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To Crate or Not to Crate – that is the Question

There are several questions that tend to fall into the “holy grail” category when it comes to raising and training your German Shepherd. Whether or not to use a “prong collar” is one, and another is whether or not to crate train your puppy or even adult dog.

On the one side are those that believe that crating an animal is cruel. Keeping them confined to such as small space is not a practice that many want to play a part in as they detest seeing a dog in these small cages. I must admit that I was one of these people for many years, and raised several German Shepherds while I held this opinion. But keep in mind, that I am old enough to have lived through the times (at least a generation ago where dogs did not come in the house, much less live in the house. For the most part, dogs were raised to stay outdoors, ideally in a fenced in yard if one had that.

The other side, says that a dog crate is a great way to housebreak, or train a dog to be an enjoyable family member in the home. Properly used, a crate will condition the animal to live with its pack (it’s people and other pets) in a clean, non-destructive manner that is gratifying for the people and the dog.

Enlightened on use of the Crate

Several years ago, I had a co-worker that was a breeder of black and tan coon hounds. This was a hobby that he enjoyed that most of us knew nothing about. However, I took a business trip with him one time where it required me to stay at his house for a few days. When I entered the house, I saw several crates or kennels throughout the house. As part of his breeding hobby, he would have several dogs in the house at varying ages from puppies to older animals. During my visit, he explained to me that when properly handled, dogs will see their crate as their “safe space” where they can go to just get away from everything and relax. Dogs after all he explained, were “denning” animals in the wild, that would find small holes or caves that would become their “safe space” to get away from the world and even raise their offspring. As my friend showed me with his hounds, these dogs will see the crate as their den and will use that space for their own area away from everyone and everything.

For goodness sake, whatever you do, watch out for these

Because dogs won’t normally soil their den or living area, the primary use of the crate is to teach the dog to perform their bathroom duties outside. The crate can also limit access to the rest of the house while they learn the rules of the home, like not chewing on the furniture. A crate is not a magical solution for creating a great pet, and if not used correctly, the dog may feel trapped and frustrated, which can have a debilitating effect on the dog. So there are a few things that an owner using a crate must always be aware of:

  1. NEVER USE THE CRATE FOR PUNISHMENT – never place the dog in the crate in anger, or transfer your frustration on the animal in the use of the crate. Your dog will come to fear it and refuse to enter it.
  2. NEVER LEAVE YOUR DOG IN THE CRATE FOR TOO LONG – German Shepherds require a LOT of exercise and crating is the exact opposite of the exercise they need. A dog that is crated too long can become anxious or depressed. The crate is only a tool to help the owner teach your dog the rules of the house. You may have to change your schedule, hire a pet sitter or take them to a doggie day care, but never keep your dog in the crate for extended periods of time. What is the maximum length of time in the crate. It depends on the dog and the age. Remember, puppies need to go outside regularly in order to teach them proper bathroom behavior, so maybe 2 hours before taking them outside to potty. Adult dogs, probably 4 -5 hours at a time is not uncommon, although I have had dogs in the past that could go 8 hours in an emergency, BUT that was only in the very rare occasion.
  3. A crate should by used only as long as needed to train the dog to be a good house mate. After that, it should be a place that they may go to voluntarily when they want to get a little quiet time.

What type of crate should I use?

There are several types of crates available today and the all have different purposes.

  • Plastic or travel/flight kennels – this type of kennel is used primarily when traveling with your dog, but can also be used as a permanent kennel if necessary.
  • Fabric or collapsible kennel – these “crates” are ideal to use when traveling with your GSD and such as when you stay in a pet friendly hotel. As they see the crate as their “safe space”, this type of crate is good to give your dog a sense of security in strange places, especially if you are away from them for a time. One of our shepherds was prone to barking while we were out of our hotel room for dinner which would bother other guests. However, when we got one of these kennels, as she had been properly crate trained as a puppy, the kennel provided a place where she would remain in the room quietly while we were gone for dinner.
  • Collapsible or metal crate – probably the most popular type of crate, is great for setting up when needed and is able to fold up and slide under a bed when not in use. We prefer the type that has the temporary dividers that allow you to size for a puppy and grow with them as they get larger.
  • Decorative – finally, there are kennels now that can serve as furniture and blend in with your home decor.

How do I use the crate to train my German Shepherd to be a great housemate?





Introducing your dog to the crate

Crate training can take time; days or weeks, depending on your dogs age, temperament and past experiences. But the overarching methodology is to take the crate in small steps. The crate should always be seen as a pleasant experience for the dog.

First Steps – the crate should have a cushion or pad in the bottom, but a soft blanket will do. Put the crate in an area where your family spends a lot of time, such as the family room. Take the door off of the crate, or secure the door open if needed. Let the puppy or dog explore the crate at their leisure as most dogs will be naturally curious. Many will already find the crate attractive and may sleep in there without being prompted.

