Crate training is one of the most important skills you can teach your dog.
Even if you don’t plan on using a crate regularly IN your home, you SHOULD crate train your dog if you ever plan on leaving the home.
The Top 7 Reasons to Crate Train
The vet and the groomer may have to use a crate whether you or your pup likes it or not. If you haven’t created a positive association with the crate in advance, then you are setting your pup up to have an even more harrowing time at the vet/groomer during a time when they may already be feeling scared or sick.
The safest way to travel is in a crate. A crated dog is less likely to get injured in a car accident and will be less likely to be catapulted from the vehicle in a collision. If you are traveling a long distance and need to fly, your pup may be required to travel in a crate, either under the seat in front of you, or under the plane completely, with the luggage.
Crates are used at almost every daycare, even ones labeled “cage free.” They may be used for feeding, for rest periods, or, in the case of a boarding facility, to sleep in overnight.
Crate training can be instrumental in housebreaking. Dogs generally don’t like to potty in their personal space. Containing them in a crate in between outings can help them learn to hold and to direct their potty to a specific spot outside their living space. See our article the 10 Commandments of Housebreaking.
If you’ve successfully crate trained your dog, the crate will be a safe place that produces feelings of peace, like your bedroom when you were a kid. They can use it to take breaks when they need alone time (like from the new puppy or the newly walking baby). In addition, this created comfort zone becomes a security blanket to your dog that they can take with them anywhere. No matter how things change in their environment (like when traveling or during a move), they will have the crate to bring a sense of normalcy to the chaos.
It is normal for a pup to have periods of destructiveness as they navigate through their puppyhood. Not only can this be dangerous for your home, but it can also be dangerous to THEM if they get a hold of something specifically toxic or physically harmful. Crate training is a great way to put your mind at ease when you have to leave your pup home alone. You know your dog is safe… and so is your stuff.
Being comfortable with containment and alone time requires a certain amount of inner confidence and trust in your decision making. Taking your dog through the crate training process, ESPECIALLY if they have some initial reservations, will increase their confidence when coming up against challenges in general, making it easier to navigate life overall.
How to get started
If you already know that crate training is AWESOME, don’t forget how important it is that YOU are the one to introduce the crate to your dog FIRST and that you do so in a way that promotes a positive association. If their first or only experience with a crate is at the vet when they are sick, in the bottom of a scary plane, or their first night in a new boarding facility, your pup can develop a negative association with being in a crate, making it harder when you try to crate them at home. Follow these steps to start off on the right foot:
CHOOSE A CRATE
There are many different types: metal, plastic, fabric, and wire. Make sure you choose the appropriate size for your dog. When you purchase a crate, they will usually give a height and weight guideline. As a general rule, the crate should be big enough that your dog can fully stand up, turn around, and lay down. If you are using the crate to housebreak it shouldn’t be much bigger than that guideline. If they can potty in one side and sleep in the other, it won’t be much help to you.
INTRODUCE THE CRATE
This is the start of your pup’s positive experience with the crate.
You should never force your dog into the crate.
There are 4 aspects to consider when introducing your pup to the crate.
1. PLACEMENT – Place the crate in an area of the home where your dog already likes to spend time. Just having a new object in your home may spook your dog! So, allow your dog to investigate at their own pace and give them time to acclimate.
2. FREEDOM – Allow your pup to enter and exit freely. This will keep you from accidentally triggering any Containment Anxiety.
Leave the crate door open (tie it open if you need to).
3. COMFORT – If your pup enjoys snuggling with blankets or a bed, place them in the crate for increased coziness. Maybe add their favorite toy.
4. CAPTURE CONFIDENCE – Keep an eye on your pup and reward them for sniffing the crate, investigating it, or even venturing inside.
5. TREATS – Let your dog WATCH you toss treats in the crate. Allow them to go in, get the treat and come back out. After a number of repetitions, you should dispel any fears your pup has that the crate will suddenly trap them.
As a bonus – turn the crate into a Magical Never-Ending Fountain of Treats.
When your dog is not paying attention, toss treats in the crate and/or hide them among the blankets. That way anytime your dog happens to check, they will be surprised with a new bounty!
6. INCREASE TIME INSIDE – We still are NOT closing the crate door BUT…
You can encourage your pup to stay in the crate longer by giving them something to do in there that takes longer to finish.
