Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Dog Training Case Study #2: Crate Aggression

| 36 Comments

concerned corgiThere are many sorts of crate aggression; this case is one where the dog barks intensely when the door is just closed. This is a sensitive eight-year-old herding dog, which is relevant, and a long standing problem, which is also relevant.

One of my sayings is “The smaller the space, the higher the stakes.” Meaning: dogs tend to react faster and more intensely in small spaces than out in the open. This is not a surprise, so do we. In the world of “fight or flight” if your flight is limited, your fight tends to intensify.

The client is an experienced trainer who has tried “the usual” to fix this problem with no success. She has both rewarded calm behavior in the crate for a long time and enforced the down as a correction for the barking over a long period. Neither really helped and she is left with this loud, startling and frustrating behavior.

That info clarifies things for me. My first question when I have this sort of case to resolve is: what is the trigger? What causes the dog to launch into barking? Here was my guess: for sensitive herding dogs, movement coming at them in a small space – like the crate door swing shut toward their face – can trigger barking/reacting.

The history strengthens this guess because everything tried still left the gate swinging shut into her face.

So, how can I defuse this tight-space situation and, even better, how can I change the trigger into a cue to do a behavior that will prevent this sequence?

How about teaching this dog to look away when the door closes?

The short-course review of my approach is:

  • Send dog to crate, toss a few tempting treats behind her to the back of the crate, touch the door.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat only swing the door as she eats the treats.
  • Repeat now rattle the door – VERY lightly – against the front of the crate.
  • Now – touch the door THEN toss in the treats.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat only swing the door.
  • Etc…
  • Now, touch the door and pause. Be absolutely still. When dogs averts head AT ALL – praise, toss a few treats.
  • Repeat…

You get the idea.

The key points are first food then touch gate, next touch gate then food, after that touch gate and pause – dog averts (at all) causes food to be tossed behind her.

The results are promising. In three 5 minute sessions she made significant progress seeming absolutely delighted to have another option other than stressing out. There are likely to be backslides and missteps but, by changing the door shutting from being the trigger of something negative into the cue to avert, we should be able to relax this dog in her crate. And that will be a huge improvement for both this sensitive rescue dog and her devoted person.

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36 Comments

  1. I have a similar case in boarding, a GSD I have clicker trained to approach people because she was petrified of people. It turned out great with food but it won’t work within the crate, she won’t eat the food so I have use freedom as a reward and still having problem because she bit me… comments ??

    • Yup, you’re up a creek at the moment. Freedom – as a reward for this – will likely on perpetuate this (as it has been).

      I’d work things around until she is taking treats in her crate. Kenneling her or a really big crate might help. Teaching her place on a bed then transferring that bed (and that behavior) into half a plastic kennel and then a whole one might work. Tough situation.

  2. I’m experiencing the same issue with my 3 year old Border Collie/Cocker Spaniel mix as described above and I’m at a loss of what to do. He use to run straight to his crate when either myself or my roommate said “crate” and had no issues with us closing the door. However, recently I took him to a friends house and crated him as I was going to be gone for a long period and I believe someone messed with him while he was in his crate.
    Now if he has an accident in the floor he will run to his crate on his own. However if I try to close the door he lunges at the door to try to bite me. This is the only time he lunges at me. When my roommate on the other hand says “crate” he runs in there but growls when she comes closer. We tried giving him a treat as soon as he enters the cage but as soon as she touches the door he lunges at her.

    Would you recommend following the plan listed above with myself first then introducing my roommate later? And if so, should we make any changes to his behavior with touching the crate door?

    • Hi Darby – Yes, that sounds like the same sort of issue. Maybe someone mishandled him or maybe he just grew up a bit more and this “kicked in” with other instincts he has and doesn’t know what to do with.

      He’s probably stressed after an accident and so defensive. Is he not quite house trained yet?

      Also, a larger crate might lessen this response of his.

      In any case, multiple yummy treats tossed toward the rear of the crate are worth a try. Good luck and keep me posted.

      Sarah

      • He is house trained but I find he also experiences some separation anxiety and this usually results in accidents in the house. And as far as his crate goes he has more than enough room to stand up completely and turn around, I made sure to get something big enough when I bought his new one.

        My biggest question still is, in working with this new process, how do I handle the training if he growls during the training? And if he he makes it through successfully with me and I begin to introduce my roommate back into the training, what do we do when he growls at her? We’ve found that he listens to her and goes in his crate and waits for the treat, she gives it to him and even while he’s chewing his treat he stops to lunge as she touches the crate door.

