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Choice, Control and… Confinement? – How Does Crate Training Fit In?

When I adopted Bil, (the most aggressive gerbil ever), my first training goal had to be “crate training.” Because of Bil’s aversion to human hands, and my aversion to having my blood drawn by animal teeth, I needed a way to move Bil without touching or handling him at all. I needed Bil to choose to enter his hamster ball and allow me to confine him, so that I could clean his cage regularly.

No problem. It took about seven sessions over the first week and a half. I conditioned Bil to go into his “crate,” allow me to place the lid, and then move him to another area while he received his favorite treats (tiny pieces of cracker). That’s it. This was the difference between Bil being another person’s rejected misfit pet and my very favorite gerbil!

Choice and control are the keys to building trust with animals. But there are times when we need to limit animals – It just isn’t safe to give choice and control when it means allowing a cat free access to run around in a moving car. It isn’t feasible to have a rhino walk to a new to zoo to reproduce with an appropriate mate. It isn’t wise to allow young puppies to roam the house unsupervised when we are trying to teach good habits for living with humans.

So how do we build trust in situations when we need to limit an animal’s choice and control? Teach them to CHOOSE and LOVE confinement. With Bil, I gave him choice and control. Then I stacked the deck (with crackers), in favor of him choosing to be confined so I could properly care for him. He could either enter the ball or not, he could leave when the lid appeared or wait for his cracker after I placed the lid. Crackers won. Bil now chooses confinement with crackers.

Before crate training, it was impossible to clean Bil’s cage without being bitten – A LOT. When I crate trained Bil, it allowed him to be comfortable enough to let me provide basic care. However unwittingly, he was able to choose a healthy environment (something that was not happening previously because it was too stressful for Bil and too painful for his previous owner). Crate training provided Bil with additional benefits. Since he was able to experience being removed from his cage in a non-stressful way, he could be enriched and get exercise by exploring the kitchen, and other dog-free zones in his hamster ball.

That’s what confinement training is all about – Making temporary limitations fun, and then trading that in for even greater opportunities. Think of all the ways you and your animals benefit if you teach them to be content and confident while confined.

Dogs learn that alone time is fun, and that the only good place to pee is out in the yard.
Horses learn that cooperative trailering is the source of apples, carrots and new trail ride locations.
Otters learn that the kennel means fish and so being carried to the vet hospital isn’t so scary anymore.
A cat learns that the tuna-flake-producing carrier is a decent and safe place to be during a car ride, and provides a familiar hiding place in the new apartment.

Crate training with positive reinforcement allows animals to choose confinement for themselves. It transforms restraint and limitation to control and increased opportunity.

Megan Phillips

Megan Phillips

After training exotic animals in zoos and aquariums since the early 1990’s, Megan began consulting dog, horse and cat owners in 2006. She achieved her dog training certification in 2007 and received her Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant credential from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants in 2013.

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