Sparky’s Guide to Crate Training a Puppy or Dog
Crate training a puppy or dog teaches your furry pal to stay relaxed while confined in a crate or kennel, whether you are nearby or not.
Crate training teaches your pet that their crate is a safe space and not something to fear or be stressed about. When done responsibly, crate training is in no way harmful to your dog. In fact, as ‘den animals’ by nature, dogs naturally feel safe and secure in an enclosed space.
Whether you’ve just brought home a bouncing new puppy or adopted a rescue dog, it’s definitely worthwhile to crate train your new buddy. With patience and persistence, your new best furiend will soon see their crate as their own special place to relax!
1. Approaching the Crate
If you want your puppy or dog to eventually sleep in their crate overnight, start out with the crate in your bedroom so that they’re near you, and then slowly transition the crate to wherever you ultimately want it to be.
Many pet parents even choose to have two crates: one in the living room so your dog can rest in their crate and enjoy their treats or toys while still being close to the family activity, and one in the bedroom for when you retire at night.
Wherever you put the crate, the first step to crate training a puppy or dog is to leave the crate open and accessible during the day. Make sure to keep the crate door braced open or even remove the door entirely so it doesn’t close unexpectedly and startle or scare your dog.
If your dog or puppy won’t go in the crate at first (or won’t even go near it!) that’s okay — it’s important not to force it, so that when your dog does enter the crate for the first time, it’ll be because she chose to and not because you made her do it.
Take the time to make the crate seem amazing and inviting to your pup: put your dog’s toys, blankets, and other favorite things in the crate to tempt them to go in, even if only to retrieve that beloved item.
You should also sprinkle some special, high value training treats inside the crate throughout the day. Make sure these are tempting treats that your pal can only find in their crate and nowhere else. The goal is to make the crate an Awesome Place where Good Things Happen!
If your dog or pup is comfortable sleeping on their bed but not inside the crate, it’s a good idea to put your dog’s bed next to the crate so they sleep near it at night. Every bit of time they spend in or even just near the crate makes that object feel less scary and more familiar and safe.
Once you see your pup going in their crate of their own accord to take a nap, you know you’re on the right track!
2. Entering the Crate
Once your dog or puppy is willing to enter the crate, start feeding them all their meals in their crate. You don’t have to do this forever, but it’s a great way to build positive associations with the crate. There are few things more positive and exciting in your dog’s mind than a scrumptious meal!
If your dog will go in their crate sometimes but at other times seems nervous, why not try playing crate games? Crate games are a great way to push your dog outside of their comfort zone (in a slow, controlled way) until they are comfortable going in and out of the crate without distress.
Toss your pup’s favorite treats or toys just in front of the crate, then just inside it, then all the way to the back of it. As your pup goes in and out retrieving the toy or finding the treats, they will learn that crossing that threshold in and out of the crate is no big deal.
Whenever your dog or pup enters their crate, clearly state the command that you’ll want to use for that — such as “kennel” or “crate up” or “go to bed.” Once they start entering their crate on command (whether you have a treat or toy in hand or not), you know the association is solid.
If you want your dog to sleep in their crate overnight, make sure to take them for a long walk or otherwise have a good exercise session right before bedtime so that they’re really tired and are more likely to seek out a soft, secure place to sleep — like the crate!
3. Staying Calm in the Crate
Once your dog or pup will willingly enter the crate on their own, and will enter it when you give the command, it’s time to teach your pal to be comfortable being confined in their crate.
When you close the crate door, start with very small periods of time — literally a minute or two or even less. Only when you’re confident your pup or dog is comfortable and relaxed should you start increasing the amount of time they are confined, building up slowly to ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and so forth.
When your pal is in their crate, go about your normal business. Fold laundry, watch TV, leave the room and come back — all without any fuss. Your dog will see you moving around the room and leaving and reentering and will learn that these activities are no reason to get anxious or excited. They may even settle down quickly for a snooze!
Be prepared to slow down or even go back a few steps if anything scares your dog while they’re in their crate and undoes your progress. The goal is for every interaction with the crate to be positive or at least neutral.
Once you’ve worked up to being able to confine your pup for 30 or 40 minutes — and you know they’ll stay calm the whole time — you can start putting them in their crate and leaving the house for a short period of time, coming back to check on them and let them out within 40 minutes to an hour. Again, don’t fuss over them or Fido will think something is happening that’s worth getting worked up over!
After they can be alone for an hour without distress, you can slowly extend the time further. Remember that if you have a young puppy, they should never be confined for longer than they can ‘hold it.’ As a general rule, one month = one hour. So a three month old puppy can only hold it for 3 hours, for example.
