(Original post on May 26, 2015)
There was an article floating around Facebook this week [May 25, 2015] on one organization’s attack on crates for dogs, as they seek to remove all restraining and, ultimately, pet ownership of dogs/cats/animals. I’m not going to talk about that issue; however, the article’s author did look for scientific evidence that crates are behaviorally and psychologically harmful for dogs. The author could not find anything of that nature.
Rather, the author found support for the proper use of crates, as it likens crates to dens.
Regardless of the validity of either side’s claim, ultimately we want our dogs to be quiet and relaxed in their crates. Crates are used at agility trials to allow the dog proper down-time and rest between their competition runs. Agility trials and flyball tournaments are long days and if your dog is on leash, out with you, watching the sport and others all day, they will fatigue very quickly. The result is your dog’s focus will degrade along with their energy and behavior. We use crates to contain the dogs and provide them with down-time when they are not being worked/trained. It also prepares them for the trial setting, if used properly. It is really important to not just toss a dog into the without proper training of the crate. Furthermore, it is important to not toss them in and just leave them unattended. Things can and do go wrong in all of these cases. The purpose of this training thought is to discuss the common issues that may develop through inappropriate use of crates.
1) Fear of crates – some dogs, for whatever reason be it being tossed into a crate without proper exposure and training prior to shipping to new owners when puppies or other similar poor experiences (being locked in a crate during a fear stage in development, being exposed to loud/scary noises at the same time – like that of airplanes), have a genuine fear of being put into a crate. Does this mean that your dog can never use or benefit from a crate? No. But it does mean that you will need to break down the steps into very tiny ones and use classical conditioning and functional rewards (like freedom to step off/out of the crate) to create new positive associations with a crate. One possibility is to try using just the base of a plastic crate and get them used to stepping onto it. Another possibility is to use different types of crates or get them used to putting their feet onto other surfaces (like a plastic, open tub, or metal pan). A dog who is fearful of crates should never be tossed into a crate and be left. That is simply cruel and can heighten their fears. Tiny baby steps of positive reinforcement and classical conditioning with highly valued food is the best way to help your dog in this case.
2) Overprotective or reactive in crates – Some dogs develop such a strong association with food and their crate, they may resource guard their crate. These dogs likely also show some resource guarding in other areas too, maybe. Some dogs, who may be reactive when on leash, may also be even more reactive to other dogs’ presence while in their crate. In these cases, you would see a dog that is otherwise relaxed and content in their crate suddenly snarling, growling, barking, lunging at dogs who walk or stand near their crate. This is not a behavior you want to allow rehearsal. If this is your dog’s behavior, then you need to address this. The first step is to create distance from traffic and removal rehearsal of the inappropriate behavior. Don’t place your dog in its crate in high traffic locations! Second, use classical conditioning to create positive associations with traffic (at a distance). Sight of other dogs/traffic = calm, yummy treat delivered. No traffic = no treats. Third, start building operant rewards: sight and quiet = calm, yummy treat delivered. All of this with distance!!! When that is solidly built, then you can start removing some distance and having rewards delivered with traffic. But don’t overwhelm the dog. This is all carefully done, and I recommend you work with a non-force behavioralist to address these behaviors. Leaving them unchecked is asking for escalation and unnecessary stress for your dog. This is the opposite of what we want/need for our dogs and their crates.
3) Unwelcomed Crate Greeters – These are dogs and handlers that disrespect other dogs’ crate space. I see this quite frequently when handlers have a dog on leash, but aren’t attending to their dog. The handlers happen to walk by or stop near one or more crates, and while doing something else, their dog is staring into, sniffing, checking out the crate and the dog in the crate. The dog in the crate has nowhere to go and they are unable to provide proper cues to get the other dog to back off. This careless behavior of the handler around crates can instigate the Crate Reactivity issue for other dogs. The lesson here is that if your dog is on leash, be aware of what your dog is doing, especially around other crates. Give the same berth around crates as you would a dog on lead that you didn’t know. Use the crating area as a “watch mama/papa – engage with handler 100%” area, not a “Hmmmm… now what do I need, got the dog, check, what else?” area.
