Saturday, April 3, 2010

Crate training: A beginning

Well, I guess my first post strictly about training will be on crate training. Leave it to me to pick the most controversial topic among dog lovers. Well, maybe it's the second most since Cesar Millan's methods tends to create a deep divide among owners and trainers alike.

Here's the basic concept: When you're not around, crate your puppy. When you are going to sleep, crate your puppy. All of this keeps him from chewing or ingesting foreign objects. It also can keep the little guy from having accidents because generally dogs will NOT pee or poop where they sleep unless they have no other choice.
Why is this so controversial? Well, humans have a tendency to think of dogs as humans, and so dogs should of course have the same panicky feelings most of us do about being confined.
But the first thing every dog owner should know is that dogs are NOT humans and shouldn't be treated as such.
Secondly, most training methods have their own merit and should be chosen depending on your lifestyle and your dog's temperament and abilities. But it's also important to realize that when done wrong, any training method can also hurt your chances of having a happy and well-behaved dog.
I chose crating because I wanted to be able to crate Miyagi when he's a puppy so that at night he can't endanger himself or ruin something of ours. Puppies will naturally chew on anything they don't know. They use their mouths like we use our hands. It's better for Miyagi to just not be tempted.
Also, I've found that if done right, showing your dog that the crate is a safe zone (or "den") for them makes them happier and well adjusted. If it's a comfy place where they can get treats or hide if there is too much noise, than they will likely choose to go into the crate. In fact, in the 5 short days we've had Miyagi, we've already gotten him to walk in alone. Last night he walked in and promptly fell asleep. That is the goal for crate training: to create a comfortable and safe space for your dog. But if it's used as punishment or if they are left in there way too long, it can be considered cruel. Again, it's all based on how you implement the methods.
For a cuddly dog like Miyagi, the breakthrough was when we put a blanket and the fiance in there. Miyagi couldn't keep himself out of the crate and cuddled with the fiance for several minutes. Later, he walked right in and took a nap. Soon we won't even need to close the door to keep him in there over night (that's the hope at least).
Crate training is fairly easy, it just takes patience, lots of treats and a willingness to offer effusive praise every step of the way. The Humane Society of the United States offers this tutorial on crate training. But here are the basic tips I learned as we attempted to get Miyagi comfortable with his new hiding place:
  • Buy a big enough crate. Generally it needs to be big enough for your animal to walk in and turn around. Too big and he or she will likely relieve himself in one corner and sleep in the other without being bothered. Too small and he will be cramped and the opposite of the comfort that you want to achieve.
  • Tempt don't force. Use treats, his favorite toys or a blanket that smells like you to get him in the crate. Never push him in as it will just make your dog panic and associate the crate with a negative experience. Try not to shut the door until he seems comfortable in the crate. At first we hid treats in there so when he'd walk by he'd smell the treat and hop inside to get it. Later we used a Kong ball stuffed with peanut butter and treats to distract him while we closed the door and went to bed.
  • Patience is key. The biggest problem in the early stages of crate training is that people can't seem to ignore a whining puppy. If you ignore your puppy long enough (most only need 10 -15 minutes in the beginning of training) he will eventually settle down and entertain himself. (***IF you are crate training overnight know that when he wakes up and has to pee, he will likely whine to signal you. This whining will likely occur after he's been in there for a few hours and is different from the whine he will likely do when you've just shut the door and walked away.***)
  • Toys and treats make a crate a home. The best way to encourage your dog to enjoy the crate is to pick an item that he loves and only let him have it in the crate. For Miyagi this item is his bone. But we also hide a treat in there and toss his Kong ball in if it's during the day. Giving him things to do will distract from not being able to run around and make a mess of your home. For Miyagi, a soft blanket also created the welcoming retreat that he relies on when our couch is full of visitors and he's tired of laying on the wood floors.
So far, we've gotten Miyagi to go in there using temptation. Our next goal is two fold: I want to get him to go in there on command (to make bedtime easier). To do that, he needs to associate a command with entering and laying down in his crate. I'll update as he progresses.

What's your opinion on crate training? As someone who has seen it go woefully wrong and has also witnessed the positive effects it has on our energetic puppy which has little respect for personal boundaries, I'm open to everyone's opinions. Training is a very personal experience and every person must decide on their own what is right and what is wrong for their pet. The key is to take in as many opinions as possible to find the right method for you.

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