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Creating a Zen Den, What Does that Mean?

Let's discuss crate training, or what I have coined making a "Zen Den."  Before we get to the how of making crate training as positive as possible let us break down one of the most common reasons people chose not to crate train their dog: human projection of their emotions and opinions onto the animal.  Guilt is a reason many people don't jump on the crate training wagon.  I hear this all the time, "I feel guilty." "I don't want my dog to live in a crate." "I feel bad for leaving my dog in their crate all day."  "It seems mean."  All of these reasons and projections are about the way you feel, rather than meeting your dog's needs. Creating a Zen Den is not about how you feel, but about putting your dogs needs ahead of your own judgments.   Secondly, all of these feelings you are putting on your dog are all under the assumption that a dog's crate is negative. Positive crate training by definition is the opposite of a negative experience. We will discuss this in greater detail later. Thirdly, loving a dog by giving them a free for all of your house and/or to practice unwanted behavior and then getting mad at them, punishing them or using aversive training because they tore up the couch or scratched the living room window because they practiced reactivity all day while you were gone is more cruel and counter-productive then using the crate as a way to manage the environment for the dog to be physically safe and behaviorally healthy. Lastly, your dog is not a person. We are doing our dogs a disservice by assigning human emotion onto their training needs. We have to as the first step to creating a Zen Den, let go of our own mental angst that we are doing something unkind by giving them a much needed safe space. We are, in reality, doing the opposite. You are being kind in giving your dog a Sanctuary, a place to relax, a space they are not only physically safe but behaviorally safe, developing a life skill that can be used later in varying situations and help to regulate their impulses.

Positive crate training is not about the way you feel.

Acknowledging our own human bias that functions as a mental block to the benefits of crate training can be empowering and allow you to consider the benefits of doing so. Lets dig into actual steps a person can take to make a Zen Den experience for their dog.

  • Set aside your human emotions
  • Know it is a process
  • Placement of the crate
  • Choose the type of crate
  • Consider crate variables
  • Safety in the crate
  • Inherent positive associations
  • Use consent and choice exercises
  • Conditioning the crate
  • The When-Then rule
  • Put it on cue
  • Making the kennel fun
  • Build duration and resilience
  • Checking in with your dog
  • Create a routine
  • It's a life skill

Positive crate training is a process.

We already covered setting aside your own projections onto your dog so lets cover the idea "know positive crate training is a process".  This essentially means that we need to be open to the fact some dogs will take time, repetition, frequency and consistency in our crate training exercises in order to feel like they want to be in the crate. And this most certainly means we are not forcing dogs into crates either. Every dog is an individual and their learning level of associating the kennel with a den-like feel will vary.  But regardless, it is a good idea to expect crate training to develop and not be an immediate skill your puppy or dog may have.

 

Placement of the crate can impact a dog's emotional well-being.

Placement of the crate might not even be on your radar, but deciding where the crate should go is an important part of the crate training process. Consider a fearful dog.  A dog that is scared may be completely overwhelmed by their crate being in the living room. The coming and going, the business of the house, the visual loudness of strangers entering, all of the sudden environmental changes happening around them and even other animals having more access around their space; all of this can be completely overwhelming as well as setting up the environment for the fearful dog to actually be more fearful.   The crate is hardly the fearful dog's Zen Den in this placement scenario.  Putting the fearful dog's crate in a more secluded, quiet space may be more ideal in that the dog feels like he has a space that he can breathe in, a den that provides calmness and where he can let his guard down. The crate can be the lens in which the dog views the world from and we want a Zen lens and not a high stress, more anxiety and fear invoking view.  Knowing that emotion drives behavior, we can respect that through thoughtful consideration of where to put the crate. Placement of the Zen Den can create emotions that help alleviate behavioral issues or help behavioral issues grow into bigger behavioral issues. You decide.  Sometimes you may not know of behavioral proclivities until your dog shows you, so placing the crate in the ideal place may be on a trial and error basis. That is ok. Behavior is information. For dogs that show a lot of fear and reactivity typically we find more secluded spots for their crate. For dogs that stress when out of sight and find security in seeing what is going on, we put the Zen Den in a busier spot of the house. Lastly, it is ok that crate placement be on a gradual level as the fearful dog gains confidence you move from the most secluded area, to a little secluded-but not totally area, to a little traffic, to more traffic, and so on.  Their comfort level and behavioral needs guide the process of optimal placement.

Why does the type of crate matter?