4) Crate Chargers – Another variant of the Unwelcomed Crate Greeters is the Crate Charger. This is a dog that charges full steam at a dog in a crate. There may be vocalization or else simply a charge transforming into unwelcomed crate greeter. The result is the same, if not worse, for the dog inside the crate. Straight line, fast approaches have been argued to be stressful for dogs (e.g., Turid Rugaas). This typically wouldn’t happen at a trial because there is only the competing dog off leash and the ring is a distance away from the crating area(s); however, in our classes is it quite possible. Thus, the best thing to do is to prevent this from happening. If you know there is a charger running – serve as your dog’s barrier – and block the dog from your dog’s crate. Putting your dog’s crate behind gates is also helpful. If you have a dog who is prone to charging at crates, let people know before your run so they may help you prevent rehearsal of your dog’s actions and to protect their dog’s calm sanctuaries.
5) Finally, there is the Barker-in-da-Crate – This is the most common challenge with crates in agility and flyball. Yet it is so important to resolve, because if the dog won’t relax in the crate, quietly, they will be too stressed and tired to play with you, which is why they are in the crate with you in the first place. The problem can stem from many reasons, but the number reason is that Mama/Papa is away from me, doing something awesome, and I want out NOW and to play NOW! For some, simply watching other dogs run can send them over the edge and into Bark Zone. Kelsey keeps oscillating between Bark Zone and Quiet/Rest Zone. The WORST things you can do are to: walk back to your; yell or tell your dog to be quiet; taking the dog out to play; or treat your dog after 10 seconds of silence. All of these are extremely reinforcing for the barking. Best thing is to remove the inappropriate reinforcers and allow the barking to extinguish itself. Tricks are someone else blanket your dog’s crate for you. After ~2 minutes of silence, the cover is lifted (no food treats yet), after silence from that point, treats from others into the back of the crate – away from the visual of Mama/Papa. Ultimate reward when quiet, Mama/Papa returning – putting in treat at back (away from Mama/Papa), and being let out to play. This one you can’t fix on your own, but consistent application of these rules can help reduce if not eliminate barking for most dogs. (There may always be some dogs who break the rules, but inconsistency is the hardest part for crate barking, and the #1 reason for persistence with this behavior.)
With these behavioral issues, you might ask, “Is it worth it?” I’m not going to act as an expert of canine behavior, nor am I going to infer that I know what my dog is thinking. I can tell you that I have actively used crates and trained them to be awesome for my past three agility partners. With Brooke, any time I moved, the first thing I unpacked and left open for her in any home or hotel was her crate. She frequently would go into it, check out the new space a bit, and return to her crate. It would take her about a week before she wasn’t using her crate as if it were a security blanket. For Baxter, he used his crates of his own volition in the house, and would relax at our trials in it. It became his safe haven from the young kids/babies who entered our family. Kelsey has been the biggest challenge with the above behaviors AND the biggest user of crates. I have two crates available for use at all times for her in our house (my bedroom, and entry foyer). She gets upset when the crates are closed and she can’t get into them. She has actually learned how to open them from the outside. Despite the availability of four beds, and all couches/chairs, the spot I find her most often is in her fancy/big crate in the foyer. It is also the place she loves to take stolen items for proper examination/destruction. 🙂 Flying with Kelsey has always been a breeze, which I attribute to her comfort in her crate. At agility, we oscillate with resource guarding (quiet growling at canine traffic near her crate), barking with me at a distance in agility, and perfect/relaxed behaviors. So I know it can be challenging, but the benefits are so worth the effort!
In summary: help your dog love his/her crate; help your dog relax and be quiet in his/her crate; protect your dog from rude behaviors from other dogs; and ensure your dog isn’t inadvertently creating a problem for another dog (either by charging at / showing aggression at / or simply being a unwelcomed crate greeter).