Crate training a puppy or dog provides a valuable tool. The crate should be a safe, positive place for your dog — one that provides comfort and security. It can be used for aiding in potty training a dog, as well as preventing destructive behaviors. The crate can also be a valuable resource if you need to travel or if there is an emergency, injury, or illness and the dog needs to be crated.
How to crate train dogs using food lures
You’ll need high-value treats as well as a clicker to crate train a dog using food lures. Here's how to do it:
- Set up the crate in a quiet space of your home, put your dog's favorite blanket inside, and open the crate door.
- Start with letting your dog explore the crate on their own. Anytime they move toward it or place even a nose inside, mark and reward (click the clicker and then give them the high-value treat). This might take some time as some dogs will enter quickly and others will be leery for a bit longer. Be sure to continue marking and rewarding as your dog puts more of their body inside. For example, if your dog starts with only putting a nose in, wait for them to put their whole head or a leg in before the mark and reward.
- Continue this process until your dog is consistently going into the crate. When you hit this stage you are going to name the behavior — i.e., add a cue like “kennel up,” “crate,” or something else you prefer that would only be used for this.
- After several sessions of naming, open the crate and give the cue. If the dog does not go in, wait several seconds and offer the cue again. If the dog still does not go in, then go back a step. It’s important not to continue saying the cue to them as it will lose meaning.
- Cue the dog to enter, and then close the crate door. If they settle, open the door and give them a treat. Continue this until you are able to work up to closing the door and leaving the room for a bit.
- All skills need to be practiced! Keep this up even if you won’t crate your dog daily.
Note: If your dog is hesitant to enter the crate at all, use this process but instead of them entering on their own, toss in a high-value treat at each step. (Toss in the treat, mark once the dog enters, and the reward is already in the crate.)
Keep gradually increasing the amount of time the dog spends in the crate, including sessions with you leaving the house for a short period while the dog is in the crate working on a Kong or food puzzle. If you need to crate your dog during your work day, build up to that.
Feeding meals in the crate
Even if your dog loves the crate, feed them their meals in there. This will continue to build the positive association for them.
- Begin by placing the dog’s food bowl as close to the crate as the dog will go.
- Gradually move the bowl closer to the crate over the course of a few meals.
- When the dog is relaxed about eating near the crate, begin placing the meal just inside the crate.
- Gradually move the food bowl toward the back of the crate over the course of a few meals until your dog is entering the crate with their whole body.
- Proceed to step 1 of the crate-training process using food lures (above) if your dog still needs to work on spending longer durations in the crate.
Proofing the behavior
Proofing in dog training means teaching the dog to generalize the behavior in different contexts, including with different people and locations. Only change one factor at a time during your training process. Have different people give the dog the “crate” cue and reward your dog for going into the crate. If initially the dog doesn’t go in for the “crate” cue only, the person can toss in a treat.
To vary distractions in your crate-training process, talk quietly in an adjoining room while the dog is in the crate, and then gradually increase the volume and the number of people talking. You can also play music, turn on the TV, or run appliances.
If you will be traveling with your dog and their crate, practice by moving the crate to other rooms of the house and have the dog stay in it there. If possible, bring your dog and the crate to a friend’s house and have them spend short periods in it there; then increase the duration. Repeat in other locations until your dog is comfortable in the crate wherever you go.
Is it OK to crate your dog at night?
Crating a dog overnight is a great resource if you are concerned about your dog’s house soiling, destructive tendencies, barking at noises overnight, or maybe you are not ready for your new dog to be unattended with your current dog(s).
Feed your dog dinner, and wait until you are going to bed for one last potty break. For some dogs, you might need to pick up water bowls an hour or two before this; otherwise, they might drink too much water and need to urinate in the middle of the night. At bedtime, put the dog in the crate with a treat and your cue (such as “kennel”) delivered in a cheery voice. The crate should be situated close to you so that you can hear the dog whine or whimper if they need to eliminate during the night.
If you are training a puppy, be prepared for one or two trips outside at night to eliminate. If the puppy goes outside and doesn’t eliminate, don’t allow any extra time for play or long drinks of water when you come back inside. Instead, encourage the pup to return to the crate. They might whine a bit, but if you have given them ample opportunity to eliminate, try to ignore the protest and they should settle down.
In the morning, get your dog out first thing. If they'll be crated at any point during the day, make sure they first have a break from it.
How long is a dog OK in a crate?
No dog, young or old, should be living in a crate most of the time. All dogs need daily exercise and interaction with others. But with time and practice, your dog can work up to being crated while you are at work or another outing. Be sure to start with small increments and give your dog plenty of enrichment.
Puppies should not be left in a crate for more than two to three hours. Forcing puppies to break their instinctive aversion to soiling their sleeping area can lead to serious house-training difficulties. Also, because they are still developing, puppies have even more need for social interaction than adult dogs. Likewise, note that some older dogs cannot physically hold their bladders and bowels for long periods of time and will need more regular trips outside to eliminate (including overnight).
When not to use a crate
Never force a dog into the crate. The goal of crate training a puppy or dog is to make the crate a safe, happy place where your pup will want to go and spend time. If the dog appears anxious or unhappy about being in the crate at any point during training, take a break and then back up in the plan to the previous step. But don't immediately let the dog out of the crate if they start barking, whining, panting, etc.; wait for a pause in that. If you let them out as soon as they start protesting, they will continue this behavior because they'll learn it works to get them out of the crate.
Don’t ever put a dog in a crate as punishment. Doing so can make the dog afraid of the crate, or it might even seem like a reward if the crate is a place that your dog loves to go. In addition, even though a dog can come to see the crate as a safe place, it is not the solution for dogs with separation anxiety because they might injure themselves trying to get out.
What to consider when buying a crate
Most pet-supply stores sell dog crates. When choosing a crate, make sure it's big enough so that the dog can stand up, turn around, and lie flat on their side in comfort. It should not be so spacious that the dog can sleep and eat at one end and eliminate at the other. If you are training a growing puppy, you can buy a larger crate with a divider for adjusting the crate size as they grow.
Remember, take the process at your dog's pace. Crate training can happen quickly, or it might take some time depending on the dog's comfort level with the crate.