Thursday, June 18, 2009

Part 6: Crate Behavior

We mentioned in Part 4: Canine Manners Around Food that crates are a source of comfort and relaxation for our service dogs. Crates are not a form of punishment. In fact, because crates become a happy, stress-free place for our dogs, the dogs sometime choose to go in them just to hang out and relax. One SSD puppy once fell asleep in his crate - he was flopped on his side, perfectly relaxed, with his head lolling out of the crate door!

Since we use crates in training and they become an important part of a service dog's life, we have certain expectations for behavior when dogs go in their crates. When they're in their crate, service dogs should be able to chill out and relax - no whining or barking - and they wait patiently for a verbal cue to leave the crate.

To get puppies used to their crate, we feed them at least one meal inside it. Receiving a meal in the crate helps the puppy associate the crate with good things, so it becomes a happy place.

When we're teaching puppies to wait quietly and patiently until they're released from the crate, we use a method similar to our method of teaching dogs not to bolt through other doors. (Read Part 5: Dogs and Doors - Patience Is a Virtue for our post about bolting through doors.) If the puppy starts to move when we open the crate door, we close the door and don't let the puppy out. When the puppy is once again waiting quietly, we try opening the door again. If he tries to barge through again, the door closes. The door only opens completely when the puppy stays patiently. Similarly, if the puppy starts barking or whining when we start opening the door, the door closes until the puppy quiets down. Sometimes this takes patience on our part, but it's important to outlast any vocalizing. When the puppy is both quiet and staying patiently, we then open the door and signal the puppy to exit the crate by saying "okay."

Throughout the process of opening the crate door and releasing the dog with an "okay," we don't use the "stay" command. We want our dogs to learn that when they're in a certain environment, in this case the crate, they must always "stay," even if there is no specific command. Service dogs often need to be as unobtrusive as possible, automatically giving behaviors depending on the environment and other cues.

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