If you have ever had a dog get hurt when busting out of a wire crate you probably are reminded just how much the way a crate is made matters for your dog's physical safety.  Physical safety is always a concern when we are crating. After all, many people crate to accomplish just that goal. A dog that jumps out of the fence, digs out of the backyard, door darts or ingests unsafe things when left alone are all crated for their physical safety. A plastic crate can be considered for dogs that like more confinement. They are more closed off visually than a typical wire crate.  A wire crate is more open but often the ones that dogs get hurt the most trying to get out of. Plastic and wire crates are mostly for dogs that are not destructive, anxious or have a history of breaking out of the crate.  Welded crates are made to withstand more force and are for dogs that need more security, stress easy or have destroyed crates in the past. I also think they are safer in their design.

Crate variables...what are they?

Variables that come into creating a Zen Den are things like, "Does my dog prefer the crate partially covered, should we use a crate liner or a plush blanket/bed inside, does my dog need white noise added during the conditioning phase or on a regular basis, etc."  A lot of these thoughtful considerations are about an extra layer of comfort and ease and can boil down to trying different methods for your individual dog. You may have to try different covers for the crate such as crate covers that are custom made for the crate, make shift ones that are made out of poster board or even blankets.  Kennel liners and bedding inside the crate, similarly are going to depend on the individual dog, the way the process the crate and behaviors they are prone to.  As far as adding white noise, things like classical music, music in general at a peaceful sound level, music specifically made for calming animals (yes, that is a thing!), fans, TV's and white noise machines are common go to's for helping a dog have a predictable ambience.  At the end of the day, our dogs decide what is felt as reinforcing and good. So when you start to try these ideas be consistent to give your dog time to acclimate but also know when conditioning is not setting in because your dog is not feeling positive about what we are adding to the crate. Some of these variables are going to depend on what is safe and what is not safe for your unique dog.

We should always be thinking safety!

Safety is paramount when it comes to our animals. Crate training is no different in that respect. If we are being as safe as possible, I would consider that many dogs can get their toes, paws, collars and even worse head and neck stuck in collapsible wire crates when trying to get out. No one wants to think they are doing the best for their dog only to find out they have injured their self (side note- this is exactly why we use positive reinforcement to condition the Zen Den) when using a crate. Welded crates seem to be very safe, with less possibilities of injury. Other considerations of safety would be a dog who is wearing clothes, bandannas, collars or harnesses while being crated. Any item attached to our dog can too easily get stuck and cause strangulation, death or serious injury. Dogs that pull in blankets or anything set on top or beside their crate can get hurt by ingesting particles that could be dangerous or have an obstruction.  Make sure you create a safe zone on top and around their crate!  Other items such as bones, enrichment, toys and puzzle games are not supposed to be left in the crate while the dog is unsupervised. Lastly, crates are not meant to be shared.  Even if you think your dog needs a buddy or friend in there- that is very much a projection of human thinking onto an animal (remember we talked about that earlier).  Our dogs do not need to be in  a small space with another dog where they cannot avoid conflict and move away to alleviate spatial pressure.  The crate can sometimes become where you feed your dog and food and space are resources, it is unfair to put two animals in a small space around resources and always expect that neither dog will get possessive or actively try to claim access to their valuable resources.  Ultimately, know your dog or get to know your dog so you can set him up for success and safety during the crate training process. Also please consider the benefits of a Zen Den far out weigh the safety risks but it is worth mentioning so you can make the best educated choice for your pup!

Building inherently positive associations, consent and choice and conditioning the crate go hand in hand.

I love to remind people the crate is what you make it. Dogs speak reinforcement so we use all the science of positive reinforcement when we condition a crate for a dog to feel like they *want* to be in that space and that the space is where they can decompress and relax. This is where the term Zen Den comes from. A den is a home, a safe space, a place with predictable expectations, fundamental needs are met here, relaxing and gives the dog the ability to develop into a calm observer. A Zen mind-frame with a Den space.  One way we make the crate positive is by putting the dogs food and water inside the crate. Another way we condition the crate is by adding treats, enrichments, and an exercise I like to call, "raining chicken."   Making it rain chicken is where we prop the door open to the crate and boil chicken ahead of time in preparation for our crate-conditioning exercise.  We find the max number of times we can walk over to the crate and drop or toss a few pieces of chicken into the crate. If you do this 10 times, 30 times or 50 times then that is 10-30-50 times a day your dog had consent to go in the kennel and eat the chicken and then walk out of the kennel with choice. The frequency in which your dog experiences this insatiable pleasure starts to plant seeds of an expectation and a feeling of wanting to return to the crate.  It is worth noting, you can make it rain anything, hot dogs, cheese, freeze tried beef liver; but we do want to find the highest value reinforcer and use that in our crate training work.  Eventually your dog will pick up on the fact he only gets fill-in-the-blank high value treat in the Zen Den and he will start laying in there on his own.  He is saying with his behavior, I don't know when that chicken is coming but I have figured out it comes in this space.  Your dog is experiencing consent to go in and choice to go out of the crate. The frequency, repetition and consistency with predictability builds a positive relationship with the crate. We are physically developing a behavior of the dog being in the kennel and mentally we work our way up to a balanced brain when kenneled.  It is a beautiful process!

