We all feel bad about crate training our dog, and some even feel like it’s animal abuse to leave a dog in a confined space. We imagine dog kennels with dozens of dogs barking to be let out, and it makes us nervous to try crate training ourselves. But the truth is – crate training is perfectly safe, healthy, and extremely helpful in training dogs. This is especially true for young puppies or dogs with fear or separation anxiety issues, and of course makes travelling with your pets much less stressful for them.
When done carefully and correctly, crate training is one of the kindest things you can do for your dog, especially when you live in the city.
Note: training a dog to do anything is a long process. Depending on the dog, it can take weeks or even months. Be patient and most importantly – DON’T GIVE UP!
How old is your dog?
For small puppies (under three months old) crate training is almost effortless in comparison to crate training for older dogs and pups. They haven’t developed the ability to feel fear yet (although they can still feel separation anxiety), so you can just put them in the crate right away, like you would put them in bed. The crate should be where their bed is, and it will serve as a play pen to keep them from peeing and pooping where you don’t want them to. A crate that is much larger than them is perfect, and when they grow it will still fit them. One end of the crate should be lined with pee pads, the other end should be where you put their bed. Dogs have a natural instinct to not want to go to the bathroom where they sleep, so they will get out of their bed to pee and poop, and be surrounded by pee pads. This creates a situation where they “always win,” and makes potty training them 100 times easier. At night time, when you’re not awake to supervise, they should be inside the crate with the door closed.
You can put the crate beside your bed to help you get a better sleep. When they cry in the night, don’t take them out of the crate (it will be tempting) but instead, put your hand through the bars of the crate to let them know you’re beside them. For most pups, this is enough. They will sniff your hand, play bite your fingers, fuss a bit, and then go back to sleep. Once they start sleeping through the night, you can put their crate further from you, or in the next room. Each time you change something, expect your puppy to whine about it. That’s their main way to communicate. Just make sure you don’t let them manipulate you into changing your mind. Stay focused on the end goal, which is to have them potty trained, without any destructive habits, and stress free.
When pups are really young, or neonatal (newborn) they might need a meal in the middle of the night as well. But that stage shouldn’t last very long. If you feed them late at night before going to sleep, and early the next morning, they should be fine, unless they’re very small or have some special requirement. The only times you need to keep them in the crate is at night or when you leave the house. Otherwise they can be out of the crate in a playpen, or walking around supervised. Just make sure you still have a large pee pad area that they always have access to. Limiting their space when they’re young is best, so you can slowly increase their space as they learn more things, and are able to go outside to pee and poop (only when fully vaccinated).
The stage when you need to take the pee pads away requires the most guess work. Try to time it for when your pup has stopped peeing/pooping inside the crate, sleeps through the night, and waits until you let them out to go to the bathroom. Sometimes they will chew the pad to tell you they don’t want it in there anymore. If you take the pee pads away, but they start having pee or poop accidents again, place the pee pads underneath the crate so they can’t chew them, but they are there as a backup.
As they grow, your pup will learn that the crate is his comfortable place to sleep at night, and his safe place to wait when you leave the house. When you start to go through your “I’m leaving” routine (putting on shoes, jacket, etc.), your pup will eventually just want to go to the crate by himself without you asking. One day you’ll turn around about to ask him to “go to your crate” and he will already be there. Then you know he’s finished crate training.
How can I crate train my dog without scarring him and making the crate a terrible thing?
First, start by having the crate in your house and ready to use. Set it up while keeping them in another room, but don’t pressure your dog to go into it or even near it. Just keep it in the living room or somewhere else that they spend a lot of time. For yourself, ignore the crate. If your dog seems frightened of it, ignore their fear and don’t pet them to comfort them. That will reinforce that they have a reason to be afraid. When your dog is comfortable with the crate and doesn’t look nervous when they walk past it, or look at it like it’s going to attack them, start having your pet’s mealtime next to the crate. Not inside, just beside it. If your dog is uncomfortable eating too close to the crate, move the bowl a little further away until they are OK with eating again. After doing that a few times, even a few days if you have a nervous dog, start putting their treats inside the crate on top of a favourite blanket, or sweater, something that has a comforting smell.
When they are OK reaching their head into the crate to get the treats, start always giving them treats that way. Then, move their food bowl just inside the crate for mealtimes. After your dog is comfortable (only ever move onto the next step if your dog is comfortable) put his collar and leash on and lead him into the crate. If he is a little nervous, that’s OK, but if he’s very scared, go back to the previous step. With the door open, and your dog inside, reach in and pet him, and give him treats. Once your dog is comfortable with this step, go onto the next step, which is to put him inside the crate, give him something he really likes to chew on, that will take a while to eat, and close the door to the crate. Only keep the door closed for a minute or two, and sit next to it the whole time. If he starts to whine, ignore it, wait until he stops whining, however briefly, and let him out. Keep trying until he is OK for a few minutes with the door closed, always with treats. Then the next step is that you need to leave the apartment for a few minutes. You can just walk down the hallway if you want. Wait in the hallway. If he starts whining, wait until he stops, then quickly go back inside, praise him and give him a treat. Once he finishes the treat, let him out.
Each time you leave the house like this, leave for a little longer. After a while, start leaving for an hour or so. Go get a coffee, go buy groceries, or go for lunch. And always when you come home, tell him he’s a good boy, and let him out (as long as he isn’t whining – excited noises are OK, just not crying). If you’ve been gone for a while, take them for a walk when you let them out.
Until they start going to the crate on their own, you can lead them to the crate with a leash. Eventually they will go to the crate when you tell them to “go to your crate.” Even if you are leading them inside the crate with a leash, always make sure to still say, “go to your crate” as a signal to them. For teenage dogs, you can leave them in the crate for about as many hours as months they’ve been alive. So for a six month old pup, they can wait about five or six hours. Then they need to go outside to pee. So take them out as soon as you get home. Obviously don’t leave them in the crate for a crazy amount of time, because they need enough daily exercise to stay healthy. When you tell them to go to their crate and they go by themselves, or go to the crate without you asking, you’ve finished crate training.
Separation anxiety – stress and fear of being away from someone or something
Destructive habits – chewing, scratching, and breaking things you don’t want them to chew, scratch, or break.
Potty trained – peeing and pooping outside consistently, without indoor accidents