Pet Connection: Crate helps a pup learn 'alone time'

04/30/2013 12:00 AM

04/29/2013 4:03 PM

There's nothing harder for a young puppy to learn than being alone.

Dogs are social animals, just as we are. When you bring a puppy home, you're not only asking it to do something for which it isn't really wired, but also to do it for the first time, under the stressful circumstances of being in the new home.

Under those conditions, you'd scream, too.

Especially if past experience had shown you that vocalizing brought your mom and littermates on the run.

Alone? Scared? Scream, and you'll be surrounded by help.

Yet the ability to relax alone is a critical skill for a modern dog. Being able to relax while isolated in a comfortable carrier is essential to riding safely in a car, resting after medical care at the veterinary hospital and even being cared for away from home by strangers during times of disaster.

On the flip side, dogs that don't learn to stay alone are at higher risk of losing their homes or even their lives.

Veterinary behaviorists call the problem "separation anxiety," and see it in their practices constantly. Some dogs may be capable of learning not to be frantically destructive and noisy when alone through changes in their environment, behavior modification and medications such as Prozac. Others may suffer throughout their lives, even if they stay in their homes.

For all these reasons and more, it's essential to "crate train" a puppy. While crate-training has long been used to shape the equally important behavior we know as "housebreaking," the use of a crate to teach relaxed confinement is just as important.

There's a puppy at my house now, a retriever named Riley. I'm raising him for a couple of months before he goes to live with friends, and that means he's learning many of his first, most important lessons at my house, including crate-training.

I know some people "cold turkey" a pup when it comes to crate-training, but I don't think that's necessary.

While I never open the pen or crate door on a screaming puppy (and thus reward it for the noise), I set the pup up for a whole lot of "win."

With Riley, as with any young puppy, that means making sure he's tired or has just been fed before being crated, making it more likely he'll sleep.

I make the sessions short, and add a word and a treat to him going in.

"Crate!" I say, throwing a toy or treat in and praising him for following the motion to go inside. Before he's ready to wake up, I wake him up and take him out for a walk.

I also alternate between putting him in the crate in my office while I'm working or the pen in the living room while I'm watching television in the evenings. The pen is harder for him to endure, because it's around the corner from where I sit and he can't see me from there.

I prefer letting him fuss in the pen, since being distracted from a rerun of "The Big Bang Theory" is something I can live with for the short term. For someone self-employed, however, not being able to work because a puppy is crying is a much bigger deal. Fortunately, the crate in my office is right next to my leg, which means he's "behind bars" and learning, but not particularly isolated.

Like any normal puppy, Riley wants to be where the people and other dogs are. He's learning quickly that that's not always possible.

This lesson takes time, and I'm patient.

I know that soon Riley will know that being alone isn't forever, and that's as important a lesson as any dog can learn.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at petconnection@gmail.com or visit www.petconnection.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/spadafori.

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