Having a crate at your disposal can be an effective management tool for a whole lot of behavioral issues and goals, and it should be taught to all dogs regardless of your need for it. It does, however, need to be introduced into your dog’s life properly. In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about crates and x-pens!
Crates can be a lifesaver, but they need to be used and trained properly
At some point, in your dog’s life, they will need to be in a crate. For most dogs, the first “obligatory” stop to Cratesville is when they get spayed or neutered. Even if your dog does not get sterilized, it’s all but guaranteed that they will have a health issue that requires an overnight stay at the vet or that you have to board them in a facility that uses crates at some point. The stress that comes with being away from you or injured is already plenty enough, you don’t want your puppy to be nervous about being confined as well.
Crate training, much like muzzle training, is something that all dogs should go through. That skill may never be needed, but it’s much safer to train it for nothing than to not have the tool when you really need it.
A word about destructive dogs
If your dog or puppy chews through objects, pees all over the place or barks when you are gone, they are usually one of two things: bored or anxious.
For the former, check out our article on dealing with boredom.
For the latter, you should get in touch with specialists.
Crating your dog may be a tool you can use to manage destructiveness, but it will not fix the underlying cause of either of those issues.
What size and type of crate to get
Crates come in a bunch of sizes and materials. It can be hard to figure out what to get when you’re a first-time puppy guardian.
Here are a few key points to keep in mind when shopping:
- For potty training, you want your dog to have exactly enough room to stretch, turn around, lie down and stand. Nothing more. Check out our potty training guide here.
- For any other use, a bigger crate is perfectly fine but it should never be smaller than that.
- If your puppy is of a rapidly growing breed, get a crate that will be big enough for them as adults and block off part of it!
- Metal crates tend to be the sturdiest and longest-lasting ones, but they are also the worst to transport. Best for a crate that will stay in one place.
- Fabric, fold-able crates are much more practical but tend to be more expensive and can be more easily destroyed by scratching.
- For some uses, an exercise pen can serve better. For puppies, we recommend having a pen and a crate.
Things to avoid doing with your crate at all cost
While and after you train your dog to enjoy being in its crate, you can easily destroy all progress and have your dog refuse to go in there or panic when they are left there.
- Do not use your crate as a punishment
- This is pretty common knowledge, but it bears repeating. Putting your dog in “time-out” in its crate when you’re angry at them can quickly result in the dog not enjoying being in there. A better strategy is to put your puppy in its crate with something fun to do before they get to that point.
- Don’t leave your dog in there longer than they can handle
- Being okay with the crate at night or for 15 minutes does not mean your dog is okay with being left in there for 4 hours. You have to increase the difficulty gradually and at your dog’s pace.
- Don’t ignore the dog when it panics
- One of the most common, poorly explained and dangerous pieces of advice when it comes to crate training your dog is “don’t open the door when they bark”. We’ll go over exactly what this means further below.
Phase one: going in the crate and staying there
In this phase, we aren’t closing the door to the crate, nor are we leaving the dog alone in there.
1: In and out of the crate
This step is pretty easy if your dog isn’t already unhappy with its crate: just throw food into the crate, let your dog get it and come out, then throw food again.
Repeat until your puppy has absolutely no hesitation to go in the crate to get food.
If your dog doesn’t want to go in:
Put food halfway in the crate, right at the door or even just outside the door to make it easier. Once your dog is confident, throw the food further in!
2: Going in without food
Next, pretend you’re throwing food in the crate, say “Yes!” when your dog runs in to get food and then reward them.
Always pay inside the crate, never outside!
3: Create a hand signal
You can’t quite see my hand in the video, but the goal is simple: go from your very telegraphed “hand swings towards the crate” to a small “I point at the crate”
Change the movement you do gradually so that your dog always figures out what you want from them!
Before you move on, make sure your dog goes in the crate every time you point at it, without fail.
4: Add some distance
Now that your puppy runs into the crate when you point, teach it that it should do the same no matter where you are!
Take a few steps away from the crate and point. Leave your finger up for a few seconds to let your dog figure out what to do. If they fail, get closer to help them.
Get further and further away from the crate as your puppy improves, but remember: always reward inside the crate.
5: Staying inside the crate
Now that your puppy goes in the crate when you ask, it’s time to teach it to stay in there for a bit.
We’re not closing the gate yet!