Once your dog is laying in the crate on their own (thank you science), we can start shutting the crate door for a second while giving high value reinforcers and increase the duration of the door being shut at the dog's comfort level and pace. Practice this regularly over a period of time. Keeping with our least intrusive and minimally aversive ethics, we are giving our dog a say in this process. If at any time they don't process the door shut at whatever time interval then we go back to a previously successful length of time.  Slow progress is still progress. Some dogs will process the door shut without regression others may have certain times that they reach and start to cry, paw, bark or offer behaviors that are stress responses. We should never use force when creating the Zen Den. Just think you retreating to your bedroom because you want to, find it relaxing and have a learning history of pleasant things happening is different than someone making you go in your bedroom, locking the door and enducing stress, anxiety and cofusion into your world. We should care very much and be sensitive to creating positive assocations all along the way so we do not have stress responses develop.

Using the When-Then rule in the Zen Den

When-Then rules are really powerful in creating associations. When X happens then Y happens.  There is a predictable pattern. When implemented with positive associations, we get the dog looking forward to the when because they know the then is coming. In terms of creating the Zen Den, we are essentially communicating to our dogs (with our predictable behavior) that when we cue the kennel then they get something extra special.  I like to use pre-made Kongs that I have stuffed with peanut butter, baby food, pumpkin, yogurt, The Honest Kitchen or canned dog food.  I also rely on raw-hide free chews like beef hooves, yak chews, bully sticks. antlers and Dreambones.  As mentioned before part of positive crate training is safety. So use supervision in the implementing the when-then rule with the kennel. Use common sense and your own judgment on enrichments you choose to put in the kennel with your dog. Be mindful and responsible.  The key reason I use the above mentioned items as my "then" reinforcement is because we are going for a long lasting task of licking or chewing.  We don't want a one and done treat.  After a dog enters their kennel we need their brain tasking, working, de-stressing by releasing their drives in a constructive way that meets some of their basic needs.  If our dogs are having cathartic releases through the enrichment items what they are not doing is practicing negative responses to being kenneled. Or, and this is key, if they are having some regressions or set backs in the kennel process they have an environmental option to lick a bit on their West Paws toppler and bark, lick then bark, then go back to licking again.  This isn't always viewed by humans as a successful part of crate training but we have to understand this is better than barking all the time or barking and trying to bust out.  They are trying to regulate their impulses. So help them do just that! Too many people say, "well we tried it and it didn't work."  It didn't work for the 3 days you tried?  It didn't work for a week?  It didn't work when you inconsistently implemented?  Choose one behavioral pattern or emotional response you have.  Cussing or being scared of spiders, for example. And stop cussing immediately. Or stop being scared of spiders right now or in a few days.  Behavior modification doesn't work that way.  So give the when-then rule time. Implement it consistently, repetitively, frequently and over a period of substantial time. The other element of using this rule is your dogs develop duration in their kennel. Duration of a sit or a stay are all natural progressions of basic training.  Building duration in the crate should be a natural progression of the Zen Den process. Your dog deserves a fair, ample chance for the science to work.  And that starts with you understanding the power of your own behavior in using the when-then rule for crate conditioning.

Putting the behavior on cue!

