The Crate is Great
I firmly believe the most important tool we have as fosters (and pet parents in general) is the crate.
All of my dogs are crated any time there is no human home or they are unsupervised, and honestly, I think they probably always will be. It is by far the safest place to leave them. In this blog post I'll tell you first why I think the crate is the best place to leave my dogs and all foster dogs, and then what worked for us as far as crate training. If you just want to see the steps, just scroll!
I will also say there is a small subset of dogs that CANNOT be crated due to containment anxiety, but that is rare. There are of course lots of dogs who do perfectly fine outside of the crate. If you have one of those dogs, good for you. I'm a little jealous. But that's just not our life.
Reasons I believe the crate is the best place to leave my/all foster dogs:
They can't chew on anything they shouldn't, which means they're not swallowing things that could poison them or cause a blockage. That includes swallowing anything like buttons off a pillow, pieces of toys that they rip off, anything toxic, etc. etc. I have seen lots of posts of dogs getting into the trash and swallowing chicken bones or chocolate or cleaning products. I've also, unfortunately, heard of dogs suffocating on things like chip or cereal bags. Our apartment is a bit of a mess on the reg, so knowing that my dogs can't get to anything I forgot to put away or clean up is really reassuring.
They can't chew on anything they shouldn't, which means they can't destroy my stuff. Dogs, especially puppies, destroy by nature. I've seen dogs go through couches, pillows, boots (Penny), window blinds, textbooks, artwork, rugs, you name it. Gert once decided she wanted to snack on our table leg- and that's not a puppy! If you are considering fostering and want to keep your stuff safe, I highly suggest a crate.
They can't get lost or out the door. They are always crated when there are people working in the apartment, or we're unloading the car, etc. with the door wide open. And this is probably unique to our situation, but Penny actually can open doors. So on multiple occasions before we started crating her, she managed to get out of the bedroom and out of the apartment. When her separation anxiety seemed to have improved, I stupidly left her out of the crate in our current apartment one day as a trial. She immediately opened the bedroom and front doors and went looking for us. I am so grateful to whatever life force was watching over us that she chose to go up the stairs instead of out the front door of the building. She had no collar on (no collar in the crate!) and she could have been hit by a car, lost, or stolen. I luckily was only gone about 30 minutes, because I turned around as soon as I got to work and ran home, convinced she was gone. I found her crying in the stairs, and we immediately changed the bedroom door handle and got a bolt lock for the front door. Still, she is safest in her crate.
It helps so much with separation anxiety. When we first got Penny her separation anxiety was insane. She would spend the entire time we were gone digging at the door until her nails bled (or freeing herself from the apartment). We found that the safest place for her was in the crate. We turned it into her safe space, and now she knows the routine, and doesn't panic if we crate her, because she understands that she is space and happy (and gets lots of snacks) in there when we go.
It's vital for multi dog households. I have heard enough horror stories to be pretty scared shitless of my dogs getting into it. Don't get me wrong, they love each other. But at the end of the day, they're dogs. And I've seen Gert growl at Loosey for walking near her food, and I've seen Penny and Gert yell at each other over a toy. I can't imagine leaving them free, even after 7 months of peaceful coexisting. What if one of them found food on the floor? What if one stepped on the other as she was sleeping? What could easily be mitigated with me there could be a recipe for disaster if they were alone. I never want to put them in a position where they feel they have to defend themselves, so they take nice naps and get their own food and chew toys in their crates right next to each other, and they are perfectly fine with that. I can't even imagine leaving a brand new dog or a foster free with one of my dogs, both for that dog and my own dogs' safety. It's just not worth the risk.
It's useful for travel, or when pets are on bed rest. If your dog has never been crated, starting to crate in a new place or when they're sick or injured is way harder than crating a dog who considers it a safe space already. When Gert had leg surgery she was on crate rest for 4 weeks. When we go to my parents' house and leave the dogs, we absolutely crate them there. They still get nervous, but at least they understand what the crate is. If my parents have guests who are not comfortable with the dogs or there are a lot of kids around, it's great to know that my dogs can go chill out in their crates with a kong and be safe and sound in there.
