Crate training a dog is a very helpful tool for many reasons. The primary use for a crate is housetraining, because dogs do not like to soil their dens. The crate can limit the dog’s access to the rest of the house while they learn other rules, like to not chew on furniture. Crates are also a safe way to transport your dog in the car.
Don’t assume that crate training your dog will be the magical solution to unwanted dog behavior. If used incorrectly, a dog can feel trapped and frustrated in their crate.
Never use the crate as a punishment. Your dog will come to fear it and refuse to go in. Don’t leave your dog in the crate too long because a dog who is crated all day and night doesn’t get enough exercise or human interaction and can become depressed or anxious. So, you may have to change your schedule, hire a pet sitter, or take your dog to a daycare facility to reduce the amount of time they spend in their crate each day.
Puppies younger than six months shouldn’t stay in a crate for more than three or four hours at a time. They are not able to control their bladders and bowels for that long. And the same goes for adult dogs being housetrained. Physically, an older dog has a larger bladder. Crate your dog only until you can trust them not to destroy the house. After that, it should be a place where they go voluntarily.
Crate training your dog can take days or weeks, depending on your dog’s age, temperament and past experiences. It’s important to keep two things in mind while 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 quickly.
Step 1: Introduce your dog to the crate.
Place the crate in an area of your home where you spend a lot of time, such as the family room. Put a soft blanket or towel in the crate. Keep the crate door open and let the dog explore the crate voluntarily. Some dogs will be naturally curious and start sleeping in the crate right away. If your dog does not, do this:
Start by dropping some small food treats near the crate, then just inside the door, and finally, all the way inside the crate. This should help encourage your dog to enter the crate. If they refuse to go all the way in at first, that’s okay! Don’t force them to enter. Continue tossing treats into the crate until your dog calmly walks all the way in to get the food. But if they still aren’t interested in treats, try tossing a favorite toy in the crate. Step 1 may take as quickly as a few minutes or as long as several days.
Step 2: Feed your dog's meals in the crate.
The next step in crate training your dog is to feed regular meals near the crate. This creates a positive association with the crate. Then, start feeding your pet in the crate. Place the food bowl all the way at the back of the crate. If they’re still hesitant to enter, put the dish only as far inside as they will voluntarily go. Each time you feed them, place the dish a little further back in the crate.
Once your dog is standing comfortably in the crate to eat their meal, you can close the door while they are eating. The first time you do this, open the door as soon as they finish their meal. With each successive feeding, leave the door closed a few minutes longer, until they are staying in the crate for 10 minutes or so after eating. If they begin to whine to be let out, you may have increased the length of time too quickly. Next time, try leaving them in the crate for a shorter time period. Don’t let them out until they stop whining or crying. Otherwise, they’ll learn that the way to get out of the crate is to whine, so they’ll keep doing it.
Step 3: Practice with longer crating periods.
After your dog is comfortably eating their regular meals in the crate, you can keep them in there for short time periods while you are home. Call them over to the crate and give them a treat. Give them a command to enter, such as “kennel,” “home” “crate,” “inside,” etc. Encourage them by pointing to the inside of the crate with a treat in your hand. When your dog enters the crate, praise them, give them the treat and close the door. Sit quietly near the crate for five to ten minutes, and then go into another room for a few minutes. Come back, sit quietly again for a short time, and then let them out of the crate. Repeat this process several times a day, gradually increasing the length of time you leave them in the crate and the length of time you’re out of sight.
Once your dog will stay quietly in the crate for about 30 minutes with you mostly out of sight, you can begin leaving them crated when you are gone for short time periods and/or letting them sleep there at night. This may take several days or weeks.
Step 4, Part A: Crate your dog when you leave
After your dog can spend about 30 minutes in the crate without becoming anxious or afraid, you can begin leaving them crated for short periods when you leave the house.
Put them in the crate using your regular command and a treat. You might also want to leave them with a few safe toys in the crate. Vary the moment during your “getting ready to leave” routine that you put your dog in the crate. Although they shouldn’t be crated for a long time before you leave, you can crate them anywhere from five to 20 minutes prior to leaving. Don’t make your departures emotional and prolonged — they should be matter-of-fact. Praise your dog briefly, give them a treat for entering the crate and then leave quietly.
When you return home, don’t reward your dog for excited behavior by responding to them in an enthusiastic way. Keep arrivals low-key to avoid increasing their anxiety over when you will return. Continue to crate your dog for short periods from time to time when you’re home so they don’t associate crating with being left alone.
Step 4, Part B: Crate your dog at night
Put your dog in the crate using your regular command and a treat. At first, it may be a good idea to put the crate in your bedroom or nearby in a hallway, especially if you have a puppy. Puppies often need to go outside to potty during the night, and you’ll want to be able to hear your puppy when they whine to be let outside. Older dogs should also initially be kept nearby so they don’t associate the crate with being left alone.
Once your dog is sleeping comfortably through the night with the crate near you, you can begin to gradually move it to the location you prefer. But remember, time spent with your dog—even sleep time—is a chance to strengthen the bond between you and your pet.
If your dog whines or cries while in the crate at night, it may be hard to know whether they’re whining to be let out of the crate, or whether they need to potty. By following the training steps above, your dog probably has not been rewarded for whining in the past by being let out of their crate. So, try to ignore the whining. Your dog may just testing you, so they’ll probably stop whining soon. Yelling at them or pounding on the crate will only make things worse.
If the whining continues after you’ve ignored them for several minutes, use the phrase they associate with going outside to potty. Take them outside if they respond and become excited at the phrase. This should be a trip with a purpose, not play time. But, the best response is to ignore them until they stop whining if you’re convinced that they don’t need to potty. Don’t give in! Giving in will teach your dog to whine loudly and for a long period of time to get what they want.
You’ll be less likely to encounter this problem if you progress through the crate training steps gradually. If the problem becomes worse, you may need to start the crate training process over again.
Attempting to use the crate as a remedy for separation anxiety will not solve the problem. A crate may prevent your dog from being destructive, but they may get injured while tying to escape. Separation anxiety problems can only be resolved with counter-conditioning and desensitization procedures. You may want to consult a professional animal-behavior specialist for help.