Now that a relationship and conditioning within the space has been established with the crate becoming your dog's Zen Den, we can now put the behavior of going to the crate on cue. We will lure and shape the dog into their Zen Den, followed by the word you will use, marker, and treat. For luring this looks like loading up your treat hand (lots of little pieces of yummy smelling food) making a fist with your hand and putting your fist right to the dog's nose.  Let that powerful drive of sniffing do the work!  Lure them to the crate and then toss your handful of treats into the crate.  As soon as your dog is in their Zen Den, say "Bed, yes" and treat.  Shaping your dog into the kennel is pretty much the same.  We leave treat trails up to the crate and inside the crate to encourage the behavior and shape them to going into the crate on their own, when they do, cue a, "Bed, yes!" and reinforce.  At some point, when there is behavioral fluency developed with luring, shaping and your dog practicing going into their Zen Den always equaling the same word, the same marker word/sound and the same feeling of positive reinforcement we will stop luring and shaping and move to hand gestures like pointing.  You then point to the Zen Den and say, "Bed," give it time, so many people are impatient and expect the dog to go right away. Dogs aren't robots.  Just think when your spouse or co-worker says come here and you are comfortable, asleep, preoccupied or just don't want to; it isn't an immediate automatic response, or maybe sometimes it is. But the point is, when you point and give the verbal cue you should also respect the fact that your dog may need a minute and by rushing them you inadvertently resort to escalation, force and negativity when they may have been in the process of responding to the conditioning, but we interrupted that "right" response. If the dog does not respond to the cue the first time, repeat only once.  A very common mistake is to keep saying a cue over and over again. If the mental map and behavior has been learned we don't need to repeat direction.  At this point if your dog is still struggling we can, depending on the dog, get a leash (not to pull but because leashes often mean getting up) and once the dog is up we can re-direct the "bed" communication and start over.  You can also change your energy and tone, we call this getting jolly, it may seem silly but dogs respond to energy and movement.  When you are getting excited and moving around, dancing, jumping and playing your dog may just decide that that looks fun and join, at that point we give the cue again to go to the Zen Den.  Toys, treat bags, or car keys; things your dog has a positive learning history with, can be used to help your dog get their brain and body moving and that is our reachable moment to cue the crate again.

Can the Zen Den be fun?

Why of course!  We forget that play, fun and joy are naturally reinforcing.  You can toss toys in your dogs crate.  A fun game of fetch, where your dog goes inside the crate to get their toy is just another added level or positive pairing. Find it games, where we hide treats all through their crate and let them do nose work, or add a snuffle mat for sniffing and foraging.  A dog using their nose in the crate defines that space as positive because sniffing is not only a natural drive but it is rewarding for dogs to access reinforcement through their own volition. One of my other favorite ways to make the crate fun is add positive reinforcement basics in that space. Sits, downs, waits, touches, shakes, looks, leave its and drop can all be practiced in the dogs Zen Den.  The more we associate their crate with experiences that feel good the more that space truly becomes therapeutic.

Why do we build resilence with the Zen Den?

Resilience has to do with emotionally coping and using mental processes and behaviors in protecting one's self from potential negative effects.  Our dogs need to be able to emotionally cope with learning to be crated. Our dogs need to know they can access reinforcement with the Zen Den experiences to protect their self from impulsively driven triggers (fear) and any negative learning histories (being forced in kennels previously).  When our dogs can start to accept change in the environment within the lens of a Zen Den, seek out their own safe space and truly settle psychologically, then we know we have helped them feel as if the environment is controlled, expected, secure, trusting, safe and with the least amount of felt stress. That is building resilience!  In short, we need to give our dogs ample opportunity to experience their Zen Den. Kennel your dog with this positive approach when you are home, for short periods of time, when vacationing together, when guests come over, to de-escalate over arousal, for pet integrations or for some healthy boundaries from you. Give your dog a chance to use, love and home in their Zen Den.

Now that a relationship and conditioning within the space has been established with the crate becoming your dog's Zen Den, we can now put the behavior of going to the crate on cue. We will lure and shape the dog into their Zen Den, followed by the word you will use, marker, and treat. For luring this looks like loading up your treat hand (lots of little pieces of yummy smelling food) making a fist with your hand and putting your fist right to the dog's nose.  Let that powerful drive of sniffing do the work!  Lure them to the crate and then toss your handful of treats into the crate.  As soon as your dog is in their Zen Den, say "Bed, yes" and treat.  Shaping your dog into the kennel is pretty much the same.  We leave treat trails up to the crate and inside the crate to encourage the behavior and shape them to going into the crate on their own, when they do, cue a, "Bed, yes!" and reinforce.  At some point, when there is behavioral fluency developed with luring, shaping and your dog practicing going into their Zen Den always equaling the same word, the same marker word/sound and the same feeling of positive reinforcement we will stop luring and shaping and move to hand gestures like pointing.  You then point to the Zen Den and say, "Bed," give it time, so many people are impatient and expect the dog to go right away. Dogs aren't robots.  Just think when your spouse or co-worker says come here and you are comfortable, asleep, preoccupied or just don't want to; it isn't an immediate automatic response, or maybe sometimes it is. But the point is, when you point and give the verbal cue you should also respect the fact that your dog may need a minute and by rushing them you inadvertently resort to escalation, force and negativity when they may have been in the process of responding to the conditioning, but we interrupted that "right" response. If the dog does not respond to the cue the first time, repeat only once.  A very common mistake is to keep saying a cue over and over again. If the mental map and behavior has been learned we don't need to repeat direction.  At this point if your dog is still struggling we can, depending on the dog, get a leash (not to pull but because leashes often mean getting up) and once the dog is up we can re-direct the "bed" communication and start over.  You can also change your energy and tone, we call this getting jolly, it may seem silly but dogs respond to energy and movement.  When you are getting excited and moving around, dancing, jumping and playing your dog may just decide that that looks fun and join, at that point we give the cue again to go to the Zen Den.  Toys, treat bags, or car keys; things your dog has a positive learning history with, can be used to help your dog get their brain and body moving and that is our reachable moment to cue the crate again.

