Let's talk about crate games! Crates are an essential tool for the typical dog household. But this isn't a post about the merits of dog crates - although I will point out that, if introduced correctly, most dogs like the security a crate provides in giving them their own space in the house. Of course, most dogs don't live in a household with Poppy who is a) too smart for anyone's good b) always endeavoring to come up with creative new ways to be naughty and annoying and c) has ZERO concept of anyone's personal space. Much to the dismay of Ollie and I, Poppy suddenly taught herself this handy move a couple of months after I adopted her:
Yes...that's right...she knows how to unlatch the crate door with her nose and swing it open.
But, back to the topic of crate games. Crate games are about instilling some fundamentals of training and having fun while doing it. Here is Ollie showing three components that I find essential: 1. The send to the crate on command 2. remaining in the crate until 3. the release. All of these steps have applications in agility training and provide a fantastic way to give your dog a great foundation.
The key to crate games is to make the crate an extremely rewarding place for the dog to be. The crate becomes a place where lots of good things happen. When they make the choice to go to the crate and remain there, doing so results in lots of treats and praise. On the other hand, choosing to leave the crate without being told to results in no reward and a door blocking their exit.
I have been working with Hokey on these crate behaviors as part of her foundational training. I will break down each of the 3 components, using her as my demo dog. Note that this is not her usual crate (it is Ollie's). Not only that, but it is moved from its typical spot so that I could produce better shots for the videos. As a result she is not quite as speedy in her responses as she would be with her own crate. However, she DOES respond well even under these circumstances, proving that her training is becoming solid.
First I had to train her to go to her crate on command. Since she's deaf, I had to come up with a hand signal that meant "go to your crate". I chose to form a letter "C" with my left hand. Sometimes I also say "C" while I flash her the signal because it helps me to put a verbal command with it.
I started training this by letting her see me put a few treats in the crate while she was on a sit/stay then releasing her and flashing the "C" signal. Once she got the concept, I no longer needed to place treats inside the crate first. Instead, as soon as she was in the crate, I used my substitute clicker hand-flash and rewarded her with treats through the bars. Here it is again from another angle:
Gradually, I've been able to increase the distance that I send her to the crate. This is good foundational training for sends in agility. As you can see I move both my leg and arm forward, just as I would if I was sending a dog to an obstacle.
Of course, before you add distance, you want to make sure your dog is going to stay in the crate until released after you send them there. In my opinion, this the most important component in crate behavior. For obvious safety reasons, especially when you have your dog crated in a vehicle, you do not want your dog to come flying out of its crate whenever it so pleases. Instead, you want it to remain in the crate until you release it. This step also has a practical application in your foundational agility training - it's setting you up for a solid startline stay. This is a game! A fun one in which the dog makes choices and learns which choices lead to rewards and which lead to a blocked path (i.e. a minor negative consequence resulting from a "bad" choice). When first teaching this, you will want to stay very close to the crate and continuously reward through the sides or back of the crate. Unlatch the crate door without opening it and click and treat generously if the dog does not try to push through the door ("jackpot treating" which means several treats given one-at-a-time in quick succession is a great way to generously reward a dog's desired behavior). If the dog DOES try to push through the door, the door gets relatched and no reward is given. Latch and repeat this step several times. Then unlatch the door and open it just a crack. Stay close so that you can easily swing the door shut if the dog tries to come out of the crate. With some dogs, it may take several times of the door being shut and latched before they catch on that this is the consequence of a poor choice. When the dog makes the good choice to remain in the crate, generously reward by clicking and jackpot treating. Eventually, over several sessions, you will gradually open the crate door a little wider until you are finally able to have the door open wide with the dog making a great choice by remaining in the crate. After that, you can do further proofing by moving a few steps away and rewarding the dog for staying in the crate. In incremental steps, your proofing can include moving around, turning your back, walking away, swinging your arms, jumping up and down, making sounds, etc. Here I am doing some proofing with Hokey by opening both crate doors and moving around:
Once the dog is staying with these kind of distractions you can add more advanced distractions, such as tossing toys or food. Just make sure that every time you introduce a new distraction, you remain close to the crate door so you can close the door before the dogs leaves the crate in case it chooses to self-release. Here I am doing some proofing with Hokey using some treats thrown on the floor in front of the crate doors. She has learned that remaining inside the crate gets her lots of treats whereas choosing to move toward the treats on the floor outside the crate results in her receiving nothing but a door being shut in her face between her and the treats on the ground:
The third component of the crate behavior is a nice release response. This, too, has applications as a foundational agility skill. You want your dog to quickly and enthusiastically respond when released. However, when training this particular behavior, I personally keep my rewards lighter than I do with the first two behaviors discussed because I want to make the "in crate" behavior inherently more valuable than the "leaving the crate" behavior. When first teaching it, I throw a single treat away from the crate door immediately after giving the release command, so that the dog learns to spring forward upon release. Later I may call them to me for a reward. Here are Hokey and Poppy demonstrating the release behavior.
Yes. That's right. Even my wild child Poppy, who has significant separation anxiety and panics if confined anywhere inside the house including a crate (so she never is confined, although I do crate her in my vehicle, which she is fine with) is perfectly capable of learning and adhering to the rules of the game and having fun while doing so. Poppy has a hard time with self-control and keeping a cap on her sky-high energy. However, even when she's rev'd up and squealing and spinning in her crate, she will not actually leave the crate until I give her a release command. Here she is playing the game:
In short, crate games are a fantastic way to train your dog some important fundamental behaviors. Happy training!