When you first bring home a new dog or puppy, many people will advise you to consider crate training. But no one really tells you what that process should look like.
While some believe dogs will take to their crates naturally because of their wild roots, treating it as a “den” or safe place, this is not always the case.
Modern-day dogs are not “den animals” and should never be treated as such. And if you want to dive deeper into this topic, we suggest you read this article.
However, you can train a dog to love their crate – and we’re going to show you how! Let’s get started.
Why Crate Train?
The widespread use of crates in dog training is a very North American concept that other cultures do not always support. In fact, some European countries have even made crates illegal outside of car trips and with a veterinarian’s recommendation!
The reason for these bans is simple: Pet owners use their crates inappropriately – often without even knowing it! But if a dog is crated too long, it can lead to overarousal, depression, anxiety, or even aggression.
If owners overuse the kennel, the dog is not getting the mental and physical stimulation they need to be healthy.
So why then should you consider crate training? Because when trained and used correctly, many dogs find safety in their crate.
Crates can also simplify the house training process. You can potty train a dog without a crate, of course, but it allows more room for error.
Additionally, crates can help keep a young puppy safe from the house and vice versa – preventing your pup from chewing on things he shouldn’t (like the kitchen table) or could hurt him (like an electrical cord) when you are not there to supervise.
The Benefits of Crate Training for Dogs at All Life Stages
Can you crate-train an older dog? I always recommend it. It can be more difficult, especially if your dog has had bad experiences with crates. But here is why I think it is essential:
- The crate offers a safe place for traveling in a car. The airline will require a crate if your dog ever has to fly. If a dog is already used to a crate, this will be one less stressor.
- If your dog is hospitalized, they will likely be crated. In addition, if they injure themselves, they may need to be on crate rest while they heal. If crate-trained, this will be much easier on you and your dog.
- If you have multiple dogs, feeding them in their crates will prevent them from stealing each other’s food. This can prevent resource guarding against developing, but it also ensures you know how much food each dog consumes (and medications, too, if they are on any).
- The crate gives your dogs a safe place for a nap. My dogs each have a crate. My kids know that if a dog is in their crate, they can call them out, but they do not reach in and touch them. I have a dog that startles in her sleep, so she sleeps in her crate to keep everyone safe. This is even more important as dogs get older. Many will be more prone to sleep startle if they lose their hearing.
Preparing For Crate Training
How do you make crate training easier? Preparation! Follow these steps to help set you and your dog up for kennel training success.
Choosing the Right Size and Type of Crate
There are a few things you need to consider when picking a crate.
If you are housetraining your dog, the size of the crate is vital. The crate should only be big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around for house training purposes. Otherwise, they can pee in one corner and lounge in the other.
Does that mean you must buy one size crate for your puppy and another as he gets bigger? Nope!
You would purchase a dog crate with a divider for potty training. It can be moved as your dog grows to ensure enough room to lie comfortably while limiting excess space.
But in addition to size, you want to consider what type of crate will best fit your dog. For an in-depth look at your best crate options, read our article Choose the Best Training Crate for Your Dog: 2023 Guide.
Choosing Where to Put the Dog Crate in the House
Be sure that your dog cannot reach anything they could chew on. I once had a dog pull my coat into her crate, and she shredded it! So be aware of anything close to the crate.
The crate should also be in an area that stays cool and dry. For your dog to learn to love their crate, we must make every effort to make it comfortable.
Making the Crate Comfortable
This doesn’t just mean adding blankets. If your dog is not fully housetrained, you may need to leave the blankets out for now (or they can cover up any accidents with the bedding).
You do want the crate to be a positive place. This means your dog’s favorite chew toys will be in the crate and their food bowl. There are toys made to hang in the crate that your dog will be excited to check out, such as this crate training aid or this lick mat that attaches to the crate.
Also, because our goal is to make the crate a happy place, ensure the crate is not used for punishment.
Establishing A Routine
Create a schedule that allows your dog to get out of the crate as soon as they wake up, after they eat, and after their predetermined maximum amount of time. This schedule must be flexible based on your dog’s success in the crate.
Puppies must get out of their crate more often during the potty training. The general rule I follow (which has served me well) is that puppies can be crated one hour for each month of their age, plus one.
Crate Training a Puppy
Before bringing your puppy home, ask your puppy’s caretaker (the foster home, breeder, etc.) if they introduced the pup to a crate and what their experience was like.
When my dog had a litter last year, getting the puppies comfortable in their crates was vital. They spent a few minutes in the crate each day, first with a littermate, then alone. Because I wanted them to pair the crate with something good, I put lick mats with canned food in the crates with them.
If your puppy has not been exposed to the crate, you want to introduce them slowly. Here are the initial steps I take to make crate training easier:
- Hide delicious treats in the crate (like the licky mat) and have them walk in and out to discover them.