  3. hello, I have a 15 month old Belgian malinois.I have one problem with him.he does not like to go into the cage.just him hearing,go to the cage,he starts to growl.once inside,i have to hold the door shut with my foot,in order to distract and spesk nice and soft to him,but rarely woks,i just need to get door closed and latched without being bitten,and I use 3 bungee cords.because he knows how to open the door.if I leave him out,he ok until I leave,then trashes the house.i don’t want him to think of this as a punishment.one thing,dog has been trained for aggression from an early age,and to bite on command.former owner couldn’t handle him.he s fine as long as he s not in the cage.

    • Hi Louis – you need good, local hands on assistance. Malinois can be complicated and quick. The approach outlined in this blog could be helpful but be careful! You and your dog need help understanding each other ASAP!

  4. I have a slightly different problem. I have a shih tzu. He is aggressive with his food (don’t know if that’s related but I thought I would state it.) He is going on 3 years and we haven’t had him neutered yet. About 7 or 8 months ago he had a spinal problem and became paralyzed from the waist down, unable to move his legs feel his extremities and became incontinent. After a few months of medication and being extremely restricted, either in a bed or in his crate he started getting his mobility back. I’d say he’s at about 90% of what he used to be he still has difficulties with one of his legs and this causes a slight gate when he walks. He was fine with his crate before any of this happened, he actually loved his crate it was his bed, but ever since he’s extremely aggressive whenever we go towards the crate door or even the crate itself when hes inside. Once in a while he’ll have no problem with it and will just sit there and watch as we close the door but more times then not he’s snarling and snapping and has even bit me a few times. I’m unsure what to. It would be a great help if you could suggest something to tame this erratic behavior.

    • So sorry you’re having this series of problems. No quick fix here. You need good hands-on local help and I hope you can find it. I feel for you and for him. – Sarah

  5. Hello everyone. I have a similar situation that I wanted to see if someone can help me on. I live with a big family. We have two memebers of the my husbands family here that are gone most of the day. They have been here since I brought my dog home which is 2 years now. But they don’t usually spend time with him. My dog is 2, a Maltipoo. Every night after I put him in his kennel which he has been in always, if he hears them walk or speak or anything he sounds rabid. He goes insane thrashing and barking and actually moves the crate across the room a few feet. Why do you think he does this? It seems to have gotten worse in the last few months. I’m worried he is getting aggressive because I have little babies here. I have had dogs all my life and this dood is honestly the craziest dog ever. Help.

    • Oh those SMART Maltipoos! Okay, if it is getting worse, my first question is what to you do when he does this? And, what basic commands does he know?

    • I have a crazy one too. Not sure what to do.

      • Often small dogs need BIG training, I’d start there. When dogs are REALLY smart either we use their smarts or they use them in generally unwanted ways. Question #1: How are their basics?

  6. I’m having an issue with our 2 year old Boston, Baxter. He loves everyone when he’s out of his crate. He loves his crate, it’s his safe space and he happily goes in. When we’ve had company he becomes crazed and growling while he’s in his kennel. He recently bit a child that put her hand through his crate door. He’s never bitten and I don’t know how to stop this behavior. Please help!!

    • Crate him in a private area of the home and lock the door when guests are around. Then work on socialization and training with a good local trainer.

  7. My dog is a year has never had a problem with his crate till recently. He growl going in and as soon as he is in he snarls and snaps. This is the only time he shows this behavior. He spends abt 3 hrs at a time in there. The only change we have is my boyfriend got another puppy they play well together and he spends more time out then she does. I’m afraid he is going to bite someone how can i fix this? I have tried entering in and out with treats it worked for a couple days an now he could care less

    • Hi Brandy – Can’t tell from here what is going on so local help is my best advice. Just remember, use REALLY good treats, the BEST he gets and toss a few small ones toward the back so he is busy when you shut the door. BUT… local hands on help. Good luck – Sarah

  8. Hello Sarah
    I have a 7 month old Miniature English Bull Terrier and for the last month, he has been growling ferociously and trying to open crate door every time the door closes. He has been crate trained from 8 weeks old and I don’t know why this is. I believe it’s territorial as he also is very unhappy when I try to put his bed back in his crate after he takes in out to lay in the sun. I’ve tried the treats but he seems to have worked it out and is quick to turn as he knows I’m going to close the door. I’ve tried swinging his door and being positive around the crate but he continues to growl and even defends his crate. What am I doing wrong ? What can I possibly do ? He is not neutered by the way.

