Crate Training an Older Dog: Should You Do It?
Why Crate-Train a Senior Dog?
There may be times when a crate is appropriate even for an older dog who has been trusted loose in the house. Some reasons why you may want to crate a senior dog include:
- Older dogs who have become less tolerant of attention, whether from people or other pets, can use the crate as a safe place to get some "alone time." Many senior dogs experience behavior changes like this.
- The crate can be a quiet place to recover from surgery, an illness, or other medical condition that requires you to limit the dog's activity. Some older dogs with sundowner syndrome will feel safer in the crate, which will help to lessen their anxiety and allow them to get some rest. This isn't always true, though, so the use of a crate in such cases should be carefully monitored.
- As with a dog of any age, the crate can keep your dog safely confined when need be. This can include situations as mundane as keeping the dog safe but out of the way while a moving crew is in the house... or in emergency situations like an evacuation, where pets must be crated to be accepted into temporary housing.
When Is Crating a Senior Dog NOT Appropriate?
Senior dogs often have special needs. As dogs get older, many become less able to adapt to new situations, plus they may have medical conditions as well. It's not appropriate to crate an older dog when:
- It could worsen or aggravate a medical condition. For example, an arthritic dog may become much more stiff and sore if crated for more than few minutes. Or after certain treatments or surgeries, the vet may want the dog to move around in order to promote recovery. Crating a dog in this case wouldn't be a good idea because there is such limited space available.
- It causes extreme anxiety that cannot be resolved. Patient, gentle, and consistent desensitization can resolve a lot of anxiety and teach a dog to go willingly into his crate... however, an older dog with dementia, for example, may be incapable of learning or remembering any positive experiences associated with the crate. Extreme stress and anxiety can have negative health consequences.
- The dog can't eat or drink safely and adequately. Some senior dogs require
ready access to water at all times because of medical conditions like
or kidney disease.
In a crate, though, there's a limited amount of water available whereas there
may be multiple water bowls throughout the house. Once the dog finishes the
water available in the crate, he's not able to access any more until he's let out.
Sometimes older dogs are also unsteady on their feet (such as dogs that have degenerative myelopathy). What happens if they knock over the water? Not only will they have no access to drinking water, but now they're also lying in a wet crate. Or what if the dog is too stiff to reach the water dish in his crate comfortably?
- You'll be away for longer than your old dog can hold his bladder or bowels. Many senior dogs need to take more frequent potty breaks. Relieving himself in the crate means he is forced to sit or lie in his own urine or feces until he's let out.
- Never, ever crate your dog as punishment or force him into the crate. Both will create negative associations with the crate and cause your dog much more anxiety, as well as make it a lot harder to teach your dog to go willingly into the crate.
Choosing a Crate
Choosing a crate is the next step if you've decided that it's suitable to crate train your old dog. The crate needs to be tall enough for your dog to comfortably sit and stand up without having his head touch the top of the crate. It should be wide enough for him to comfortably turn around, and long enough that he can lie with his paws stretched out in front of him. A crate that's too small will be uncomfortable for your dog; a crate that's too large may cause your dog to sleep on one side and potty on the other.
- A wire dog crate is what most people think of first. Many can be folded down to take up less space (although the panels are heavy) and often have a tray on the bottom of the crate that pulls out for easy cleaning. Since the crate is made of metal/wire, dogs can look around. This may be a good thing or a bad thing; some dogs get stressed out or anxious if they can see what's happening around them but can't participate. In this case, you can drop a blanket over the top and sides of the crate. Wire crates are not suitable for air travel.
- Plastic dog crates are the type that's commonly used for air travel (check with the airline to see if it's one of the approved crates), offer great protection for dogs in the car, and are just as useful at home. Plastic crates are covered and sturdy and offer protection from the elements... plus many dogs feel more secure in a crate that doesn't offer wide-open visibility, like a wire crate would. They're typically fairly lightweight but take up more room since they can't be folded flat. The top and bottom of the crate can typically be taken apart, so there is some space-saving there. Some crates come with dishes that can attach to the crate door. Plastic crates can be difficult to clean and odors may linger.
- Soft sided dog crates offer the ultimate in portability. They're lightweight, fold down, and sometimes even have a carrying handle. However their portability is also their downfall: they can't be used for air travel; they don't offer any protection for dogs in the car (the soft sides can't protect dogs if something falls on the kennel); and dogs can scratch or chew their way through the fabric. Soft-sided kennels aren't as durable as the others.
- Crates that blend better with home furnishings are also available, believe it or not! Most are made of wood and come in a variety of finishings. They are often made to look like end tables or coffee tables, or are just a lot nicer looking than the average crate. The downside is that wood damages easily and may stain more easily if your dog has an accident. Cleaning these types of crates will take more effort, too. Finally - of course! - these types of crates tend to be quite expensive.
Crate-training an older dog is more or less the same as crate-training a puppy. However, if you adopted the dog when he was older, he may already have previous life experiences with crates or confined spaces. If these experiences were positive, great! You might actually find crate training a simple and fast process. However, if the experiences were negative, it may take a lot more time and patience to get him to accept the crate.
If the older dog was never crated before, he may not be as willing to go into the crate - why would he? He's always had free run of the house! This is another cases where patience is a virtue.
- Keep the crate well-padded so that your senior dog can rest comfortably.
- Remove the door of the crate to begin with. It can be re-installed once your dog is comfortable with being crated. The reason for removing the door is so that it doesn't accidentally shut on the dog, spooking him or causing him anxiety that he'll associate with the crate.
- Start slow. Never force your dog to enter the crate! If he seems reluctant,
start by placing some bedding beside or near the crate. Feed him his meals or
treats there until he's comfortable being around the crate.
Then put his food just inside the crate. It's okay if he just picks up the food, backs out and eats it. Let him go at his own pace. As he gets more and more comfortable, you can gradually move his food further into the crate. Eventually, the goal is to have him comfortably lie down in there to enjoy his food. Fill a kong with some of his favorite treats so that he has something to do while he's in there.
When your old dog is comfortable being in the crate with the door open, you can put the door back on (not while he's in there! Do it before he goes in). As usual, give him his food / treats / toys in the crate but leave the door open so he can go out if he likes.
Eventually you should be able to latch the door. Do this for short periods at first, until he gets used to it.
- Be flexible. Some dogs have had bad experiences with crates in the past and may find the crate to be a big source of stress and anxiety. In these cases, you may have to start even slower. Dismantle the crate and just leave the base. Put his bedding on there and proceed with the instructions above. Eventually you can slowly start building the crate back up, with the sides, the top, and finally the door.
- Don't only crate your dog when you're leaving the house. He'll associate the crate with you going away ("something bad"). Crate him for short periods here and there, providing him with a treat or reward.
- Always leave the crate open and accessible to your dog so that he can choose to use it if he wants to.
Crate training an older dog has its uses, both for the dog and for the owner. Senior dogs often have special needs, though; sometimes it's safe and appropriate to crate an old dog, sometimes it's not. If you should decide it's the right thing to do, then take it slow, be gentle, and be positive... and your senior dog will hopefully learn to calmly and peacefully accept his crate time.