If you have a new dog or puppy, you can use the crate to limit his access to the house until he learns all the house rules. Using a crate can manage him while he learns what he can and can’t chew on and where he can and can’t eliminate. A crate is also a safe way of transporting your dog in the car as well as a way of taking him places where he may not be welcome to run freely.
If you properly train your dog to use the crate, he will think of it as his safe place and will be happy to spend time there when needed.
Selecting a crate
Crates can be plastic (often called “flight kennels”) or collapsible, metal cages. They come in different sizes and can be purchased at most pet supply stores. Your dog’s crate should be large enough for him to stand up, turn around, and lie down comfortably.
The crate training process
Crate training can take days or weeks depending on your dog’s age and past experiences. It’s important to keep two things in mind during crate training. The crate should always be associated with something pleasant, and training should take place in a series of small steps. Don’t go too fast.
Step 1: Introducing your dog to the crate
Put the crate in an area of your house where the family spends a lot of time, such as the family room. Put a soft blanket or towel in the crate. Bring your dog over to the crate and talk to him in a happy tone of voice. Make sure the crate door is securely fastened opened so it won’t hit your dog and frighten him.
Encourage your dog to enter the crate by dropping some small food treats near it, then just inside the door, and finally all the way inside the crate. If he refuses to go all the way in at first, don’t force him to enter. Continue tossing or dropping treats into the crate until your dog will walk calmly all the way into the crate to get the food. If he isn’t interested in treats, try tossing a favorite toy in the crate. This step may take a few minutes or as long as several days.
You can use your dog’s crate as his toy box. Place his toys inside with the door secured open. He gets lots of practice going in and out of his crate.
Step 2: Feeding your dog his meals in the crate
After introducing your dog to the crate, begin feeding him his regular meals in or near the crate. This will create a pleasant association with the crate.
If your dog is readily entering the crate when you begin Step 2, put the food dish all the way at the back of the crate. If your dog is still reluctant to enter the crate, put the dish only as far inside as he will readily go without becoming fearful or anxious. Each time you feed him, place the dish a little further back in the crate.
Once your dog is standing comfortably in the crate to eat his meal, you can close the door while he’s eating. At first, open the door as soon as he finishes his meal. With each successive feeding, leave the door closed a few minutes longer until he’s staying in the crate for ten minutes or so after eating.
If he begins to whine to be let out, you might have increased the length of time too quickly. Next time, try leaving him in the crate for a shorter time period. If he does whine or cry in the crate, it’s imperative that you not let him out until he stops. If whining sets him free he will learn that the way to get out of the crate is to whine.
Step 3: Conditioning your dog to the crate for longer time periods
After your dog is eating his regular meals in the crate with no sign of fear or anxiety, you can confine him there for short time periods while you’re home. Call him over to the crate and give him a treat. Give him a cue to enter such as, “kennel up.” Encourage him by pointing to the inside of the crate with a treat in your hand. After your dog enters the crate, praise him, give him the treat and close the door. You can provide a special chew or stuffed Kong that he only gets when in his crate. Sit quietly near the crate for five to ten minutes and then go into another room for a few minutes. Return, sit quietly again for a short time, then let him out of the crate.
Repeat this process several times a day. With each repetition, gradually increase the length of time you leave him in the crate and the length of time you’re out of his sight. Once your dog will stay quietly in the crate for about 30 minutes with you out of sight the majority of the time, you can begin leaving him crated when you’re gone for short time periods and/or letting him sleep there at night. This may take several days or several weeks.
Step 4a: Crating your dog when left alone
Once your dog is spending about 30 minutes in the crate without becoming anxious or afraid, you can leave him crated for short periods when you leave the house. Put him in the crate using your regular cue and a treat. You might also want to leave him with a few safe toys in the crate (see: Dog Toys and How to Use Them).
Vary the time at what point in your “getting ready to leave” routine you put your dog in the crate. Although he shouldn’t be crated for a long time before you leave, you can crate him anywhere from five to 20 minutes prior to leaving.
Don’t make your departures emotional and prolonged. Praise your dog briefly, give him a treat for entering the crate and then leave quietly. When you return home keep your arrival low key. Continue to crate your dog for short periods from time to time when you’re home so he doesn’t associate crating with being left alone.
Step 4b: Crating your dog at night
Put your dog in the crate using your regular cue and a treat. Initially, it might be a good idea to put the crate in your bedroom or nearby in a hallway. Puppies often need to go outside to eliminate during the night, and you’ll want to be able to hear your puppy when he whines to be let outside. Older dogs can initially be kept nearby so that crating doesn’t become associated with social isolation. Once your dog is sleeping comfortably through the night with his crate near you, you can begin to move it to the location you prefer.
Too much time in the crate
If not used correctly, a dog can feel trapped and frustrated and learn to avoid their crate. If your dog is crated all day while you’re at work and then crated again all night, he’s spending too much time in too small a space. Other arrangements should be made to accommodate his physical and emotional needs. You might consider using a baby gate to confine your dog in a safe, puppy proofed room for the night.
Puppies under six months of age shouldn’t stay in a crate for prolonged periods of time. Young puppies can’t control their bladders and bowels for long periods. A general rule of thumb is that a puppy can hold their bladder for 1 hour for each month of age, plus 1. So a 3 month old puppy can hold its bladder for 4 hours. This is a general rule or estimate. Some puppies can hold it longer and some cannot hold it that long.
If your dog whines or cries while in the crate at night it may be difficult to decide whether he’s whining to be let out of the crate or whether he needs to be let outside to eliminate. If you followed the training procedures outlined above and your dog hasn’t been rewarded for whining by being released from his crate, try to ignore the whining. If your dog is just testing you, he’ll probably stop whining soon.
If the whining continues after you’ve ignored him for several minutes, use the phrase he associates with going outside to eliminate. If he responds and becomes excited, take him outside. This should be a trip with a purpose, not play time. If you’re convinced that your dog doesn’t need to eliminate, the best response is to ignore him until he stops whining. If you give in you can teach your dog to whine loud and long to get what he wants. By gradually working through the training you will encounter fewer problems. If the problem becomes unmanageable, you might need to start the crate training process over again.
Attempting to use the crate as a remedy for separation anxiety won’t solve the problem. A crate may prevent your dog from being destructive, but he may injure himself in an attempt to escape from the crate.
Separation anxiety problems can only be resolved with counter-conditioning and desensitization procedures. You may want to consult a professional animal behaviourist for help (see Separation Anxiety).