How to crate train:
I based the following on a modified version of a Foster Dogs article on crate training, because I think it's awesome (and I helped create it so most of my best tips are already in there):
MAKE THE CRATE A HAPPY, SAFE PLACE WHERE THE DOG WANTS TO BE
-The crate will act as your pup’s safe space. You can do this by encouraging the dog to associate the crate with high value, delicious treats and fun toys that they ONLY get when they are in the crate. I like to use Kongs filled with frozen peanut butter or greek yogurt (or some wet/moistened dog food). The dog only gets these things when she is inside the crate, and as soon as the dog is taken out of the crate, the toys are removed and not accessible to the pup.
-Try putting a lightweight, flat sheet covering the entire crate (except for the door side), and put the crate in a quiet room when you are away, like the bedroom, with blinds down or the lights dim. All of this helps to make the crate feel more den-like, but also takes away any visual or hallway stimulation that could trigger a dog to whine or cry. It’s also important to provide background noise; like the television or radio. Check out YouTube for dog calming music playlists that can last many hours!
BE CONSISTENT WITH CRATE TRAINING
-The trick is to make the crate an "all the time" thing, not simply when you are gone. When the dog is taken out of the crate, take her immediately outside (if a dog is small enough or a young puppy, you can carry the pup outside so that she cannot pee or poop while in the elevator or walking through the house to get outside). If the dog goes to the bathroom outside, then once you are back inside she can roam free around the house for a few hours and play. Then, back in the crate for an hour or two or three (depending on age and ability to hold it), and repeat the process. If, when you take the pup outside, she does not pee and/or poop, put her directly back into the crate upon returning inside. Wait about 20-30 minutes, and try going outside again. Repeat this until the pup goes to the bathroom outside.
-Sometimes it's difficult to put a pup in the crate when you are home because you just want to play and spend time with the dog, but not only is it important to keep consistency, it also makes the crate a normal place for the pup, as opposed to only associating the crate with you leaving. You want your dog to like his crate, and have positive associations with it. If the pup only spends time in the crate when you leave, she will associate crate time with being alone, as opposed to it being a place where she takes naps/get delicious snacks, sometimes with people around and sometimes not.
REWARD! MAKE IT RAIN TREATS WHEN THEY DO POTTY OUTSIDE!
-Use high-value, smelly, delicious treats the pup doesn’t normally receive. Some good ones are turkey/beef/salmon jerky or hot dog slices. As soon as the dog pees and/or poops outside, praise her A LOT and give treats. This helps her associate going outside with fun, positive things.
-NEVER punish, yell, or hit a dog when they go to the bathroom inside/somewhere she shouldn’t. Simply ignore it, and immediately take her outside. Sometimes, dogs need 10-15 minutes of walking before going to the bathroom outside, but too much time may encourage them to hold it for later on a walk. Start with more frequent, shorter walks as you get used to the potty training schedule.
DON'T REWARD WHINING/BARKING IN THE CRATE
-If the pup is whining or barking a lot in the crate, pick a day or two when you are home and spend the day crate training her. Begin by going through your normal routine when you are leaving (i.e. put a coat on, get your keys and purse, etc…). Once the pup is in the crate, walk outside of the room or front door (make sure to be completely out of sight) and wait. If the pup starts crying, you can walk back inside the room, but be sure to not get too close. Once you make eye contact, you can say “SHHH” non-aggressively. Then, stand and wait until the dog is in a calm state again. This does not just mean she stops whining or barking, but that she sits/lays down, and seems relaxed. This can take a few minutes. Once the dog is in a calm state, go outside of the room/door, and repeat each time the pup begins to whine or bark. What tends to happen is the more that you do this exercise repeatedly and in a row, there is more time in between when you leave and when the pup starts whining or barking again. Do this for a solid 2-3 hours at a time if you can. It sounds exhaustive, but the repeated nature is what helps the dog learn the routine. The pup will begin to understand that, eventually, you come back each time-but only for quiet-and stop whining or barking. Don't take the dog out of the crate when she is actively barking or whining, because that teaches that if she barks or whines enough, she will get to come out of the crate.
REMEMBER THAT THE FIRST WEEK IS THE TOUGHEST
When you are house training or crate training or working on separation anxiety, it can be a frustrating process. Remember that the dog has most likely come from a stressful situation, oftentimes directly from a shelter or passed around between foster homes. Even though you may get overwhelmed, try to stay calm and remember that, eventually, the pup will learn to feel safe in her crate and become house trained. Your dog picks up on your energy, so if you are frustrated and overwhelmed, then she will feel the same. This time, while it can be stressful, is an important bonding phase with you and your pup, where she is learning to trust and listen to you. So try to relax, and look at this time as an important learning process for both dog and human, alike.