Don’t let crate training your puppy overwhelm you. Yes, it’s daunting. But breaking it down into actionable tasks will make you—and your pup—happier and healthier. A word of advice before we lay out absolutely everything you need to know about crate training in a super digestible way? Start with reliable supplies and a healthy dose of patience.
What is crate training?
Crate training is the process of teaching a pet (usually a puppy) to use a crate as a familiar and safe location. Owners or trainers will make the crate a safe space by giving treats, providing toys or feeding all meals in there, working up to having their dogs sleep in the crate or leaving them in the crate while they’re not home. Advocates find that it makes house training especially effective, as dogs can quickly learn the difference between inside and outside. It also provides the dog with her own “den” for her own safety—for example, if the house is being painted, raucous kids are having a play date or she’s having anxiety.
Why crate train?
Why do people crate train their puppies? Crate training, according to the American Kennel Club, teaches dogs how to be responsible and independent. Think of it as part of their coming-of-age process. First of all, it’s not a cruel practice. It instills confidence in puppies. Therefore, it should never be used as punishment.
It’s also a great tool for preventing (or easing) separation anxiety. Since dogs are natural den animals, they like to have a cozy corner they can call their own. Their crate should become the place they head to when they need to relax and self-soothe.
Finally, the Humane Society of the United States notes that crate training is essential to house training. If you don’t want your puppy peeing in the house, you kinda need to crate train her. Remember, the crate is her den. She doesn’t want to sleep in her bathroom. If she learns that having an accident means soiling her own bed, she’ll learn to wait until she’s outside to eliminate. For example, many people will feed their puppy meals in a locked crate, wait 30 minutes to an hour and then immediately head outside to pee. This helps the puppy understand the difference between inside and outside.
Buy a quality crate
Easier said than done, friends. Crates generally fall into two basic styles: wire and enclosed. Wire crates, like this best seller from Amazon, provide ample observation for both puppies and people. Enclosed crates, like this one from Chewy, often called airline or kennel crates, are best for dogs who need darkness or an extra-quiet den for sleeping and relaxing. Other types, like soft-sided and decorative, are variations on these two basic styles and best used after the initial training is complete. You may not know what your dog prefers—or needs—until you try one.
When it comes to size, you want to find a crate that allows your dog to stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably. Since crate training typically occurs with puppies, you’ll want to estimate how big your dog will be as an adult and buy that size. Then, during crate training, you’ll need to section off part of the crate, adjusting for growth as you go. Amazon sells dividers for wire crates, but you can also use cardboard, plastic containers or other large items, depending on the size of your dog and how destructive she may be (e.g., if she rips cardboard to shreds, try something sturdier).
Make the crate inviting
This is your dog’s den! She has to want to be in there, so it better be comfy. Invest in a durable, supersoft dog bed and several chew toys to keep her company. Self-warming dog beds, like this one from Chewy, are great for small pups; orthopedic mats like this one from Chewy by the AKC are great for larger breeds. If you take the wire crate route, it may be wise to purchase a crate cover if your pup becomes anxious when you leave the room or can’t sleep at night.
It’s important to section off excess space in the crate if it’s much larger than your puppy. Why? Remember, she’s learning to separate the bathroom from the bedroom. If there’s enough room for her to have an accident and sleep far enough away from it that it doesn’t bother her, she won’t learn to hold it until you say, “Outside!” Her space should be large enough for her to lie down, stand up and turn around. That’s it.
Place the crate in a busy spot
VCA Animal Hospitals advises placing the crate in a family-focused location. For instance, if your family spends most of the time in the kitchen and living room, these are ideal spots for the dog’s crate. Not ideal is a back bedroom you only use when Aunt Helen visits for Thanksgiving.
Generate positivity around the crate
Part of the reason the crate needs to live somewhere busy is that your pup should view it as a positive space. Crates should not be treated as prisons or negative spaces. The goal is to make the crate appealing so your pup will obediently trot into it at your command.
