Across the spectrum of bird hunters, there's little middle ground when it comes to using portable crates: we either love them and use them regularly, or we hate them and don't use them at all; we view them as a multipurpose benefit to dogs, or we see them as instruments of cruelty.
Reality is that there shouldn't be any question about the use of dog crates: They're an item that, regardless of the naysayers, has no downside. Teaching a pup to accommodate to a crate is one of the first steps in socializing it to its life away from its mother and littermates. It aids housebreaking, acceptance of control and obedience, living in an outdoor kennel and safe road and air travel. Across the board, a crate is fundamental to instilling good citizenship in virtually any dog. Why, then, are some people, even those who should know better, opposed to them?
To a person, these folks can't get beyond their own view of a crate as a doggy jail. The primary purpose of a crate is safe, escape-proof confinement, but people see themselves in the dog's position and think, I hate being confined, therefore my dog does, and, commonly, If I put it in a cage, it'll hate me. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Wild members of the canine family use dens, small and confined spaces with just enough room to stand and turn around. Dens are sanctuaries that provide protection from the threats of the outside world, particularly for the young. Pups remain in these shelters for weeks, gradually emerging for longer periods but always with the den as the focal point of their security. A crate takes advantage of a pup's inherent sense of place and satisfies its need for a safe space, its own den.
Of course, pups don't look at a crate and think, Ah, my personal den. To youngsters, at first, a crate is just another feature of their new and somewhat intimidating world. They have to be acclimated to confinement in a crate—learn that it will cause them no harm and to view it as their safe haven. Pups are variable in their reactions to being confined, though most do little more than cry for a day or two, then accept the crate as their own. That said, I once had a springer spaniel pup that screamed for a solid week. On the other extreme, a retriever pup of mine walked into its crate without a sound. Both dogs readily used crates their entire lives.
Using Crates 101
Educating a pup to use a crate isn't difficult, but it does take time and should be handled in a thoughtful manner. You don't want to teach a dog to fear a crate because of force or intimidation early on. If you keep a pup inside your house, introducing it to a crate should be first on your list of puppy chores: An 8-week-old pup shouldn't be allowed the run of a home; you either watch it or confine it during those times when you cannot monitor it.
Start your introduction by gently guiding the pup into its crate while you repeat "Kennel" in a non-threatening tone as you ease it in. Some trainers offer treats. To a pup, going in the crate makes the treat "happen." Either way, don't expect your dog to stay in the crate, and don't reprimand it for leaving it—it doesn't know any better. Remember, initial introductions involve no discipline; at this stage you're simply "showing" a pup that you want it to leave you and enter the crate. Staying put will come later, when you begin to demand more from your pup. At first, you should expect a pup to cry when it's in a crate, but don't weaken and let it out. By caving in, you'll teach it that if it makes enough noise it will be released. Your pup will quickly learn that it gains nothing by carrying on.
Use the "Kennel" command when you put your pup into a crate, vehicle, kennel run—wherever you want it to be. Never miss an opportunity to use the command, but don't get frustrated if it doesn't always comply. As I said, at this level of instruction you're teaching, not enforcing. You're also implanting in your pup's brain the idea of a safe zone (especially in terms of its sleeping crate), where there's no pressure and nothing bad happens.
This learning period should continue for at least 3-4 months, which will enable you to get in hundreds of repetitions of "Kennel." Don't shortcut this process no matter how well your pup is progressing. Keep this training positive and give a pup enough time to fully grasp what "Kennel" means and what's expected of it when it hears the command before demanding absolute obedience. By taking your time in this early teaching stage, you're establishing the building blocks that condition your dog to move away from you on command, enter its crate and stay there until you release it. Crate training might seem like a small thing in the overall scope of gun-dog work, but, because "Kennel" is one of the initial commands you teach a pup, it's basic to establishing a general pattern of obedience.
Housebreaking is one of the first issues we face with pups kept in the home, and a crate gives us a leg up on the process. A crate encourages urinary and bowel control—even a pup is reluctant to soil its space—and aids in establishing an elimination schedule. There are also times in a pup's—and an adult's—life when it shouldn't be loose underfoot; let's say when workmen are around, during get-togethers when your dog can't be easily monitored, meals when it might become a pest, and times when a pup might become overexcited or exhausted by too much activity.
Travel is an increasing necessity for today's bird hunter, and a crate-trained dog makes every trip simpler and safer. Even a short drive to a veterinarian's office can be a nightmare with a loose, out-of-control dog—a large animal ricocheting around the inside of a vehicle is an accident waiting to happen. And a placid dog that's unconfined is at risk of injury if even a minor fender-bender occurs. A crated dog eliminates the first hazard and greatly reduces the second. At the least, a gun dog trained to ride quietly in its crate enhances the ease of any driving trip, no matter its purpose and duration. How about air travel? Sure, you can force an untrained dog into a crate and, unless it's really raising hell, an airline will fly it to your destination. But the trip would be so much less stressful if the dog is relaxed and at ease in its crate.
If you're skeptical about the virtues of a dog crate, you should ask yourself why, what problem do you have with it? Most of the time, the issue will be your assumption that dogs view a crate as you do, as cruel confinement, and that they hate the control and structure it offers. Dogs see it differently: They thrive on the predictability and security a crate offers. From any angle, a crate can be a hunter and his dog's best friend.