m taking Amos out and Husband isn’t home. She still tends to howl and get upset if she’s left at home alone without Amos (amused neighbours have reported to us and wondered if perhaps there was a very upset wolf living at our house…?). Husband came home once after taking Amos to a café to find that Abby had somehow forced her way in through the back door in search of us and had left a trail of minor destruction in her wake. I’m worried that I’ll come home and find she’s gone looking for us outside – our fences are moderately secure, but if she was super determined she could find a way around the problem.

Leaving her at home alone could make her super determined.

I do have hopes that one day, we’ll be able to start leaving the door of the crate open, and she won’t pee, destroy things, or hassle Amos overnight, and we’ll come out in the morning to find her on the couch opposite Amos. This is not that day, but it will probably happen.

In the meantime, the crate is her safe haven, and a way to give Amos a break from her insistent demands to wrestle. We feed her there (which means that sometimes she just runs straight into her crate and sits down when she wants food. It’s kind of adorable). She sleeps there and pushes her crate mat up into a lump to use as a pillow. Amos sleeps mostly on his couch, or on the kitchen floor if it’s a bit too warm.

I’ve only talked about why we crate train and not how crate training is done, so to finish off I’ll just make a few points.

  1. A crate should not be a place where a dog or puppy spends most of their time because you decide you don’t have time to deal with them. That’s not fair. If you occasionally need a break and can’t put the rambunctious pup outside for some reason, that is fair enough, and the pup will cope, but most will not tolerate living in their crate, and they shouldn’t have to. Abby is only in the crate at night for the most part, and she spends a lot of time playing outside or hanging out with us inside during the day.
  2. The crate should never, ever be used as punishment. If it’s ever going to be a safe space, you need to avoid negative associations. Punishment is obviously super negative.
  3. On that note, good things happen in the crate. Lure them in with treats (don’t close the door at first, just let them wander in and out). Give them more treats when they’re in there. Feed them in there. Put chew toys in there (with peanut butter on them, perhaps). Make the crate a happy place as much as possible. Amos had a scare once (he was twelve weeks old and had an altercation with a wine rack. Long story) and he spent the rest of the night moving from my foot to the crate, back to my foot, back to the crate – because those were happy, comforting places.
  4. Understand that even with all this, for the first few nights a dog or pup spends in a crate, there will be some howling (until they learn that they get let out every morning and given pats and cuddles and playing).

So ultimately I hope this makes it more clear why we crate train, why it’s becoming a more popular option, and why it isn’t horrible cruelty to animals. A great deal of thought and research went into this decision, and it’s worked out very well for us.

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