Pick a command
Speaking of, pick a command early on that you’ll use to indicate it’s time to go into the crate, and use it often. Common commands are “Crate,” “Kennel” and “Go to your spot.”
Introduce your puppy to the crate
Introductions should happen when your pup is already in a positive, calm state of mind. Do not place her in the crate for the first time—or at all—as punishment for an accident or mistake. Again, this sets the precedence that the crate is a bad place to be.
Ideally, your dog makes the decision to enter the crate on her own. Avoid picking her up and placing her in there. Instead, create a trail of treats leading into the crate. Something delicious but tiny, like Let’s Hold Hams bits from Bark Shop, is a good idea. If she can decide for herself to enter, she’s more likely to continue that behavior.
Start with crate games
Make crate training fun, you guys! Play fetch in and out of the crate. Play hide and seek (with larger treats like Bark Shop’s Simple Turkey Jerky) in the crate. Demonstrate this thing isn’t a dungeon. It’s a den!
Pro yip: Banfield Pet Hospital warns against rewarding pups with treats after they exit the crate. They should only receive treats upon entry. If they learn to anticipate goodies upon exiting, they’ll whine until you let them out next time.
Dinnertime in the crate
By feeding your dog dinner inside her crate, you establish once again that this is a safe, good zone for her. If she’s reluctant, place her bowl just outside the door to the crate. Work up to just inside the crate, then farther and farther back until she comfortably takes meals entirely inside the crate. This could take a few weeks. Don’t rush it.
Graduate to closing the door
When your dog is cool as a cucumber, use your crate command and treat trail to get her into the crate. Close the door and sit quietly near the crate, ignoring small whines or barks. Note: If your dog shows excessive signs of stress (yowls or loud, fearful barking), allow her to exit and go back to crate games and dinner in the crate for a while.
Another option is to try closing the door for the first time once she’s used to eating dinner in her crate. If she’s all the way in there, close the door as she finishes, then open it as soon as she’s done. Work up to full meals and post-dinner downtime in the crate.
Increase the amount of time gradually
Once you’re able to close the door, experiment with lengthier crate sessions. In the beginning, five minutes might be her limit. That’s fine. It’s also fine if her limit fluctuates (ten minutes today, five minutes tomorrow). Gradually increase crate time until (eventually) she’s sleeping through the night in her crate.
Don’t forget to incorporate your absence into these training sessions. For instance, leaving her in the crate for 20 minutes with you in the room is very different from leaving her for 20 minutes while you go for a walk around the block. Part of crate training is teaching the dog independence; once she can hang out in the crate for 30 minutes, try leaving the house for that length of time.
One trick that simultaneously increases a dog’s positive association with a crate and may extend the amount of time she’s willing to stay in there is tossing a Kong toy filled with peanut butter in with her. This keeps her occupied and reminds her she’ll get rewards for following the crate order.
Take plenty of breaks
Just like toddlers, puppies need to exert energy throughout the day! Don’t neglect long walks or dog park trips. In fact, puppies under 6 months of age shouldn’t be left in their crates longer than four hours. Plus, playtime can tire her out, making that crate a very welcome sight.
Investing in a monitor or camera like the Wyze Cam Pan is helpful during crate training because it gives you a sense of your dog’s emotional and mental states while she’s inside the crate and you’re outside the room. This can improve your tactics and preemptively address separation anxiety issues.
Bedtime in the crate
The first few times your dog tries sleeping in her crate, she may be happier about it if it’s in the bedroom with you. Placing the crate next to your bed is an option, but not necessary. Puppies often get up at night needing to eliminate, so having her close by may make sense. Once she’s used to sleeping in it, you can begin gradually returning it back to its regular spot.
Stay consistent for six months
It can take up to six months for dogs to become totally crate trained. Some breeds may take longer; others may get it right away. Individual behavior and past crate experiences will also influence how quickly this process goes.
Be patient. Be consistent. Don’t give up and don’t turn that crate into a punishment zone!
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