A better place to start for this topic is not with training but with perception. Crates can be seen as cages where an animal is sent in punishment or solitary confinement and/ or neglected. A crate can also be seen as a safe place, a den, and a calm, rewarding refuge when overwhelmed. I prefer to refer to my dog's crates as kennels because I feel there's a less negative connotation with a kennel, although they are one and the same. Here I will explore the use of a kennel as a training tool, chosen den, and a safe rewarding environment.
According to many sources, like National Geographic, dogs make dens for birthing, just as humans recreate with whelping boxes. It is also noted that dogs create den-like spaces, or comfortable, safe spaces into adulthood for resting in the wild, and this is documented in domesticated dogs as well. These mature den spaces are not as “den-like” as the whelping dens, but it is a refuge from weather and danger.
There is debate about the use of kennels. I would implore you to read my use and its efficacy. #1 My dog’s kennel is a place she can go when SHE needs space from our busy family. #2 It is a place I can ask her to go when I need to know she will be safe and my home will be safe from her (I'll talk more about this later). #3 We use it as a house training tool. With good timing, your dog should master this skill quickly with few accidents.
Let’s dive into these ideas.
Some dogs are easily overwhelmed and it can be beneficial for them to have a place to go where others will not follow. I have to continue training my KIDS on this, but dogs that want to take space in a kennel once a positive association is created, WILL. I have seen this time and time again. If you do not make an association with their kennel as their space they may take residence in a place THEY find comfortable. The issue is, they may not be allowed to have solace on the living room sofa and they may want it, resulting in location guarding behavior of your couch… not ideal. Again, the kennel is THE DOG’S space, you, your kids, other dogs, should not enter. The couch is part of YOUR SPACE. You can share it with your dog (I do!), but they should not prevent you from using it.
The number one priority for my dogs and my family is their safety and well-being. If I can not guarantee that how can I build a relationship, teach skills or have fun!
#2a When a new dog enters my home (I foster and train so this happens on a routine basis) I feed them in their kennel with the door closed. I do not know this dog. This dog is decompressing and adjusting to a new environment; rescue or not. I need to know that when food is present, my kids, my dogs, and the new dog will ALL BE SAFE. Food is a well known guarded possession for many dogs. You may find a dog that resource guards places, people, food, and things. (This concept is for another day) For now, let’s focus on how I can protect everyone in my home from a negative experience while creating a positive association with the kennel by managing meals in this way.
#2b When I leave my home my trained dog is loose and my dog(s) in training are in kennels. They have established positive associations with the kennel and walk or run in on cue. While they are kenneled, I can leave my home knowing they are safe. They are not eating a chemical from under the sink. They are not chasing the cat. They are not scratching the door. They are not… I think I’ve made my point. What they are doing is listening to James Taylor radio and licking a frozen peanut butter kong*, chewing rawhide bone, playing with a toy, or sleeping. Now when I come home there is no drama! There is no anxiety on my behalf of wondering what my dog has done while I was away. I know they were safe. I am happy to see them, they are happy to see me and we continue building a positive relationship!
#2c There may be instances where I need my dog to be in their kennel for their safety, or well-being unrelated to food or lack of supervision. As examples: the dogs are playing and there is a miscommunication and it escalates; there is someone at the door and the dog is reactive, but I need to communicate with the person and can’t train at this moment; I am giving one-on-one time to my kids and the dog keeps stealing the train tracks. Let me be perfectly C L E A R: I am NOT dragging this dog by the collar and shoving them into their kennel - EVER. In each of the aforementioned examples, I would go get a delicious peanut buttered kong, chew bone and treats and ask my dog to “kennel” and close the door. They can focus on enjoying something while everyone else can too.
Dogs are pack animals and do not like to be alone. I have a kennel in the living room and I have another in my bedroom. They may prefer interaction over isolation, but this can also work into your training tool bag. If every time the dog escalates play they take time in their kennel, they may make that association and start to avoid that behavior. If they are kenneled when they are reactive to a person at the door, similarly they may discern that behavior resulting in kenneling. Dogs. Are. Smart. They are very good at figuring out what works and what doesn’t - for them. (Reactivity training will also be a topic for another day.)
In training, TIMING IS EVERYTHING. If you can get a good handle on the timing of events, needs, and behaviors you can anticipate the good (reward) and prevent the bad (setback). Puppies are the best examples for house training with a kennel because their bladders and bowels are pretty reliable. As stated above, I feed ALL my new dogs IN their kennels. Puppies and other dogs that are not house trained are allotted enough space to comfortably lay down, but not much more. It is generally understood that nothing wants to sleep where it soils. It is SO important the HANDLER’S TIMING IS GOOD otherwise you are creating a very negative experience for your dog.
