Saturday, May 19, 2012

Is Crate Training Cruel?

Something I see asked quite a bit is, 'is crating cruel?' The short answer is, no, it's really not - when done correctly. Like with anything, a crate can be abused, and that is when it becomes the cage some see it as.

But there is a huge difference between a crate and a cage. It's not in the design, the colour, the bedding, or whether it has a lock or a zip. The difference is all up to the dog owner and how they use it.

I recently stumbled across a poster from a rather controversial group claiming that crate training was cruel. Their reasons were not backed by research but rather, personal and somewhat ignorant views. I don't use the word 'ignorant' often - because it really does get thrown around too much when someone doesn't agree with someone else - but when someone outright refuses to entertain the notion of a training tool, based on a refusal to research it properly, then that is ignorance to me.

Some will never use a crate or find the need for one. Some may even find it strange that others do use or need them. And that's absolutely fine. Every situation, every person, every dog, and every household is different. What works for one may not work for another. However, I always do encourage people to look into crate training, and I actively crate train all my foster dogs - as it's one less thing an adopter needs to do, if they so choose to use it. For now, let's look at how a crate can be brilliant for both person and dog.

Housetraining
The obvious goal of this is to train your dog to never do his business inside your home but, instead, to go outside to a designated toilet area. A lot of people mistake this as 'only let your dog out when he needs to go toilet.' This is wrong and is exactly how to turn a crate into a cage. Whenever we are directly able to supervise the dog, he is going to be outside his crate. It's when we're not able to watch him, and make sure he doesn't have any accidents inside, that we put him in his crate. By doing this, we're avoiding any accidents, because this can quickly become learned behavior. Dogs, generally, will not soil where they sleep, which is why crate training can be so effective.

Remember, learned behavior can be great, and not so great. By trying to ensure the dog never has an accident inside the house, and always goes outside to the designated toilet area, he is learning. The more accidents he has inside, the more he learns that behavior. Housetraining can be done without crates, and done well, but crates can minimise those accidents for those who cannot watch their dog 24/7. Also, by guiding where your dog does his business, you are reinforcing your leadership.

Prevent Destructive Behavior
If your dog cannot get to something, he cannot destroy it. When you're not around, unable to watch him, then putting him in his crate will ensure this. Destructive behavior is never acceptable, and the dog should always be trained out of this, but while that training is ongoing, a crate can help the process. And, sometimes, a dog just wants to chew something he shouldn't. I always suggest leaving safe toys with him, and rotate them each time so he doesn't get too bored of them. I'd also recommend never leaving him in a crate with a collar on.

Create A Safe Environment For Your Dog When You Are Not Home
In the wild, dogs have dens. When introduced to a crate properly (further down), this can act as a dog's own personal den, their little private space that is just theirs. Before I started using crates, I doubted this, but seeing my dogs choose to go sleep in their crate instead of on the sofa, proves that fact for me. Our crates are always open while we are here (and awake) and we also have dog beds scattered around. They treat their crate no differently than a bed and, in my experience, they seem to prefer the crate... especially when they have a toy they don't want to share.

Speaking of safety, this is a big thing for households with multiple pets. We all like to think our dogs would never fight, even when left at home with each other for company. But the simple fact is, it could happen. Myself, I choose to not risk it, and I take all precautions to ensure that cannot happen. This includes crating the dogs separately when I am not around. Because I have introduced them to their crates properly (it's coming, I promise), they will always lie down and go to sleep, or quietly chew on their toys. I can leave the house knowing there is no way they can hurt themselves or each other, if for some reason, out of the blue, a series of events led to a fight between them.

Introducing Your Dog To The Crate
Dogs associate objects with actions. Never, ever punish your dog in or around the crate. I'll say it right off the bat, you never want him to associate the crate with negativity. Set up the crate how you'd like, with bedding, some nice toys, etc. I do recommend getting a proper metal crate. While I know some first-time crate trainers opt for the fabric crates because they look less like a "cage," they are easy to destroy, and can lead some people to give up the training altogether, feeling they failed and it doesn't work. Think about why you're doing this - to train your dog - not to appease your own aesthetic. Besides, you can buy some nice canvas covers for the metal crates if you want to 'pretty' it up.

You'll want to make sure you're not going out when beginning to introduce your dog to the crate and that he has done his business outside. This will require time, patience, and consistency. Throughout the day, you should drop kibble in the crate, to grab his attention. When he finds the kibble, he will immediately begin associating the crate with something positive - food! When it comes to dinner time, put his bowl in there (do not close the door yet). If he doesn't want to eat inside there just yet, put it right outside the crate. It doesn't matter - some dogs don't like change and take a little longer than others.

Praise him when he enters the crate. Just a pet will do, don't go overboard. Never push him in or force him in there at any stage. He needs to be completely comfortable with it. Once he is, you can begin closing the door. Do this for short periods of time to begin with and stay in the room with him. Make sure to let him out and reward him if he's been quiet. Don't let him out if he's crying (this is why he did his business outside earlier, so you know it's most likely not him needing to go pee). Only reward good behaviour, do not reinforce unwanted behavior. You can then start leaving him for longer and longer and also leave the room every now and then.

IF your dog doesn't take to his crate before bedtime, and isn't comfortable being left alone in it, then simply move it to your bed, let him get in the crate, and close it. He'll be with you but he'll also be in his crate. Sometimes, training is a game of give and take.

There may be slip-ups along the way. Trial and error, as they say. Remember never to punish the dog during the training period - he wants to please you, he just needs time to figure out how to do that. Consistency is the key. Make sure the crate you have bought is not too small (he needs to turn around, stand up without hitting the top, and have a comfortable amount of room) and not too big (if there's too much space, this can promote toileting within the crate).

When A Crate Becomes A Cage
Keeping your dog crated for the majority of the day/night, and only letting them out to do their business, is not a good quality of life. Dogs are pack animals and don't just want, but need, to be with the family most of the time. Whenever possible, they should be with you, interacting.

By leaving them in their crate for long periods of time, there is more chance they will not be able to hold their bladder - and this is especially true for puppies under four months old - and you will undo any training you have done up to that point. Remember the part about learned behavior? Let this happen and they will soon learn to do their business where they sleep, because they've been left with no other options in the past.

As said before, never use the crate as a method of punishment. If he's been naughty, do not put him in there and just leave him. While this may seem like a time-out to you, it won't to him. It will be a negative experience. If you do feel he needs a time-out, make sure that when he goes into his crate, it's a positive experience. Imagine how confused he would be, having been put in his crate because of a punishment, and then the next day when you need to go out, you put him in again. He'll be left to wonder what he is being punished for.

Get the right size crate. Think Goldilocks - not too big, not too small, but just right. A crate too small for your dog is just downright cruel. A crate too large will not be effective in housetraining.

Although crating can be a very convenient tool, remember that your main goal is not convenience. You are crating him for his own well being.

Finally

Do your research. Don't just take my word for it. Ask your vets, any trainers, behaviorists, etc. Ask those who already crate train and those who don't. Just remember, when you're doing your research, trying to focus on the factual reasons - not emotional reasons. We tend to put our own personal views and emotions onto inanimate objects, just because we have come to see that object as such-and-such. Look at it rationally and logically. Consider your needs and your dog's needs.

And going back to what I said when you began reading this, a crate is not a cage until someone makes it into one.

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