If your dog isn’t one of these dogs, bring them over to the crate (always in a happy tone of voice) making sure the door is opened and secured, so that it doesn’t scare them. Encourage your dog to enter the crate by throwing a couple of treats in the crate and let them enjoy the experience. If they won’t go in at first, don’t worry, but don’t force them in the crate. Continue tossing treats into the crate until they are walking freely in and out of the crate at will. If they don’t respond to treats, try tossing their favorite toy into the crate to see how the respond. You should be learning at this time, what motivates your dog, are they motivated by praise, or food rewards and approach them accordingly.

Side note: Several years ago, we brought home a 6 week old (yes I know that was too early, but it was a breeder thing) GSD puppy and was faced with the “first night with a new puppy” situation. We already had a 7 YO shepherd rescue that was very comfortable with her crate, however we rarely had to use it with her.

The first night was the usual whining and crying with the puppy until we put both girls in the crate together (making sure there was enough room for both), and the puppy whining stopped immediately with the other dog in the crate with the puppy. We maintained this ritual the second night, however on the third night the puppy was on their own.

Reinforcing the crate by Feeding them inside the crate

After introducing your dog to the crate, try feeding them their regular meals in the crate. This will reinforce that association of the crate with a pleasant experience.

If you dog is readily entering the crate at this step, you may place the food dish all the way towards the back of the crate. However, if they are still wary of the crate, you might want to place the dish only as far back as they will willingly go.

Once your German Shepherd is standing and eating comfortably in the crate, can you begin closing the door while they are eating, hopefully unnoticed. The first time you do this, open the door immediately after they have finished eating their meal. With each subsequent feeding, leave the door closed a few minutes longer, until they are staying in their crate for 10 minutes or longer.

Keep in mind as puppies, part of your training regimen is to take them outside to do their business immediately after eating, so make that part of the ritual to take them outside after eating and exiting the crate.

After your dog is eating their regular meals in the crate with no signs of fear or anxiety, you can leave them in the crate for longer periods of time. These practice sessions are ideally done with you in the house so the dog will feel comfortable with the normal hustle and bustle of the household, while they are comfortable in their “safe space” enjoying the peace and quiet it affords.

Practicing with longer crating periods

Now you will want to begin training your dog to enter the crate on command, and you will do that with practice sessions. To begin these sessions, call your dog over to the crate with a treat or toy. Give them a command to enter the crate such as “kennel” or “get in your crate” so that they associate the command with the physical space that is the crate. As your dog enters the crate, praise them, give them their treat, and close the door.

Sit quietly near the crate for a few minutes, then leave the room for a few more minutes, and finally come back to the crate and sit quietly near the crate. Then you can let them out of the crate.

In the beginning, practice this a few times a day as they grow accustom to the crate and the comfort and security it provides. Then gradually increase the length of time you leave them (in and out of site of the crate), until they stay in the crate quietly for 30 minutes or more. At this time, it should be safe for you to leave the home for a few minutes to an hour with them in the crate, or even overnight while you sleep, but only where you can attend to them as they need your attention.

This part of the process can take several days or weeks. My last GSD was fearless of the crate from day one and learned “go get in your crate” as her very first command that she learned. Another older shepherd rescue I had took more patience and diligence for her to learn the crating routine, but within a couple of months, she was very comfortable with her crate.

Crating you dog at night

I believe it is a good idea to put the crate in your bedroom, as your puppy will probably need to go outside during the night. I know, I know….this is a lot of work, but German Shepherds require a LOT of attention in the beginning to make good companions. We got this breed for a reason, and with them comes a lot of responsibility. If we aren’t up to the task, them maybe this breed isn’t for us.

Anyway, where was I……Put the crate in the bedroom at night, so that you can hear and address a puppies needs to go outside at night when necessary. With older dogs, you might want to keep the crate in the bedroom for the first few evenings so that they don’t associate the crate with isolation. Dogs are social creatures and want to be near us, and GSD’s tend to be “velcro dogs”, so the last thing that we want is for the dog to associate a crate with being away from people or it’s owner.

Once your dog is sleeping comfortably through the night with the crate near you, you can begin to move it to a location you prefer.

Summary

I realize that crate training may seem like a lot of work and it is. However, German Shepherds do require a lot of time and attention when they first enter your household. They are high maintenance dogs in the beginning, however this is the most valuable time you will ever spend with your dog. But this effort spent in the beginning will be paid back in so many ways, you will not be able to count your blessings. With a little consistent, patient guidance from the owner, the German Shepherd is the most loyal, loving creature on the planet……..bar none.

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