Checking in with your dog.

If your dog is still struggling to respond to going to their space with a point and verbal cue go back to a previously successful step. Really, if at anytime through out the Zen Den process you find your dog is not showing signs of experiencing the kennel positively, find their previously successful stage of conditioning and start fresh there at that level. Be generous with reinforcement and high value reinforcers if there is a regression, bad day or inconsistencies in conditioning. Checking in with your dog is always part of working and living with a sentient being. Knowing and realizing when your dog needs you to take steps back to basics can be the difference in a healthy minded dog and one that has behavioral imbalances.  Don't be so rigid that your dog cannot have feelings, express them and show them behaviorally.  When this happens guide them through any setbacks in your progress together. People rely on support every single day, in fact we all deserve our loved ones to give us gentle nudges, help with hardships or just be there to get us to the next level. Our dogs deserve the same!

Create a routine and structure.

Routines and structure are part of life.  We have a rhythm to our day, there is a natural pattern to the seasons and a regularity to our own circadian cycle. We can easily take for granted this sense of organization that brings an understanding of timing and what is to be expected. But truly think about it. You have these gutarial expectations and you even have simple beliefs like your car starting every morning, what time your spouse or children come home from their days, when your breakfast, lunch and dinner time is. Once you revisit the confidenc you draw from the sense of knowing in those examples, now think about what it would be like if your child didn't get off the bus, Spring didnt follow Winter; I know I would feel a sense of panic. Dogs too thrive with routine and structure. This builds predictability.  Predictability has an inverse relationship with the unknown, felt risks, confusion, fear, reactivity and impulses.  We should do everything we can to give our dogs a peace of mind.  Crating your dog on a schedule helps them know what to expect, reduces over arousal, eliminates the environment adding to stress, feels safe and can help improve behavior.  If we know we are responsible for their mental and behavioral health then we should not hesitate to use their Zen Den as a way to implement order, clarity and feelings of confidence to their daily experiences.

Positive crate training is simply a life skill for your dog.

If for some reason you still don't want to positively make a Zen Den for your best friend, I will leave you to consider practical areas we would use positive crate training:

  • Dog integrations
  • Dog-Cat integrations
  • Mental resets after a dog-dog altercation
  • Behavioral Modification
  • Baby, Toddler, or a new blended family
  • Living situation changes
  • Bite Quarantine
  • Vet visit drop off
  • Surgery/Dental
  • Boarding
  • Traveling
  • Emergency situation
  • Natural Disaster
  • Regulate impulses
  • Heartworm Treatment
  • Potty training
  • People selectivity
  • Apartment maintenance
  • Fearful dogs
  • Puppy chewing
  • Holidays, large gatherings
  • Healing post-surgery
  • Resource Guarding
  • Safety/prevent destruction
  • Roommates/shared living spaces
  • Special medical needs
  • Decompression
  • Fostering
  • Meet and Greets
  • Adoption events
  • Transport
  • Life transitions

I always run through this list of real life scenarios when I discuss crate training with clients.  I hope it speaks volumes when you consider that it isn't a matter of if, but more a matter of when the time comes for your dog to be crated, will you have prepared your dog to seamlessly experience being crated or will they have to go through high stress and anxiety, possibly injure themselves, because we didn't prepare them for such an important life skill. That seems tragic.  Life is going to happen, so it is better for our dogs to prepare them to cope in the healthiest way possible.  Zen Dens can improve cognitive functioning, impulse regulation, psychosocial positivity, feelings of safety, confidence, trust, control, predictability, structure, routine, reduce fear and prevent negative and dangerous behavioral patterns to develop.  I know we all want what is best for our canine friends.  If we are lucky enough they will be around for 10-15 years! The gift of inner calmness throughout their lifetime can be such an adaptive and positive way to deal effectively with the demands of an animal living in a human world.

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