How to Crate Train a Dog: Tips and Tricks

A dog in a crate on a wooden floor.

Think of your dog’s crate as his den: it’s how he views it, if you’ve introduced him to it properly. And were he still wandering around in the wild, his den is where he’d sleep, hide from danger, and raise his family. In short, he sees his den as his refuge.

Your domestic dog is not wandering around in the wild as his ancestors did, but he is still a dog. Left to his own devices there’s a good chance he’d make fast work of your belongings: furniture, books, shoes, small electronics—anything with a satisfying rip or crunch to it, especially if he is still a puppy or even an anxious adolescent or adult dog who is new to your family.

When push comes to shove, we must train domestic dogs how not to be dogs when we invite them to live with us. The dog crate is an excellent tool for helping your canine companion understand the house rules. And if he is not yet trained to eliminate outside, the proper use of a crate will help you teach him.

You’ll finally know you have succeeded when the dog crate is integrated into your home like any other fixture: it will be the place your dog voluntarily spends some amount of each day seeking out comfort and solitude, or where he goes contentedly and willingly when you ask him.

Crate Training Guidelines: A Few Basic Rules

If your dog’s crate is his refuge, it emphatically is not his prison. The crate should never be used for punishment or prolonged confinement to make your own life easier. Responsible dog ownership is serious work, and the crate is not a handy place to tuck him when he gets in the way. He loves you unconditionally, and crating him for punishment or convenience is confusing to him, and potentially harmful to his physical and mental well-being.

Likewise, a dog with serious separation anxiety should not be crated. If you believe your dog suffers from separation anxiety, consult a behaviorist for treatment before you undertake a crate training regimen. And never crate train a dog who is sick, for example, vomiting or experiencing bouts of diarrhea. Wait until he is well to begin.

Do crate train a healthy puppy or adult dog who is new to your home, keeping in mind two important ideas:

  1. Crate training is a gradual process, and
  2. You must exercise patience.

When you practice these two principles, your dog or puppy stands a greater chance of viewing his crate as the source of solace it should be for him.

Choosing The Right Dog Crate

  • Metal Wire
  • Plastic (airline)
  • Mesh or Nylon (portable)

Metal wire dog crates are popular because they are durable and often collapsible. Many of them also include dividers, allowing you to adapt the crate’s interior size for a puppy, removable when the dog reaches maturity.

The crate should be sized so that your dog can:

  • Lie down comfortably
  • Stand without crouching
  • Easily turn around

If you place your new puppy in a crate that is too large (without an interior divider), she may eliminate in one end of the crate and retreat to the other end. This will defeat the purpose of using the crate for house training. A dog will generally avoid soiling her sleeping area, so a properly-sized crate is crucial.

Crate Training Your Dog: Let’s Get Started

You will find online crate training guides from reliable and trustworthy resources in just a few clicks. The Humane Society of the United States has published some excellent crate training tips here. Generally speaking, these guidelines assume you have the luxury of time to devote to this undertaking.

If your lifestyle does not allow for a long-term approach to crate training, consider an abridged method you can undertake over the course of a weekend. Before starting, remember the two ideas of gradual training (even in the abridged version), and above all, patience.

Because she can’t yet use her crate, your new puppy or untrained adult dog will also need her own space in your house where she can’t hurt herself or damage your belongings. Set up a safe, clean dog zone in your kitchen, laundry room, or mud room, or other easy-to-clean area. Pick up objects she can reach, and make the space comfortable for her: in other words, dog-proof the room. Use a dog gate to separate her from the rest of your house and a dog bed to designate the area.

Then choose a spot for her crate in the room you and other members of your family will spend much of your time during the weekend: the den or the family room are ideal. Make her crate comfortable; place a soft blanket or some towels inside, and maybe even toss in a shirt you’ve worn recently, a reassuring reminder of you. Cover the crate with a towel or blanket to make it more den-like.

Crate Training

Crate Training Schedule

Friday Afternoon and Evening

Periodically scatter a few safe toys and treats in and around her crate when she is not looking—she will find them on her own and begin to associate her crate with pleasure right from the start. And at feeding times, place her food bowl inside the crate and allow her to eat there. If she seems reluctant, try placing it just over the crate’s threshold so that she can still stand outside the crate while she eats. If that does not work, place her food bowl just outside the open crate door. The idea is to reinforce her association of the crate with pleasure.

Saturday Morning

1. Prepare some yummy treats in advance, and grab a couple in your hand. Sit by the crate and call your puppy or dog to you. Decide what language you will use to let her know it’s time to go in the crate: “go to bed,” or “kennel,” for example. The important thing is being consistent, always using the same language to crate her. Toss a treat inside the crate and use your language cue, pointing your finger inside the crate at the treat: “go to bed.” Praise her when she goes in, and give her another treat inside the crate. Then give her the release to come out again: “okay!” Important: do not give her a treat when she emerges from the crate—remember, all treats happen inside the crate so she associates it with pleasure.

Repeat this exercise ten times, and then take a half-hour break. Repeat it ten times again.

For the rest of the weekend you will engage your dog in similar exercises using the same pattern of repetition with gathering intensity until Sunday night, when she is able to stay crated for an hour while you and your family leave the house. When she stumbles, it is a signal she is not ready for the next step. Your best strategy always is going back and repeating the last exercise until she gains enough confidence to move on.