    • I’d also like to mention that he spends up to 8 hours in there overnight, is this too long ? He is not aggressive over anything else. He use to be food aggressive but I’ve managed to correct that and can now hand feed him from his bowl. I can’t have this behaviour when I need to crate him and close the door. Other than treats do you have any suggestions? Should I go back to basics and pick him up to place him in his crate ? Even then I’m a tad concerned he might snap

      • Hi Jim – I’d suggest good hands-on help with this one. My experience is that there is lots you can do away from the crate to help resolve this issue. Find some good help and see what’s going on. I’d treat this as a symptom of the problem. – Sarah

  9. Hi Sarah. Glad to find your post. I have a 4 yo Aussie/Heeler and her 1 yo little brother. I’ve heard Heelers have dominance issues. The brother is a wild little pup so we’ve always crated him at night and often when we leave for short outings. No more than 3 hrs. Both dogs are closed in the same bedroom, but only he is crated. After using this process for almost a year, he has started this intense growling and barking at each other. It’s now happening nightly and we have no idea why. Is he jealous that she isn’t crated? Even if she is on the other side of the room he growls at her. Never us. He has no problem going into the crate. As soon as we let him out, they are friends again. Ideas?

    • Try crating him in a different room or putting a barrier around his crate that keeps her back. Sounds like she may be threatening him when you are not around OR like he is maturing. Not sure which but step one is always: stop the unwanted as you retool the behaviors.

  10. I know this post is old but I have a similar issue. 2 year old pitbull who is loveable but wild. He escapes the inescapable, brings us his “kills” (opossums, squirrels, etc), gets in the trash, the works. We have a gentle giant mutt who he was raised from a puppy with. They play and eat near each other fine. Recently we started hearing him snarling and carrying on in his kennel at random. He was doing it towards our other dog who is kenneled next to him. He growls until our big dog looks at him and then starts going after him. He has now done it a few times outside of the kennel related to food or jealously over attention. Never leaves a mark and easily separated. He never turns it toward us. We have a 3 year old and this unpredictable behavior concerns me. I have been watching him and prior to the growling he pants and looks around the room like he’s claustrophobic (it’s an open wire kennel). We were in a recent disaster and moved around until finally settling back in our house. I’m not sure if this is anxiety, insecurity, or maybe even feelings of distrust towards us since we have not had a normal routine in the last year. How do I correct this behavior without making him reject us more?

    • I bet it concerns you, as it should and I am sorry to hear about the disaster and upheaval. Hard time for everyone. 🙁

      I’d move the crates apart and/or put a board between them. If your pit isn’t neutered, do so immediately. And find some good training so you can get him under verbal control and get a vet work up to make sure he’s healthy.

      How safe your child is I cannot venture a guess but if you’re worried, I’m worried. Be safe!

  11. I am seeking some help. I have a mini schnauzer that I’ve had since she was 7 weeks. She’s always been a playful biter. She has NEVER liked someone messing with her food. I don’t know how it was set up where she was born. I did try to handle the food more and it only made it worse so I stopped. Then recently, within past few months, when you kennel her at night or leaving the house (her kennel is big enough) she lunges at the door and acts like she is going to take your hand off. We’ve recently stopped kenneling her at night and only do so when we leave (she tears things up if left alone) and still at night she gets CRAZY! If we start getting ready for bed or my mom puts her blanket down she starts the crazy growl. Just last night I went to go to bed and heard her going crazy so I walked in to see what was going on and my mom said she kindly told her to stay in there (so she doesn’t tear things up) and the dog lunged and growled at her badly to the point my mom got scared. I took the dog and put in the kennel because we needed to go to bed and I had to make sure my hands didn’t slip through the cracks or she would have definitely gotten me.

    • Hi Stephanie – Sounds like you have a long-standing problem that is getting worse. I’d suggest getting some good hands-on help to assist you in changing things. Also, I almost always start with basic training away from the problem areas to build better communication and understanding. If she won’t sit, wait or lie down when all is calm and quiet then it’s unlikely she will respond when she is worked up. Good luck and stay safe – Sarah

  12. Also seeking help. We have a five month old rescue that until literally this week LOVED his crate and was comfortable in it. He lives in our house with our cat. He was having an issue with resource guarding his food and food storage area at meal times around the cat, but with a private session with a trainer and practice he is doing much better on that front, then suddenly, the guarding switched to the crate. At first it started with growling when the cat walked by the crate, then snarling loudly if the cat was very close to the crate. Now (in the last two days or so) it has shifted to include what’s described in the article, snarling when we close the crate door, BUT still seems to be triggered largely by the cat. He has had one session of basic training and starts his second in One month. We are at a loss – we are able to treat and get the crate door closed, we can calm him ok in there with treats, we will try the method described, but have no idea what to do about the cat who’s behavior we cannot control. He sleeps in his crate at night and spends usually two nap sessions in it per day. It is a requirement for our lifestyle that we keep the crate.