Even once Fido is ‘fully’ crate trained and over 8 months old, we advise not leaving your dog or pup in their kennel for more than 7 or 8 hours overnight and no more than 5 hours during the day (only if need be).
One final tip if you’re working up to getting your puppy or dog to sleep in their crate overnight: consider buying a Snuggle Puppy or similar cuddly friend. A Snuggle Puppy has heat and a heartbeat to mimic your puppy’s siblings, so they feel some companionship when they go to sleep at night. Even if you’re crate training an older dog, this may help them adjust!
Crate Training Don’ts:
DON’T use the crate or kennel as a punishment.
Even if you are putting your dog in their crate so that they don’t jump on houseguests or otherwise get into trouble, always have a cheerful tone when you are putting them away. Never yell or scold or otherwise make it clear to Fido that this is a Bad Thing. Use treats, toys and happy words to coax them into their crate, regardless of your reason for putting them away.
DON’T physically shove your dog into their crate.
Unless it’s in the very extreme circumstance where you need to immediately contain your dog for their own protection or someone else’s — to stop them getting aggressive with a person, child or other animal, for example — there’s generally no excuse for physically forcing your dog into their crate. Use toys or treats to bribe them instead!
DON’T leave your dog’s collar, tags or bandana on when you put them away in their kennel.
Always make sure your dog isn’t wearing any collar or clothes when they’re in their crate. The last thing you want is for their accessories to get caught on something and hurt or choke them. (This goes for nighttime, too. Remember: Dogs sleep in the nude!)
DON’T disturb the dog while they’re in their crate.
Your dog’s crate should be their private, safe space where they can go for some peace and quiet or when they want to be alone. It’s important you don’t let your kids climb in the dog’s crate after them and try to play with them or drag them out. The same goes for other pets, too — don’t let the scary cat steal your poor pup’s bed!
DON’T make a big fuss every time you put your dog in or out of their crate.
Going in and out of the crate should be a fairly uneventful and unexciting part of Fido’s day. Don’t fawn over them whenever you put them in their crate, and when you let them out, just open the door and walk away with no fuss. Then a minute or two later you can call them, tell them to sit, and then fuss about how good they are.
DON’T leave your dog in their crate for too long.
Even for adult dogs who can physically ‘hold it’, crating them all night and all day while you’re at work is not a fulfilling life. That’s at least 16 hours out of a 24-hour day! Ultimately, your dog should be able to have free reign of at least part of your home while you are gone.
DON’T leave your dog without access to water.
Your dog should always have access to clean drinking water when they are in their crate. It’s extremely important for them to stay hydrated, even if this means they’ll have to pee more! (The only exception to this is very young and small puppies, who may fall into their water bowl and then be wet and cold for the night).
DON’T use a crate that’s not the right size for your pup.
The crate should be big enough for your dog to stand up completely and turn all the way around. Yes, for a St. Bernard or Newfoundland, that means a really big crate! Likewise, don’t use a Newfoundland-sized crate for a Shih Tzu. ‘Cozy, never cramped’ should be your mantra.
DON’T put your dog’s crate somewhere isolated, cold, or far away from the family.
Gone are the days of the doghouse in the backyard! Your pup considers themselves a part of your ‘pack’ and deserves to be treated as such. Ideally, their crate should not be in the laundry room, garage, unfinished basement or other place away from the heart of the house.
DON’T get discouraged!
Some setbacks are normal — maybe your pup happens to be investigating their crate when the garbage truck makes scary sounds outside, and suddenly Fido is refusing to go near the crate again. That’s okay! You can rebuild their confidence, and it doesn’t mean all your previous progress is wasted.
A Note On Crate Training a Rescue Dog
It’s important to remember that crate training is not about “caging” your fur-child. Dogs aren’t humans, and don’t have our negative associations with being confined (unless they develop that negative association through unpleasant experiences!).
If you’ve adopted a dog from a shelter or rescue, you may be nervous about crate training them. You don’t always know your new dog’s history; they may have a painful history where only terrible and frightening things happened while they were in their crate.
Such experiences certainly make crate training a rescue dog more difficult than crate training a puppy who has no prior experience, but it is by no means impossible. The technique to crate train an older dog is very similar to how you crate train a puppy: make the crate an amazing place where good things happen, be consistent, and build up your dog’s confidence slowly.
The fact is, your dog will almost certainly have to be in a crate at some point in their life. Do you want your dog to panic at the vet, while boarding, traveling, or in any other circumstance when they have to be confined? Or do you want them to cuddle up with their blankets and go to sleep, just as peacefully as they always do?
With time and patience, you can teach your rescue dog that no matter what horrible things happened in a crate or cage before, the crate you set up for them is very different: a welcoming, safe, and happy place!