Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between simply relaxing and actually shutting down your brain. This topic has been on my mind because of a conversation I had with a client about giving their dog some down time. This was especially necessary in this case because the dog was a service animal who has a very difficult working life and really needs down time. But all dogs can benefit from intentional relaxation.
Owners frequently say things like “Of course my dog has a lot of down time—he’s always sleeping in his bed or lying down on the floor to relax!” Of course lots of dogs do those kinds of things, either on their own or on command. Dogs will naturally lie down, take naps, and rest. That’s all well and good, but oftentimes the dog that’s lying down of his own volition isn’t really shutting down. At any given moment he might decide to get up and walk around, or grab a toy, or investigate what’s happening on the other side of the house. So while your dog might look like he’s taking a nap, is he actually shut down to the point where he is totally calm and relaxed?
This concept doesn’t just apply to service dogs, but to working and family dogs as well. All dogs can benefit from the ability to fully shut down their minds. This is why I’m a huge fan of crate training, and use it even when I’m at home with my dogs. Let me explain why in a little more detail.
Crate training is a different experience for every animal, but in general it’s a fantastic tool for helping your dog shut down. When you use a crate properly, your dog isn’t able to wander around, chew on his toys, bark at things, or make other goofy mistakes. So he gets accustomed to relaxing and shutting his mind down, which allows him to enjoy that deep mental rest that so few dogs actually experience. For that reason, I love the crate.
Some of my clients’ dogs, such as the service dog I mentioned earlier, are never actually going to be on their now. These clients may not need a crate for the traditional reasons—to prevent their dog from sneaking off or getting into their possessions—because they’ll be with their dog all the time. But it’s even more important for that kind of dog to have crate time, because they have a greater need for independent relaxation.
I often call the crate a “silent teacher.” It doesn’t actively do anything to train the dog, but as your dog becomes conditioned to the crate he will learn to be calm. Calmness is a skill set: even we need to learn how to let go of our obligations and focus on “being” sometimes. Our dogs are the same.
For this reason, I recommend that you don’t put anything distracting in the crate. At maximum, you can add one indestructible toy that your dog won’t be able to ingest. The purpose of the crate is to teach the dog how forget their anxieties and work obligations, so it can sometimes be helpful to give them a toy during particularly stressful times.
The crate training process is different for every dog. My thirteen-year-old dog, for example, hasn’t been in a crate in many years. Why? Because the crate taught her how to relax, and now that calmness is a part of her personality even when she’s not confined. She doesn’t need to be put into a crate to tune out the world and relax. She has been able to do that since she was about two or three, so I haven’t used a crate with her since. My Rottweiler, who passed away a few months ago, was also at that point. It took him a little longer to get there—around two years—but he eventually reached a point where he was able to shut down without being crated.
Likewise, your dog’s unique temperament, energy level, and personality will determine their response to a crate training regimen. But all dogs, especially at the beginning of their training, will typically benefit from crate. It will teach your dog not just how to stop moving, but how to actually relax his mind.