Begin feeding meals in the crate. Place the bowl in the back of the crate (assuming your pup is already entering willingly). If they are not very motivated for their regular food… consider changing their diet to a fresh food diet… but in the meantime, give something that may be considered more high value like a chew or stuffed Kongs (always monitor your pup when they chew to make sure they don’t choke).
PUT IT ON COMMAND
Dogs love tasks. If you use “Crate” as a job your pup has to do to earn a goodie, they may start offering the behavior on their own!
- Use the command “Crate.”
- Lure your pup into the crate with a treat in your hand.
- Mark with a “Yes!” when they fully enter the crate (all four feet!) and then give the treat to your pup!
- Release them immediately with your chosen release word (“OK!”, “Dismissed”, “Free”)
- Increase the duration of the command – the amount of time they remain in the crate before you release them. Instead of one treat, give three in succession before saying “Dismissed.”
- BONUS if they remain in the crate while you take one step away (remember you CAN NOT close the door, they have to remain in their willingly!)
CLOSE THE CRATE DOOR
This is a step all on its own for a reason. Closing the door turns the crate from a cave into a containment area. This step is where many dogs will get stuck if we don’t do the work to solidify that positive association.
- Send your pup into the crate and as usual, reward them for going in.
- Close the door and immediately give a treat!
- Open the crate door and dismiss your dog. Do not give a treat on the dismissal. At this stage we want all the goodies to appear while your pup is IN the crate with the door CLOSED.
- Increase the duration of the command – the amount of time they remain in the crate WITH THE DOOR CLOSED before you release them. Instead of one treat, give three in succession before opening the door and saying “Dismissed.”
- Increase duration further with meals and/or chews but make sure you open the door and release them from the crate BEFORE they ask to be let out. Better to end the practice session on a high than on a low.
The final step, and often most difficult, is leaving your pup alone in the crate. If you have never been out of your pup’s view before, start with Separation Training in general before you incorporate the crate. To teach them to be alone IN the crate, start with walking away but staying in view. Work up to disappearing completely but disappear into another room before you try leaving the house altogether.
Make sure your pup has been exercised and taken potty. This will help them feel at ease and decrease the likelihood of crate complaints.
- Send your pup to their crate.
- Give a treat (or kong or meal) and immediately walk a few steps away with your back turned.
- Return and release your pup.
- Gradually increase the length of time your pup has to remain in the crate before you release them. You can come back to them multiple times to toss another treat in the crate and then walk away again without letting them out. Their demeanor should be the same as if they were performing the Stay command. Calm. ALWAYS release them before they show any signs that they are nervous or anxious. Shorter successful sessions are better than longer scary ones.
- Repeat the previous step BUT incorporate walking all the way out of sight (for a few seconds to begin with). Gradually increase the length of time you remain out of the room in between tossed treats. Start with 10 seconds and work slowly up to a few hours! If you can achieve an hour, consider incorporating this hour session into your day EVERY day! Maybe it’s the time you get some uninterrupted work done, or do a home workout, or clean the house without a little shadow nipping at your heels.
- Work up to leaving the house completely. Always returning often in the beginning and work the duration up slowly. Are you walking outside to check the weather? Crate the pup! Are you grabbing the mail? Crate the pup! Are you rehoming a spider you caught inside? Crate the pup! These mini sessions will convince your pup that most often when you leave, it will only be for a very short time.
Whatever you do, don’t leave your dog in a crate for more than 4-5 hours. They will most likely need to potty and stretch.
BARKING & WHINING
It’s common for pups in training to bark or whine the first time you close the door, walk away from the crate, or leave the room, EVEN if you have provided them with a long-lasting food item. Some barking and whining is completely normal and can be addressed easily. Assuming you have already pottied and exercised them, first try ignoring them. Some dogs might bark or whine for a few seconds or even minutes before settling down. Second, try creating a cozy, den like environment by covering the crate with a blanket. This can produce a calming effect and help block out other sights that may be triggering the barking. If these don’t work, revisit our article on separation training or consider halting your training until a trainer can assist you.
If your dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety or having an intense, negative reaction at any point in the training process, stop what you are doing right away. You could unintentionally worsen your dog’s anxiety and setback your crate training if you proceed. This could be containment anxiety or separation anxiety; in which case you should consult a professional behaviorist for assistance.
Crate training is an essential part of training your new puppy but can also bring peace to an older dog in need through structure and consistency. For some, crate training can be a long process but it’s worth it, so be patient and practice every day!