The crate is an invaluable tool in dog ownership and training. Teaching your dog to be comfortable in a crate not only keeps them from getting into things like the trash can, kitty litter box or chewing on furniture, but it also prepares them for being confined at the vet, groomer or a boarding facility. Confinement in a crate isn’t a natural experience for a dog, and while some dogs take to it very easily, for many careful training is often necessary, especially for puppies who have never been confined before.
Speaking of puppies, crate training is the quickest, easiest and most effective way to housetrain a puppy (or dog of any age that needs extra help). A rotation between crate time and free time ensures the puppy is taken to potty every few hours and drastically reduces the number of accidents inside the house or crate. The more the dog potties successfully outside with lots of positive feedback, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior and the crate is the key tool in this exercise. While it is possible to do so, it is very difficult to housetrain a dog without the use of a crate.
A crate trained dog will happily spend time in their crate and even hang out in there when allowed free time because it is a safe and comfortable space for them.
How to Crate Train
First, get a crate! The crate should be large enough for the dog to stand, stretch and turn around comfortably, but not so large that they are able to potty at one end and lay at the other. A standard wire crate with a plastic bottom tray is the most common variety, but a hard sided travel crate is also acceptable if preferred.
There are a number of ways to teach a dog to enter and exit the crate happily and confidently, and I have found that the easiest way is to use food. Food is a very valuable resource to dogs, and most are willing to do just about anything to get it if it is tasty enough. When working with behaviors that can cause anxiety, like crate training, it is important to have what is called a “high value treat” meaning something very, very irresistible which will make their desire for the food greater than any potential discomfort. Fresh meat and cheese are great high value treats, as are chicken or turkey hot dogs (my treat of choice). The stinkier the better!
Some dogs can become anxious when crated, so it is very important to move very slowly through the following steps. Each step should be repeated several times a session, multiple times a day for at least 3 days before moving on to the next step.
1. The first thing we do when crate training is teach the dog to enter the crate voluntarily. To do this, show the dog that you have a treat, then toss it in the open crate for the dog to get. They will likely come right back out and you will toss another treat inside. Repeat this exercise several times before moving on. When the dog starts to understand the game and enters the crate enthusiastically, start putting it on cue by saying the word “crate” or “kennel” (or whatever else you prefer) as the dog enters the crate. We don’t want to move too soon by closing the door behind them, so take your time with this first step!
2. The next step is asking the dog to perform some basic obedience while they are in the crate. Toss the food in, and when the dog enters, get their attention and ask them to sit. This helps develop confidence in the crate and reinforces that good things happen in there. After they sit, give them a treat and allow them to exit the crate.
3. Next step is to close the door behind them, securing them in the crate. You want to start this step very carefully because this is the part that some dogs find uncomfortable. We will toss a treat into the crate, then close the door behind them. When they turn to notice the door is closed, open it back up and let them come out with lots of praise and treats. As the dog becomes more comfortable with this step, increase the amount of time the door is closed.
4. When the dog is comfortable inside the crate with the door closed, begin asking them to do basic obedience when they are inside. Having them sit, feeding treats through the bars at the top of the crate, then letting them back out after a moment. From here on it is just a matter of increasing the amount of time the door is closed and behaviors are performed for treats.
Remember that in these initial phases we want to keep things very happy and pleasant to build the dog’s confidence in the crate. If the dog shows anxiety when confined, back up to step 2 or 3 and approach the next steps more slowly, increasing the amount of days between steps.
Once the dog is reliably comfortable in the crate for long intervals, using the crate for housebreaking can begin!