Crate Training Done Right

I worked with a client recently who had just adopted a young dog from a shelter. She had been advised to use the crate but was reluctant. She described it as many clients have over the years by saying “I hate to crate him while I am at work all day. I don’t want him to be confined like that or feel like he’s being punished.” I frequently get questions from dog owners about crate training. Some are wondering how to begin crate training their new puppy. Some wonder whether they can successfully crate train an adult dog with housetraining difficulties, destructive tendencies, or separation distress. Some, like my client above, are put off by the crate altogether and wonder whether there are other options.

The crate can indeed be a useful tool. In fact, for puppies and adult dogs who aren’t yet housetrained or who exhibit separation anxiety, the crate is in some cases essential. Here are some tips on how to best introduce your dog to a crate.

The crate should be large enough that the dog can stand comfortably with at least a couple of inches above his head. He also should be able to turn around and lie down comfortably. For housetraining purposes, the crate should not be so large that he can comfortably urinate or defecate in one corner and sleep in another. (One of the uses of crate training is to house train, as it often takes advantage of the dog’s “denning instinct”, or tendency to keep his immediate resting area clean of urine and feces.) The two guiding principles of successful crate training are gradual exposures to the crate and positive associations with the crate. Neither of these strategies is necessarily easy to implement (much of dog raising, as in child rearing, requires time and energy), but both are well worth the effort in creating a dog who enters the crate happily, rests in the crate peacefully, and exits the crate calmly. 

To begin positive exposures, put your dog into his crate for just about 5 minutes at a time as you sit on the floor next to it. Provide him with a chew bone or toy (one that he is actively interested in chewing on throughout the 5-minute period), or provide a bite-sized treat about every 30 seconds through the bars of the crate. After 5 min, open the crate and remove his toy or bone as you call him out. Repeat about once every hour. (It is helpful to sleep next to your pup’s crate in the beginning as well, and to move further away each night over the first few nights until you are sleeping in your own bed.) Each day you should increase the amount of time the dog is in the crate by about 2-3 minutes during these training exposures, and you should begin to move a few inches further away from the dog each day while he is crated for these exercises. Continue to provide either continuous access to a yummy chew bone or provide a treat about once every 30-60 seconds while he is crated. Providing a chew bone often allows owners to move more quickly through this phase of training because the chew bone will consume the dog’s attention continuously during these important early crate exposures.

By providing something to chew on or eat in the crate, your dog will come to associate crate time with access to this delectable item (one he should get at no other time of day). By sticking by him initially and moving away from the crate only gradually, you will gently teach your dog to remain calm even when separated from family members.

As with most pet behavior problems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That is, it is much easier to crate train a new puppy than it is to crate train an adult dog with an unknown or, worse yet, negative history of misguided crate training attempts. In cases such as this, or with dogs who are suffering from separation distress, aggression, or other behavior problems, more sophisticated crate training techniques must be used and owners should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or board certified veterinary behaviorist for assistance in these cases.  

What about owners’ concerns about excessive confinement in the crate? Certainly, puppies should not be kept in the crate for long periods at first. But they can be taught to be crated happily for longer periods as their bladder and bowel control develop. As adults, many dogs sleep most or all of the day when home alone anyway, saving most of their energy and animation for when their owners return home. So when the crate can be introduced correctly, and when it can be used to prevent destructive or anxious tendencies, then I say “Kennel up, K9s!”