- When you start to close the door, slip in a treat, open the door, and repeat. Many puppies learn the door closed = solitary. You want the dog to associate the door closing with something they love.
- Feed your dog in their crate.
- Watch this video for great examples of puppy crate training.
The goal that first day is to make sure every interaction with the crate is positive. The dog is removed before they start to panic, and they go outside for potty breaks often.
If your dog has had great past experiences or no experience, the good news is you don’t have to counter-condition a negative experience.
Here lies the problem: If this is your puppy’s first night away from their littermates, they will be stressed out. This is all brand new to your puppy. And since your puppy will likely be sleeping in their crate, how do we reduce this stress?
Because I worked for a company that bred and raised future scent-detection dogs, I was constantly bringing home puppies used to being surrounded by other dogs. And the puppies were expected to sleep in the crate by themselves. We were kept up. A lot.
In a perfect world, we would crate-train our dogs so they would never whine. But we live in the real world, where puppies will likely whine in their crate.
We do not want to reinforce the whining by letting the dog out (whining = attention and freedom). But we also want to avoid creating an anxious dog in the crate. I found a tool that helped.
I was helping another trainer put together his curriculum. In his handouts, he suggested this Snuggle Puppy toy. It has a heartbeat and a heater.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t believe it would do anything. But one week, I went three nights with a loud puppy in his crate. This was causing a negative experience for the puppy with the crate. And my entire family was sleep-deprived and cranky. So, in exhausted desperation, I picked one up.
It worked like a charm.
It worked for all subsequent puppies, too. So, I highly recommend having this on hand when bringing your young puppy home.
This is just what you need to tackle on the first day. Each day after, you will develop and adjust a schedule that ensures your puppy is getting out enough. That means if you are gone longer than a few hours, you must find someone to help with your puppy.
With so much crate time in the beginning, come up with a schedule to ensure your dog gets multiple playtimes every day. In addition to playtime, they will need mental enrichment, such as food puzzles and training sessions.
Increasing the Time the Puppy Spends in the Crate
As our equation suggests, our puppies should be able to spend more time in the crate as they age and their ability to hold it gets stronger.
Start to expand the time gradually, only if your dog is successful. If your dog can stay crated without stress or potty accidents, try increasing their time by 15 minutes. Be ready to adjust to keep your dog successful!
If your dog barks and whines, wait until they are quiet (even if it is a split second) to let them out. This way, you are reinforcing quiet behavior.
How To Handle Accidents
If your puppy pees or poops in the crate, look at a few things:
- How long was your dog in the crate? Was it too long? Proper crate training needs to set the dog up for success. While I shared my general equation for potty breaks above, your dog may need to go more often.
- Is the crate too big? Can your dog eliminate in one corner and sit in another? If so, your puppy has no consequence when they go to the bathroom in the crate.
- Do you have blankets or beds in the crate? If they can cover up their waste with these items, there is no reason for them not to potty! Remove them.
- Most importantly, if your dog has been keeping their crate dry and suddenly they seem to be wetting in the crate, and the parameters haven’t changed (length of time in the crate, no changes in food and water consumption), be sure they do not have a urinary tract infection!
Crate Training Adult Dogs
When crate training an adult dog, you can use all the tips and tricks we use for puppies.
The most significant difference is that adult dogs often have a bad association with the crate. Was it misused in the past? Or it wasn’t used at all! Maybe the dog was only put in one at the scary vet office!
My very first retired racing greyhound was terrified of the crate. She had worn her teeth down on a crate before I adopted her. I tried to lure her in with treats, and nothing worked. So, I set the crate up in the living room and shaped any attention she gave to the crate.
Eventually, I spread peanut butter in the back of the crate. She walked in to get it, but she was shaking the whole time she ate the treat. So, we needed to do much more conditioning before going further. The conditioning looked something like this.
If I were working with this same dog now, I wouldn’t have asked for so much so soon. I would have still used the shaping exercise. But throughout the day, I would scatter treats on the floor and threshold of the crate, so I wasn’t asking her to walk in the crate to get to the peanut butter.
Asking for too much, too soon, made the training process longer (and more stressful) than it could have been.
Kennel training your dog can help reduce stress if they need to be hospitalized, and staying calm in the crate is the safest and easiest to travel. In addition, it can give them a space all of their own.
Positive reinforcement is the best way to crate train a puppy or a dog. Making positive associations with the crate will help your dog feel happy in and around the crate.
Enjoying a crate does not come naturally to most dogs, so you will need to be consistent and patient throughout the crate training process.
Training is a lifelong process, so give your dog continued reinforcement when he is crated. This way, your dog will always view it as a great place to go to relax.