#3a I feed and water my pups in their kennel and keep them there for about 10-15 minutes. Then, if possible, they are carried outside and walked on a leash whilst I pay attention for the pup to potty. I calmly say “YES, Potty, YES, Potty” while they are going. Once finished I celebrate and give them a treat and pets and tell them how amazing they are. If they have not pooped we spend a bit more time outside and repeat the above once they go. I am not loud or boisterous while they are going because puppies are easily excited and will prematurely stop going to celebrate with you. This is not what you want. Use the ‘positive-reward-mark', YES, (see YES game) and associate the cue, “potty” for future potty cue training. Then when they are finished I like to run around the yard while they run after as a cake topper of celebration. Like a victory lap.
Now that the pup has soiled outside it’s time to bring them inside for free play! Remember, limit their access to water and monitor because they will need to eliminate 10-15 minutes after drinking and about 20 minutes after eating. (These are estimates. Handlers will learn the dog’s schedule.)
If the pup did not soil outside, bring them back inside with a toy into their kennel and bring them back out every 5 minutes until they go. There is a reward for soiling outside and the opportunity for free play! They will quickly make this association and if the handler’s timing is good there may never be an accident! Whohoo!
If a pup is caught soiling inside use a ‘no-reward-mark’ (I like, "Uh Uh") and calmly bring them outside to finish. If they finish outside, use the ‘positive-reward-mark, YES and cue word, “Potty”, reward with treat and celebration. If not, clean up the mess and try to manage your time better next time. The handler creates the opportunity for success or mistakes.
I like to know from the start where my dog is at on their journey and meet them there to work in a focused and intentional manner. Here are a few things to look for:
What does the pup think of the kennel?h
Are they walking right in?
Do they stay in and get comfortable or come right back out?
Can you lure them in? Partially in?
Do they go in and stay calm while you are home but react when you are out of sight?
After this period of observation, you will have a good sense of where your problem areas are and where you need to focus on training, and how much training you can expect the dog to require.
The first step is to ensure that the pup thinks of the kennel positively. This can be created by associating it with food, a special treat, or comfort. I like to have a kennel with a comfy bed, towels (easy to wash for a puppy), or blankets in the living room so I can easily feed all meals in the kennel. This serves as a twice-daily positive association and, as I stated earlier, it protects everyone in our home from food guarding. Chances are a young adult dog has some kennel experience, but a puppy would have little. There may be times kenneling is needed even before you have had an opportunity to create a positive association. This is not ideal, but positive experiences can become so abundant that the dog can overcome the needed kenneling. Think about opportunities to desensitize and make the kennel positive throughout the day.
With the kennel door open, toss treats into the kennel for the dog to find. It's best if they must go all the way in to retrieve it, but a crumb trail can also be made. It may take time for them to take a risk on going all the way in, don't worry. We want the dog to enter the kennel and have a positive experience. Beginner stage.
Ask the dog to enter, lure if necessary, and treat when inside with the door closed. Sit within view and toss treats to the pup. Do this for only a few minutes and up to no more than 15-20 minutes. Do not treat if the dog is barking or scratching. Ideally, treat before a negative expression or wait for a quiet moment. Find their threshold and build on it over time. The goal is for the experience of being in the kennel to be frequently rewarded. Intermediate stage.
This is such an important training practice. This game is a place to start, but I will have a separate article for training separate anxiety. Ask the dog to enter the kennel, lure if necessary, and close the door with enthusiasm! This is the exciting part. Step away from the pup and toss treats calmly. In quick succession at first, then wait a moment, 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 8 seconds, etc. If you find a threshold, go back to the duration that was tolerated and end on a positive note. End the session by returning to the kennel, opening it while the dog is quiet and still. You can build on good manners by only opening the door to let the dog out when they are not darting out and rather by asking them out calmly. I like to wait for a sit. Remember, your returning is not the benefit we want the dog to perceive, but you're leaving.
If that goes well, try stepping out of sight for a moment then return and treat. Same drill - then 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 8 seconds… go slow. This exercise can be done multiple times a day, but always end at a threshold that was tolerated. Eventually, you will leave the house and return using the same exercise. I like to cue, "I'll be back" before I go. I keep music on when I leave the house and provide a frozen peanut butter kong, rawhide, etc. All of these things are cues to the dog I am planning to leave, but it's a good thing - they get a special treat and they know I'll come back. Be careful to not add a cue until you can reliably expect the desired behavior. Otherwise, you have associated your cue with the expression of anxiety rather than patience.
These games should help build a positive association with a kennel. Remember kennels are used at the vet's office, at the groomer, at the boarding facility, and training facilities. Even if you don't plan to use a kennel in your home forever it IS important your dog thinks of it positively so they are not caused stress in many other common situations.
Make note of how your dog interacts with the kennel today and how it is different after practicing these games for the week. You may be able to increase separation duration and even see spontaneous kennel use.
When play is work, work is play.
Jackie Ward; Citali Dog Training