Free at last, free at last!

When Cuba first came to live with us, he spent A LOT of time in his crate. Whenever I was unable to directly supervise him,...


When Cuba first came to live with us, he spent A LOT of time in his crate. Whenever I was unable to directly supervise him, he was in his crate. I didn’t want him to rehearse unwanted behaviors like chewing on shoes or electrical cords, or toileting in inappropriate areas. He also mastered going up the stairs fairly early but could not go down the stairs until a bit later, so I was concerned he might run upstairs and then hurt himself trying to get down. If I took a ten minute shower or a twenty minute nap, he was crated. If I had an important phone call which required my full concentration, he was crated.

Now Cuba’s growing, and he’s developing really nice manners. He’s still a puppy, so he’s not ready for full freedom from the crate when unattended, but his good behavior has earned him the right to a little more freedom.

While you may initially crate extensively when you bring a new dog into your home, many pet owners would eventually like their dog to have access to the entire house or certain areas of the house when the dog is left home alone. Weaning off crate use is a process and should be approached systematically. Some dogs earn freedom from the crate much more quickly than others. My Chow mix, Mokie, had earned her freedom around nine months of age. One of my client’s dogs has just started earning her freedom at two and a half years old (instead of being in her crate, she is now restricted to a single room), because her dog is a more vigorous and determined destructo-dog than Her Royal Chowness.

When your dog is ready to start earning some freedom from the crate, management protocols must be implemented very carefully. Now that Cuba is earning more freedom, the shoes have to be put away, as do electrical cords. Delicate breakables must be placed well out of reach on surfaces which will be immune to the effects of a Saint Bernard puppy freight train crashing into the bookshelf or table in play. Books, cleaning supplies, medications, etc., must be placed well out of reach. The baby gate will need to be closed, to prevent Cuba from honing counter surfing skills when unsupervised.

Once management protocols have been established, it’s time to start allowing Cuba unsupervised free time when I am at the house. He is no longer crated when I take a shower or a short nap. He doesn’t have to go in his crate when I take that important phone call. Allowing him this freedom when I am at home but not actively supervising him is the first step toward granting him more freedom.

I’d like to work up to a few hours of uncrated trustworthiness before I practice actually leaving him uncrated in the house when I am not at home. If, at any point, we see a regression and increase in destructiveness, we’ll need to back off a bit and reduce the amount of time he is left unsupervised or tighten down the hatches on our management solutions. I won’t go from crate to full access, but will gradually expand access, one room at a time.

When he’s ready for me to start leaving the house, I’ll want to make sure that he gets plenty of exercise before I leave so that he is relaxed and not rambunctious. I’ll leave him with food dispensing toys or a scavenger hunt, because I feel like dogs are less likely to be destructive if you give them enough opportunities to be productive with their energy. Absences, at first, will be very brief. Walk the 1/2 block down the street to pop my NetFlix movie in the mailbox. Go outside and stir the compost. Make that important phone call from the back porch, closing the dogs in the house. Clean the windshield on the van. Pick up the poop in the yard. Our separations will be brief, and I’ll be very near to home.

Once I can trust him in these situations, I can begin asking for more duration. Run down to the gas station and fill the tank on the van. Pick up my prescriptions at the pharmacy. Stop at the salon to get my eyebrows waxed. Drop off fliers to a local veterinarian’s office.

Slowly, I’ll increase the duration of our separation. Even when we’ve worked up to longer separations, we’ll occasionally practice very short ones as well. Who knows how quickly this training will progress? Like with all training, the dog gets to determine the pace at which progress is seen, so it may be months or even years before Cuba has earned full access to the house. At any point, if he begins displaying unwanted behaviors, I will need to back up in my plan and devise ways to get him back on track for success.

Some owners are happy with their dog being crated when they are away from the house for the entire life time of the dog. This is ok, too. It is my personal preference that I want my own dogs to be comfortable in their crates when it is necessary and well behaved outside of their crates as well.

Is your dog crate trained? Has he earned unsupervised freedom from his crate? If so, how long did this take? What protocols did you follow to ensure his safety? Please share in the comments!

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