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The "Lucky Dog" Series: the Importance of Ritual While Crate Training
This article provides an in-depth look at the use of ritual and routine as a tool when crate training a dog and relates a real-life example.
In October 2020, I found myself in the unenviable position of crate-training an abused adult American Staffordshire (one of several breeds lumped together by the public as being a "pit bull"). This dog was absolutely terrified of the crate. Worse, in the few short hours I had interacted with the dog, she had bonded to me so strongly that she had become "Velcro dog" - wherever I went inside the house, she had to be within a foot of me. It was a bit disconcerting to have this dog hanging her head over the tub edge, staring intently at me as I showered! Crate training for a dog like this would not be easy.
In the case of a dog like this, there was absolutely no way that I could entice her into the crate, short of climbing in myself and waiting for her to join me; as I had a need to go to work, that was not feasible. I quickly developed a ritual that worked for us. I would gather everything I needed for work and place it on the kitchen island, and then place my coat or jacket on the chair next to everything. Then I calmly would announce state "Mommy has to go to work now". I would pick up a couple of treats in one hand, step over to the dog and take her by the collar, and walk her to the crate.
The first crate only survived a few days of this dog; she would pound the sides with her body and muzzle, trying to find a way to break or bend enough of it to escape, and she did. I found I had to reinforce the crate with plastic electric zip ties; I had so many ties on it, that the crate reminded me of a porcupine. That held the crate for a few more days. Even though this was supposedly the correct size crate for this dog, I decided to obtain a larger crate so she would not feel so trapped. The dog railed against the new crate as well, and found that she could use her muzzle as a wedge to force herself out between the crate gate and the crate frame - even though it left her bleeding and with skin torn off.
Back to Home Depot; I found a heavy-duty steel cable that I could weave into the crate where the gate and crate body met. This dog needed to learn that she could not escape. I needed to use the steel cable for about three weeks before the dog learned to not panic in the crate. Still, she would refuse to go in the crate on her own. The battle to get her to relax in the crate seemed to have been won, but the battle to get her into the crate was still being fought.
For weeks, she would hang her head as we approached the crate, then balk in front of it, like a recalcitrant mule. I would lead her in with my hand on her collar as far as I could, toss the treats into the crate with the other hand, and then quickly step behind her to both prevent her from backing away, and to essentially push her into the crate. Although I felt terrible since she so obviously did not want to go in, it was necessary. As soon as she was in, I would stand in front of the crate, blocking the exit with my body, and say "Thank you", and shut the door. Then I walked directly from the crate, donned my jacket, picked up the things I was taking to work, and as I was walking out the door, I would calmly call out "Goodbye, I will see you later".
After several weeks, the dog started to recognize the signs that I was preparing to leave. At first, she tried to hide, even going so far as to rearrange the loose pillows on an old couch so that she was completely covered by the pillows. Although attempting to hide might not seem a positive sign, it also signaled that she was beginning to understand that there was a routine, which is a positive sign, as dogs generally crave having a certain routine.
I kept the same routine. A few weeks later, as I was placing everything I needed for work on the kitchen counter, I heard the most amazing sound: the sound of four paws walking into the crate, which was behind me. I turned, and there the dog was, standing calmly in the crate, looking at me expectantly.
My jaw dropped, I am sure. The breakthrough had finally happened; the dog understood she would be safe in her crate, that this was where I wanted her to be when I was away from the house, and that I would return at some point to release her. There had been no slow process where she had started to give in to the crate; it was literally as if someone had flipped a switch. They day before I had been doing the usual routine of grabbing the dog by the collar, walking her to the crate, and then pushing her from behind to go in; so to hear walk in to her crate at the appropriate time in the morning routine, without any prompting from me, was simply astounding.
I broke from the routine that day only slightly, in that in addition to saying "Thank you", I gave her a hug and twice as many treats as I normally gave. I wanted to signal my approval of her walking into the crate on her own by giving her both extra affection and treats. Now, whenever I say "Mommy has to go to work", she calmly walks into her crate.
No matter how much your dog might protest about being crated, it is possible. You need to be the calm, assertive leader and be persistent; it will happen.