On several occasions over the years I've watched dogs put on spectacular performances afield—performances that left no doubt they'd been trained to a high standard. But when it came time for these same dogs to be "put up," I've stared in disbelief as the simple act of entering a crate devolved into a wrestling match between dog and owner.
Teaching a dog to enter a crate or other enclosure willingly and eagerly is one of the biggest no-brainers in dog training. By coupling a command such as kennel with the powerful inducement of a food reward for the desired behavior, you can have a puppy all but flying into his crate in a matter of days.
Crate training aids in housebreaking, helps make your retriever a good citizen and pleasant companion at home and on the road, and lays the groundwork for learning more advanced skills. It's an essential brick in your overall training foundation, and you can do it without putting any stress or pressure on the dog.
I asked Tom Dokken, owner of Oak Ridge Kennels in Minnesota and inventor of the DeadFowl Trainer, for advice about crate training. He says the process should begin as soon as you bring that new puppy home, and that the first order of business is to choose the right size crate. "It should be just big enough for your puppy to lie down in," Dokken says. "If you put a pup in a crate that's too big, he may lie down in one end and use the other end as his restroom, which is exactly what you don't want him to do."
Dokken explains that while you obviously shouldn't make your pup wait so long to relieve himself that he has an accident, you want to encourage him to "hold it" until you let him out of the crate and take him outside. You should also resist the temptation to put a blanket in the crate with the pup. "Chances are he'll just chew it up," Dokken says. "All that pup needs is a flat place to lie down."
While Dokken feeds his pups in their crates (thus forging a strong connection with a food reward), he doesn't water them there. "By controlling water intake," he explains, "I can keep a better handle on housebreaking. I want to keep that puppy active during the evening but then, about mid-evening, cut off his access to water. That way he'll sleep a little longer before I have to take him outside.
"When you do let him out," Dokken continues, "pick him up and carry him outside. If you let him go to the door on his own, he might make a mistake before he gets there. If you have a particular spot where you want him to relieve himself, take him there."
Because it's where the pup gets his food, the crate becomes a happy place. "From day one," Dokken says, "when I put the pup's food in his crate, I say kennel, kennel, kennel. If it's not feeding time and I want the pup to go into his crate, I'll say kennel and give him a piece of kibble. Pretty soon he'll be running into his crate whenever he hears kennel. Eventually he'll start to think of it as his personal space and seek it out whenever he feels the need for some downtime."
Once your pup eagerly responds to the kennel command, you can easily expand its scope to include entering a truck box, backseat, or pretty much any defined space. The crate and the kennel command also serve as Dokken's starting points for teaching a dog how to operate out of a dog blind. "It's really just an extension of kennel," he explains. "When we teach dogs to work out of a dog blind, we start by steadying them in a crate with the door open. From there we transition to an actual blind."
Summing up, Dokken says "crate training is one of those foundational things that every retriever owner should teach. And it makes much of your dog's later training easier to accomplish."