When we first got our dog, Rain, she had some pretty bad behavioural issues. She had fleas and worms and her last owners left her locked in a crate for 14 hours a day. Because of this, she had some serious separation anxiety. Properly crate training her was the first step to her overcoming those issues.
A couple things to note before I start, we didn’t do it alone. We enlisted the help of a certified trainer. The trainers weren’t there for the actual crate training process, but they did give us a lot of useful tips and support to make the process easier on both us and the dog.
Secondly, now that Rain is fully grown up and (for the most part) overcome her anxiety issues, we no longer use her crate. We still leave it out and open for her because she still uses it as her “safe” spot.
Step 1: Why You Should Crate Train Your Dog
Crate training is helpful with young dogs and older dogs with anxiety issues. The ultimate goal of crate training is keeping your dog out of harms way. It ensures that while you’re away they won’t eat something that can hurt them (our dog would literally eat the couch) and that they feel safe and confident.
I know it looks like we were robbed, but the above picture is what Rain did to our living room before she was crate trained. Obviously we were concerned about her safety.
Step 2: Crate Training Checklist
- The crate should be big enough for the dog to stand up, turn around, and lay down comfortably.
- The crate is a place of safety and relaxation for the dog. Never use the crate as a punishment or “puppy jail”.
- Bear in mind the age of your dog or puppy. The general rule is that puppies can only hold their bladder 1 hour for however many months they are. You don’t want your puppy to be forced to do his or her business in the crate, you want this to be a safe and comfortable place for your dog.
- Don’t feel guilty or sad about putting your dog in the crate. If you feel sad your dog will pick up on that emotion and feel like there must be something wrong with being left there.
- Make the crate as comfortable as possible for the dog. We would line hers with a couple of blankets and we always left water and a bone for her to chew on.
Step 3: Crate Training Prep Work
This is the easy step, but it’s also so important.
We set up her crate days before we started crate training her exactly how it was going to be. Dogs typically like their crate tucked away, we put hers behind the dining room table so that she could still see the room but was shielded a little bit.
Find out what motivates your dog. For most dogs it’s either food, affection, toys, or a combination. For Rain it’s food. So the days before we started we wanted to give her a positive association with the crate. Anytime she got a treat, she got it in the crate. When she was getting a new toy or bone, she got it in the crate. We even went as far as feeding her breakfast and dinner in her crate.
At this stage we started saying “go to your crate” before we gave her a treat or food in the crate. Use a happy voice, remember the crate is a good place.
Step 4: Physically and Mentally Tire Out Your Dog Before Starting
Pick a weekend where you literally don’t have to be anywhere. You need a lot of patience for this day.
The first thing you need to do is take your dog for a long walk.
During the walk I would recommend practicing some basic training: sit, down, stay, heal, and anything else that’s in your dogs bag of tricks. The more mentally and physically tired your pooch is the easier the next few steps will be. Mentally exhausting your dog is especially important for those super intelligent dog breeds. Having a smart dog is a blessing and a curse. Anyone who has one knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Why do you want your dog tired? Because a tired dog is more likely to accept the situation faster. A dog that hasn’t been exercised beforehand will have more energy to protest. It also establishes more trust between you and the dog, which you will need if you want your dog to trust you that everything is going to be okay.
Step 5: Get Your Dog to Go in the Crate
If you have done your job correctly the few days prior this shouldn’t be too difficult. Your dog should already think good things happen in there. Say “go to your crate” and give the dog a treat. Get your dog to lay down in the crate.
We did a lot of reading on this subject, and this is what we found worked for us.
Once he or she is relaxed close the door and step away from the crate but stay close by where the dog can see you. It’s normal for a dog to whine or bark. For the first couple of tries we sat right outside the door. As soon as she calmed down we opened the door.
Don’t feel sorry for your dog in the crate. If he or she starts to cry (which really is terrible because no one wants to see their pup upset) you need to be strong and calm. Remember that dogs can pick up on your emotions so feeling sad for your dog will do more harm than good.
Step 6: Repeat While Moving Further Away From the Crate
You need to give yourself and your dog breaks, but repetition is key. Don’t push your dog harder or faster than he or she can handle. This is one of those life things that takes as long as it takes. Some dogs will pick it up in a couple of hours, others it takes weeks. Patience is key.
Take a break, then instruct your dog to go back in the crate and repeat step 4.
After a few tries of this you should be able to move further away from the crate while still remaining in sight. The goal is to move further and further away with each attempt until you are out of your dogs sight line.
Tip: We put a movie on while we were crate training. We’d watch 5 minutes, did 5 minutes of crate training, then watch 5 minutes and so on. Doing a nice relaxing family task like this in between the training helps give a sense of normality to the dog. What I mean by that is that it shows that you are always going to return and then you will do something together when you do.
Step 7: Leave the House for 5 Minutes
Okay, you are now successfully at the point where you can instruct your dog to enter the crate, close the crate door, walk out of the room and your dog happily lays down and relaxes. Now you want to go through your every day motions like you would if you’re leaving for work or wherever.
Put your dog in the crate, close the door, then go put your shoes and jacket on. Walk out the door, lock it and wait 5 minutes. The first time we tried this Rain panicked. She started barking and shaking the crate. We waited a minute the first time, and walked in calmly. It’s important that you don’t immediately rush over to the crate. You don’t want to reinforce your dogs idea that there’s anything to be concerned about.
Instead, do what you did in the previous steps. Take you coat off and stand in the room until he or she calms down. Once the dog is calm let the dog out and take a break. Eventually you should be able to leave the house for 5 minutes with the dog relaxed
Step 8: Increase Time Away
You’ll want to slowly increase the time interval that you are away. Eventually your dog won’t panic and you won’t even have to ask him or her to go in your crate when you are getting ready to leave.
Step 9: Completed Crate Training and Where We Went Wrong
- Always exercise your dog before leaving them in a crate
- Don’t leave your dog in a crate all day and night. If you can’t spend an appropriate amount of time with your dog either get a pet sitter or find a home for your dog that can give him or her the time they deserve
- Crating your dog will not “cure” separation anxiety. Crating was only a small piece to a very large puzzle that ended up helping Rain. You will also have to be very cautious when crate training a dog with separation anxiety.
Our first attempt to crate train Rain went terribly wrong. We used the crate she came in which was a horrible mistake since it was already associated with awful things. She was able to unlatch one of the latches and squeeze out. Thankfully she didn’t injure herself in the process. The best thing we ever did was bring in a dog behaviourist to help us. He suggested buying a completely new crate and start building those positive associations with the new one. Best advice anyone has ever given us. He also gave us some tips on dealing with her separation anxiety.
For Rain, a solid routine, lots of exercise, and place she felt safe helped her come a long way. We wanted to go a drugless route to help her and we found those 3 things helped the most. The crate really helped her feel safe. She still sleeps in there with the door open.
If anyone has any other tips or there's something I missed please feel free to leave a comment.