Dog training lessons reach beyond crate

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

His noisy cage-mate dominated the room. The scruffy white Westy jumped and barked, filling the pet store with more noise than dogs three times his size.

Tucked behind the feisty terrier was a small brown pup with dark eyes flanked by floppy ears. When we coaxed him out, his gently winkled face grinned back at us as a curly tail sprung up.

He was a puggle — a mixed breed between a pug and a beagle. His classic pug stance and tail met with the soft lines of a beagle’s face.

He was adorable.

My kids convinced me he was the perfect dog for me.

What was I thinking?

I have to admit, they dutifully listened to all of the instructions and advice. We chose the crate training program, a concept foreign to me but highly recommended by pet professionals.

The proper crate size, we learned, was only large enough for the pup to stand up, turn around and lie down. I glanced at the store’s cage and the recommended crate and wondered if he could be happy in that contraption.

“Dogs are, by nature, den animals and feel secure in small, enclosed spaces,” our 21-page customer booklet assured us.

Just think of it as “a refuge, a hang out and a bedroom.”

I guess that made sense. I grew up with German shepherds who loved their cozy dog houses. Perhaps the crate is simply a dog house redefined.

We purchased the crate, put it together and launched our training program, complete with clipboard and assignments. As we began to follow the instructions about the dog’s schedule — when to feed him, when to take him out, when to crate him — I started to wonder who was being trained.

Research indicated that training strategies varied. Some said we should crate the dog any time he is not eating or outdoors. Others advised crating only when he is left alone.

We chose the latter. After all, we wanted a dog for companionship. If we wanted to see him in a cage all the time, we would simply visit the pet store.

“They aren’t large gerbils, you know,” one experienced pet-owner quipped.

We also learned that there is more to this training business than just following a schedule.

“He’s not stupid,” the vet reminded me after I called him following a series of bathroom accidents. He explained that if we are rewarding him with a treat after every successful “potty” experience, we could be training him to “potty” for the reward.

“An intermittent reward will be more effective,” he suggested.

When we intermittently reward targeted behaviors, it seems, it is more powerful than an automatic reward.


As I mulled over this new cause-and-effect behavioral approach, my thoughts wandered to the new routines that summer will soon usher into my home.

College students rush in with mounds of laundry and endless appetites. Local school friends will soon come and go, unbridled by school schedules, homework or sports commitments. Last-minute and impromptu become the norm.

But make no mistake — I love the hubbub, the companionship and the energy the young folk bring.

It’s the leftovers of their visits that tend to annoy me.

Paper and plastic trash somehow miss the recycle bins. Dirty dishes never quite make that last leap into the dishwasher. And those crumbs on the counter seem to become part of the new decorating decor.

Chaos can reign.

Perhaps I should learn from the behaviorists, define my expectations and reward target behaviors intermittently.

Or maybe just find a few kid-sized crates.