    • So sorry you’re having this challenge. Glad you’re getting some help as this is not something I typically see with pups or that I like to see with pups. 🙁

  13. I am curious why a small pitbull pup around 6 months old would be displaying aggression when a hand is held above him against his wire crate (positioned over a wire so that he can’t reach you to bite you) He doesn’t seem aggressive (or maybe not yet) when a hand is held in front of him at his eye level or below. There is a demeanor change in him when the hand goes up above his head, and this is when he reacts with a “freeze” and his eyes glazes over while baring teeth. If held above him long enough on top of his crate, he’ll then proceed to jumping up/reaching up snapping at the hand trying to bite it. (This is NOT my dog) I’m curious as to what MIGHT have started this behavior in this dog especially being only around 6 months old. He was neutered at a young age of about 3 months old. The only history I got was the owner “lost her marbles” and left him in his crate with her boyfriend while she left the state for a couple weeks. During these couple of weeks, the dog had been residing in his urine and feces while the boyfriend went to work and the only time he’d be let out is when he was home. He was recently relocated to the owner’s mom’s house which is when the crate-aggression was found just days ago. I do not know what else might have happened during the ownership of this dog up to now. I do know that he was adopted through a pit-bully rescue.

    • Hi Lisa – There are a few things that might trigger this from something done to him in the past to some sort of barrier frustration issue + who knows what exactly. I might try a plastic crate with a solid top where this would not be an issue if everything else about this pup seemed social and normal. This is odd though so I would be alert to other issues. Not as a breed thing but as a weird, escalating aggressive behavior thing.

    • Hi Lisa,

      I have a male pitbull myself, his pet name is Beastie. He has had his share of aggressive style issues and all have been correctable with time and patience for training. My ex was unkind, not physically per say; yelling or banging at the cage I found out. Since he’s tall, it was usually the top of the kennel that got the brunt of the action. Imagine, being a happy dog, whining cuz you need something and that is what you get. Needless to say, when I realized what was going on, things quickly changed… But, my dog was emotionally scarred. He went into what I call ‘raptor mode’ anytime anything was above his crate ( his eyes glazed over too, I call them his shark eyes). The only fix I found successful was so simple: (took many days with repeatedly doing it throughout the day and consistently saying a sweet “goooood boy”) keep fingers out; start with treat given through crate door in front of dog, slowly as time goes on after repeated treats at one level (not in one sitting), move up a notch. Once comfortable with a few levels, do them in sequence and as the days go by you’ll be at the top of the cage before you know it. If the behavior starts up, turn your back, ignore it, don’t even talk to him and try again later starting fresh. It is important to try to correct this behavior and the dog’s emotional distress early so it doesn’t escalate or progress into other bad behaviors. If all else fails, yes, definitely put a board on top of the crate or switch to a solid kennel. Good luck!

  14. Hi I am having some issues with my lab cross. She’s a great dog so silly it’s unbelievable and so happy to lucky all the time … unless she has a toy or food in her crate. She likes her crate it’s her space, I have a young daughter (8 years old) and they love each other but she can pester the dog at times. If she gets a snack she will go to her crate and stash it, the same with toys and her fav steal shoes!!. She has become aggressive when I go near her crate when she has goodies. She growls and has snapped at me. She will not come out the crate and will just lay at the back growling. I am concerned as she’s snapped at me. Any one any advice any advice or pointers would really be great. We love our dog but I would never forgive my self if she bit my child. I need to help the dog to get over this. Please help !!!

    • Hi there – You are right to be concerned. For now, I would keep the crate door closed unless you put her in it, I’d keep everything out of the crate (which will be easy since the door will be closed), I’d take away/put away anything and everything she likes to stash and guard, and I would get some hands-on help with training. Right away. Good luck – Sarah

  15. I have a 2 year old German Shepherd – Alaskan Malamute mix (2 of them, they are brothers) One is sweet as sugar and extremely submissive (he won’t even step foot out the door unless I go first) the other is a handful. My problem is that the handful is very cage aggressive. He acts like he will kill you (not exaggerating) when he is in the cage sometimes. (His cage is very large 10 foot by 15 foot I house both in it while I’m at work) Obviously I don’t let him out when he acts this way but why does he do it? I have had him since he was 11 weeks old so I know he hasn’t been abused. Do you know what I can do to stop it? When he is out of the cage he is submissive but grudgingly. He is a huge dog, he is 113lbs.

    • Hi Lisa – I have no idea why he is doing this but you are right to be concerned. If he’s not neutered yet, neuter them both ASAP. Start working a lot more on obedience and space games (in My Smart Puppy) and get some good local help for this issue. Stay safe!

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