2. As before, prepare some treats, sit by the crate, and call your puppy over. As a warm-up to this exercise, repeat the first exercise using the treat toss a couple of times. Now you will cue her to go in, but this time don’t let go of the treat—keep it inside your fisted hand with your finger pointed to indicate where you want her to go. When she goes into her crate, give her the treat, praise her, give her one more treat, and then the release to come out: “okay!” Repeat this exercise ten times, give her a half-hour break, and repeat it ten times again.

Saturday Afternoon

1. Warm up with a couple of repetitions of the second morning exercise. Now you will cue her, allow her to enter the crate, and gently close the door behind her without latching it. Continue to praise her, and give her treats through the door. Then release her. If closing the door causes her to panic, try closing it only halfway. Repeat ten times and take a half-hour break. On the second set of ten, try increasing the amount of time the door is closed, but also throw in some quick releases randomly.

2. Over the course of the afternoon continue with the same exercise, remembering to take breaks after each set of ten. Try to work up to one minute with the crate door closed, but not latched.

Saturday Evening

As a warm-up, repeat the afternoon exercise a couple of times. In this exercise you will repeat the previous exercise, but now you will latch the door. Start with her crate cue, latch the door behind her, and treat her through the door. Now stand up and give her another treat. Now step away from the crate, return, and give her a third treat. Now release her. Repeat ten times, take a half-hour break, and repeat ten times again. Walk in a different direction each time you leave the crate, gradually increasing the amount of time she is crated, and remember to throw in some quick releases randomly. Gradually decrease the number of treats you give her, and during the second set of repetitions start leaving the room. Try to work up to one minute, and remember always to go back to previous exercises as needed.

Sunday Morning

Prepare a longer-lasting treat: a peanut butter or cream cheese stuffed toy, something delicious that will take some time for her to finish. Cue your puppy to go into her crate, and when she goes in, praise her and give her the treat, gently close and latch the crate door, and settle down nearby with a book or the television. At this point your goal is a half hour of crate time. If she finishes her treat before the half hour ends, you can give her more if she is quiet. When the half hour ends, give her the “okay!” release, and as always, do not treat her when she emerges. Instead try to ignore her for a few minutes. A couple of hours later repeat the exercise.

When she whines, try one of these strategies:

  • With treats: first, ignore her. Use earplugs if you must. Do not reward her efforts to get your attention, which will only teach her that if she whines loudly enough she’ll get what she wants. Instead, treat her only when she stops whining.
  • Without treats: say “oops!” or “too bad!” and leave the room, returning only when she has been quiet for five to ten seconds.

Sunday Afternoon

Start with a good workout: run with your puppy or take her for a walk, or give her some active play time with a dog friend. Crate training is easier when she is tired. Now revisit the exercise you undertook in the morning with the longer lasting treat, but instead of sitting with her you will move around the house. Start with ten minutes out of the room. Then release her, but be sure to take her treat from her: treats happen only inside the crate. If she complains, return only when she is quiet for five to ten seconds. Take a short break and repeat the exercise.

Throughout the afternoon repeat the exercise, gradually working up to a full hour of crate time without your presence.

Sunday Evening

Now it is time to test your puppy in her crate, alone in the house. Begin with the exercise you worked on during the afternoon, but now go outside and return in ten minutes. When you leave, do not say goodbye to her. When you come back inside, do not make a big fuss: this is not celebratory—act like your coming and going is no big deal. Once inside, simply uncrate her and take away her treat.

Repeat this exercise as much as you can until bedtime, taking breaks between each session. Try to work up to an hour or two of crate time alone in the house.

Crate Training Problem Solving

In addition to adhering to the principles of gradual training and a patient approach, you must remain strong and consistent when your pup pushes the envelope:

  • Do not give in to whining.
  • Do not yell when he whines, which can actually make the problem worse.
  • Do not increase his distress by scolding him: you want him to associate his crate with pleasure.
  • Do not let him out. He will soon learn that if he keeps complaining he’ll eventually get what he wants.
  • If your dog sleeps in his crate, do respond to middle-of-night requests to go outside, but do not allow him to play once he’s there. Give him two minutes to take care of business, and then back inside he goes. If he is allowed to linger and play he will learn that whining is rewarded with playtime.

Some Tail-End Advice About Crate Training

  • If you are using a crate to help house-train your dog, remember that it is likely he’ll need to eliminate immediately in the morning. When you uncrate the dog take him outside right away, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to praise him for a job well done, thus reinforcing positive behavior.
  • Try to avoid crating your dog for more than 4 or 5 hours at a stretch.
  • If you must crate a puppy longer than 2 hours, be sure to attach a water bottle dispenser to the inside of his crate.
  • If your dog will be confined to his crate during your work day, try to give him a good romp in the morning before you leave.
  • If you can’t make it home during a long work day, find a sitter to take your dog outside. Then make every effort to play with him when you return home from work.
  • An adult dog can be crated as long as 8 hours, but remember that this practice can compromise his health if you do it on a regular basis. Try to exercise him for a half hour to one full hour before you leave, and if he is also crated overnight, increase his morning exercise to 90 minutes and include 90 minutes of exercise in the evening.

Stop using the crate if:

  • You observe damage to his crate resulting from attempts to escape
  • You observe damage to exterior objects that were accessed from inside the crate
  • You observe wet fur on your dog’s chest (from excessive drool)
  • Your dog eliminates inside his crate
  • Your dog is able to move his crate when he is inside it
  • Your neighbors complain of excessive barking or howling in your absence.

Each of these is symptomatic of problems you must address before you can begin crate training.

Remember that you can wipe the slate clean and start from the beginning if necessary. When you take the right approach to training, your dog will enjoy his crate as his own reassuring space for his lifetime.

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