Send your dog in, reward and immediately reward again, and again, and again. You want your dog to figure out that staying in the crate pays much quicker than leaving it! Once your dog starts to figure it out, space out the rewards more and more.
Every now and then, tell your dog it can leave with a word like “Break” or “Out”, invite it to come out and, when it does, reward that too!
If your dog wants to leave the crate at any point during this process, don’t prevent them from doing so. Let them go out and stretch their legs, then see if they want to start over in a minute! We won’t reward the dog for leaving of its own accord, but we won’t scold it either.
The goal is to make your puppy figure out that two things pay: staying in the crate and leaving it when told.
You may also have noticed that I don’t tell Ori to stay, sit or lie down. He can do whatever he wants in the crate and I don’t want him to feel stuck there, ever.
Phase two: Closing the crate and staying in there while things happen
In this phase, we add the constraint part of crate training by closing the gate, but we do so very gradually and at the dog’s pace. Afterwards, we start to increase how long they have to stay there.
What to do if your puppy barks, scratches or whines
Usually, signs your dog is bored or anxious start to appear in this part of crate training. Here are the different situations you may encounter and how to appropriately respond to keep your crate fun for your puppy.
1 – Boredom
If your dog whines for a few seconds, yelps a bit, scratches the door once or twice and then stops, it’s likely bored and wants out.
In this case, you should wait until the behavior has stopped for a few seconds and then let your dog out immediately. Your dog just showed it’s unhappy with the current situation and you should use this information to make your training more pleasant for them. Leave them in the crate for shorter total amounts of time or reward them more often, depending on what you think might be best.
2 – Anxiety
If your dog starts to panic, come back and let them out immediately, regardless of how they’re acting. Panic doesn’t go away, panic doesn’t last just a few minutes, it gets worse and worse until either the dog gives up or has no more energy to panic. Letting your dog panic in its crate will completely screw up your crate training and likely cause a slew of other problems. Don’t do it.
Not sure which is it? Assume panic.
If you let your dog out while they’re whining out of boredom, thinking it was anxiety, you’re teaching them that whining gets them out of the crate. That’s not great, but it’s easily fixable.
If you leave your dog in the crate while they panic, thinking it’s boredom, you’re very quickly working your way to a dog that hates its crate and may develop separation anxiety.
Both are bad, one’s much worse. If you’re not sure where things are going wrong, get in touch with us and we’ll gladly give you a hand.
In both cases, make things easier next time
Whether it’s boredom or anxiety, you’ll want to reduce the difficulty the next time you send your dog to the crate. Your puppy should be content to be in that space at all times.
6: Closing the door
Send your dog into the crate, then partially close the door. For some dogs, you’ll have to start by barely touching it. For some others, you can close it halfway or three quarters right away.
If your dog seems uncomfortable, do something easier!
Remember to frequently release your dog and reward them for it!
Once your puppy doesn’t mind the door being closed and locked at all, pay them a few times in a row before letting them out!
7: Staying in the closed crate
Now the very boring, but also extremely important part: staying in the closed crate.
Grab a chair, a book and some treats before sending your dog in the crate and closing it.
Simply sit there and reward your dog for staying in the crate. Space out how long they have to wait before they get their reward, but make sure it’s also random. Sometimes the treats come quick, sometimes not.
Do this for a few minutes at a time at first, then try and go up to 10, 20, 30 minutes.
Your dog should always be let out of the crate before it starts getting antsy or uncomfortable. If you have a puppy that really doesn’t like its crate, you might have to start with less than a minute!
8: Doing something while the dog is crated
Being in the crate while you’re close is one thing. Being there while you’re busy in the room is another.
You’ll want to send your dog to the crate and do something. Start with boring activities (I chose dishes). Then, move up to things that might get your dog excited (like having guests over) later.
Every now and then, stop what you’re doing to go reward your dog for staying in the crate.
You’ll also want to let them out once or twice to make sure they’re still okay with the activity. If they seem hesitant to go back in the crate, give them a break!
Next step: teaching your dog to be alone
Have you practiced those 8 steps in all the different situations you need your dog to be crated? Then you’ll want to start working on leaving them alone. This is a different process, for which we have a guide as well!
Still having issues? Send us a message!
written by Stephen Fiset, dog trainer
Mis à jour le August 16, 2023