Owning a crate trained dog is a joy – but how do you make it happen?
Why crate train?
You’ve probably heard from other dog owners that crate training is incredibly helpful in housebreaking a puppy and you’ve definitely seen dogs at shows and trials in crates - but why should you crate train your dog? For one, it’s very natural. Crate training takes advantage of your dog's natural instincts as a den animal. A wild dog's den is their home—a place to sleep, hide from danger and raise a family. If introduced properly, the crate will become your dog's den, where they can find comfort and solitude while you know they’re safe and secure. Crate training can save your furniture, your floors and even your dog’s life.
Please note that I am not a certified dog trainer. I’m simply an experienced owner and Canadian Kennel Club member. In this blog, I’m sharing techniques that have worked for me and my dogs in the past regarding getting started with a crate. There is no substitute for training classes with a reputable trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods.
Begin on the right paw!
If you are lucky enough to have gotten your puppy from a breeder who started the crate training process before she sent her puppies to their forever homes, you will be ahead of the game. But for the purpose of this blog, I will start with the assumption that your puppy has had no previous crate experience.
First, you will need to go and get a crate. Almost all pet supply stores carry crates and you can also get them in the pet section of many big box stores across the country.
There are two major types of crates used for puppies – one is the plastic crate (also known as a “flight kennel”) and the metal crate which is collapsible. It really doesn’t matter which one you use, but if you travel often, the plastic kennel might be a better choice as they are usually the ones accepted by airlines.
Size matters! You might think that – like a human’s bedroom- the bigger the better, but that’s not the case with dog crates. Your dog's crate should be just large enough for them to stand up and turn around in. If you have a large breed, you may want to borrow a smaller crate at first or choose a crate size that will accommodate their adult size and block off the excess crate space. The reason you want to do this is so that your puppy doesn’t make her crate a bedroom with an on suite bathroom. You want the crate to only be a bedroom so it must be of a size so that your puppy can't eliminate at one end and sleep at the other. Most wire crates come complete with a helpful divider to shrink the size of the crate while your puppy grows.
Once you’ve got your puppy home, you want to allow her to explore the crate on her own terms in her own time. Many owners like to make a “puppy playpen” in the kitchen which includes a gate to restrict freedom (baby gate or extendable gate work well, depending on your kitchen’s dimensions) that include the food and water bowls, some toys and the crate. Your puppy should explore the crate on her own at this point and might even go to sleep in it.
In order to make the crate work to its full potential – it has to be a pleasant experience. You can’t shut your puppy in the crate and expect her to accept it as her room right away. To get your puppy to associate the crate with positive feelings, feed her all her meals in the crate without closing the door (with time you can start closing the door while she eats). Between meals, you can also put treats in the crate and start to give a command when she enters the crate like “crate” or “bed”. Once the puppy is comfortable eating in the crate, you can start to put small treats in the back of the crate, closing the dog briefly, then reopen the door, put another small treat in the back of the crate, close it again and continue this repetition a few more times. Do not reward barking, jumping or pawing at the door when you go to put the treat in the cage – wait until she is calm until you drop the treat in the back of the cage. After the final treat of the short training session, reopen the door and allow your puppy to come and go as she pleases.
With time, you can start giving a treat in the crate, closing the door while remaining seated next to the crate. Praise often for good behaviour. Once this starts to go smoothly, put a treat in the crate and then move back several feet, then into another room. Always return calmly and reward good behaviour.
When it comes to the first night in the crate, I usually remove any absorbent materials like towels as some puppies will mess on them and then push them to the side to keep their sleeping area clean. I would take the puppy out to potty for the last time of the day and then sleep close by enough so that if they make some noise – I can jump up and take them out to use the washroom. It’s also nice to be close by enough to reassure the puppy vocally that you are nearby. New puppy owners quickly learn the difference in sounds between “I’m wondering where you are” and “I really need you to take me out to the washroom”. If you have other dogs in crates in the same area as well – their sounds and scents should comfort the puppy. The first few nights are usually rough and you should expect to be up a few times throughout the night, but by the end of week one I find that a puppy can usually last throughout a 6-7 hour night. Smaller breeds have small bladders so it may take your small breed puppy longer to last through the night.
Having a crate trained dog makes so many things easier when it comes to living with dogs. You always know they are secure at home or in a vehicle if they are in their crate. You also know your home is safe from any trouble a mischievous pup could do to it. If you break a glass, it’s great to be able to give your dog a command to go to her “bed” so you can sweep the glass without worry. I also find that bringing my dog’s crate with me makes my dog more welcomed guests at friends’ houses and cottages.
Having safe toys in your puppy’s crate can comfort and entertain her. Limit it to one or two. I would avoid squeaky toys at night, however that really is your choice and depends on how lightly you sleep.
I suggest putting a puppy in the crate 5-10 minutes before you actually leave the house so that it gives them some time to adjust while you are still nearby.
While I do praise for good behaviour in the crate, I wouldn’t recommend making departures or returns too emotional as they tend to excite the dog and might lead to anxiety.
Never use a crate as punishment.
Do not allow children to go into the crate or play in the crate. This is your dog’s private area to get away when necessary.
Even the best behaved puppy should not be expected to hold her bladder or bowels longer than 4 hours at a time. If you cannot be home, have a friend or hired dog walker come let your puppy out.
A crate cannot cure separation anxiety. For these types of cases it is recommended to seek the help of a professional trainer and/or behaviourist.
No dog should be expected to spend all day and all night in a crate. Every dog requires and deserves proper exercise and plenty of human interaction every single day.