How to Crate Train Your Puppy

Why Should I Crate Train My Dog?

Dogs and puppies should all be taught to be comfortable in a crate or kennel. The crate is a great hang-out place for dogs that are stressed, it’s excellent for safely taking dogs in the car, and
since they’ll probably end up being in a crate or kennel at the veterinarian’s office at some point or other, it’s helpful if they’re already used to the crate. If you compete in agility, having a crate-trained dog is a must! Crates are also excellent for housetraining puppies for short periods of time when you can’t watch the puppy. Dogs are much less likely to “go potty” in a small-ish area like a crate. Puppies can’t stay in the kennel forever, but it’s a great accident-prevention tool. You should try not to leave a puppy in a crate for very long, if it’s at all avoidable, but if your puppy is crate-trained you can use it for times when you need to go to the store, for in between visits by friends or dog walkers to let the puppy out, or for staying with you (but out of trouble) at work.

What Kind of Crate is Right for My Puppy?

If your dog is not used to a kennel yet, you’ll need a sturdy crate, not the crates that are made of canvas and mesh. Those kind of portable dog crates are good to have, but just aren’t for newbies. The two main kinds of portable kennels are airline crates, like the “Vari-Kennel”, which are plastic and have a metal front. The other kind of crate is all metal and looks a little scarier, but aren’t any harder on the dog. There are also fancy crates to match your decor.

Pick a crate where your puppy can easily stand up, stretch out, and move around in a bit. If you are leaving the puppy home alone for more than a hour or two, use a few crates wired together (get the ones with multiple entrances) or put the puppy in the kitchen or other puppy-proofed room with an open crate and a pee pad on the floor closest to the exit of the house. Your crate should have a nice soft crate pad in it. Some dogs will chew up their crate pads, so you might just want to use a towel or blanket. A tough rubber mat that is glued down is an option that is softer than the crate floor but harder to chew up. If all else fails, leave out the padding.

Crate Training Option 1: Shaping

So now that you have the crate, you have to convince your dog that it’s the best place on earth. I use clicker training for this, which means that I have a little device that I click to tell the dog they’ve done something I like and are going to get a treat. You can also use a special marker word, like “yes.” (Read more about clicker training dogs here). Put a tasty treat in the crate. If your puppy goes into the crate, click as he heads in and toss another treat inside. As long as he stays inside of the crate, keep clicking and treating. If he leaves the crate or if he doesn’t go into the crate in the first place, follow the steps below.

  • Click for any attention toward the crate at all – even little eye motions. If your dog will go into the crate, put the treat in the crate and repeat the above steps. If not, just toss the treat a bit (not into the crate) to get the puppy moving.
  • Click several times for head turns toward the crate.
  • Click several times for moving a paw toward the crate.
  • Click several times for taking two steps toward the crate.
  • Continue raising your criteria (not paying for little steps, waiting for more).
  • Gradually start to expect the puppy to stay in the crate longer and longer between treats.
  • Briefly shut the door, click and treat, then open the door and say “okay” to tell the puppy he can leave the crate
  • Gradually extend the amount of time the puppy is in the crate with the door shut.

At whatever point she begins to enter the crate, start to say “Kennel” just before she goes in. Say this every time she’s headed in and she’ll be crate trained in no time.

Don’t do all of the crate training steps above at once. Train any activity, especially something that might be stressful, like crate training, for 2-5 minutes max at a time. Stop to play with the puppy in between sessions, or take a nap, or go potty, etc. If the dog or puppy begins to look nervous, lower your criteria and expect less from the puppy. Don’t push so fast next time.

Once you can put the puppy in and close the crate door for a few seconds, give her bigger treats, instead of little tidbits. Kongs with Peanut Butter or wet dog food are great for this. Or Bully Sticks or Nylabones are also great. Basically, something edible that takes a bit of time to chew on is perfect. Let the puppy out of her crate before she starts screaming. If your puppy does throw a fit, wait by the crate, or put your hand into the crate, and when she *stops* crying for 5-10 seconds, praise her and let her out of the crate, or click and treat, then let her out.

Leave your puppy’s crate open to her during the day when you are home, and hide treats or toys in there, so when she happens to head into the crate, she gets rewarded. You can close the door with fun stuff inside so that she actually asks you to go into her crate (with body language).

If you spot her heading into the crate at any time, say “kennel” (not so loudly as to disturb her progress) and either give her a treat or let her get the one inside the kennel. Crate training is a slow process, but it’s worth it!

You’re working on training her to love her crate, but in the meantime, you may need to use the crate, because she’s destructive and/or not housetrained. If you can at all avoid shoving the puppy into the crate before you’ve worked slowly up to leaving her in the crate for 15-30 minutes at a time, do so. That means that if your puppy neither housetrained nor crate trained, you might want to tether the puppy to you with a leash around your waist or put her in a front pack.

Note: Sleeping in the crate in your room at night is good so she doesn’t wander around the house and leave you surprises. Puppies up to 12 weeks should be sleeping with or near you, anyway. You can have her sleep in the bed for a few days while you train her to like her crate. For young puppies, it shouldn’t take very long to get her to go willingly into the crate and stay there. Every time you put her into the crate, give her a treat that takes time to consume, like the aforementioned Kong.

Crate Training Option 2: Go to Your Rug

Another option is to target train your dog, and then transfer that to crate training. For example, you can train her to go to a rug, and then gradually move that rug inside the crate. One way to do this is to follow the steps above for shaping your dog to enter the crate, but use it for the rug. Here’s another way to train a Magnetic Rug:

  • Toss the rug (crate pad) onto the floor in front of your puppy with a flourish.
  • She’ll go over to sniff it. If your puppy ends up on the rug, continue to the next step. If not, lure her onto the rug.
  • Give her several Click/treats for being a great puppy.
  • Say ‘okay’ and take the rug out from under her. The stolen rug is now worth a Million Dog Dollars.
  • Wait a few seconds and repeat.

Once your puppy is predictably heading to the rug or crate pad, say “rug” or “bed” or “go to your bed” or (my personal favorite), “disappear.” You want to say the cue about a second before the dog does the behavior. Eventually, you can say “Disappear” and she’ll go to the rug on her own. Work on adding different variables, like training from further away or with more distractions. To transfer this to crate training, put the rug closer and closer to the crate, until it’s all the way inside. You can use the same cue, or you can create a new one. Just say, “Kennel” and then pause for a second, then say “disappear” (which your puppy already now knows) and click/treat when she goes into the kennel and onto the rug. Eventually, train without the crate pad inside, if you want to make sure she’s really getting the crate idea.

Crate Training Option 3: Targeting

Targeting is having the dog touch a body part (like a nose) to an object, like a target stick. I have a separate blog article on training a dog to enter a crate using targeting.

Crated Dogs/Puppies Should be Naked in their Crates

One important word of caution – make sure your puppy is not wearing a collar or harness when left alone in her crate or pen. He may get caught on the crate and strangle. If you must leave a collar on the puppy, use something like a cat collar or the KeepSafe Breakaway dog collar, which comes off of the dog if they get it caught.

Let Your Dog Out Whenever He Wants

One myth is that you must wait for your puppy to be quiet before letting her out. Knowing she’s not trapped will actually help her gain confidence and also motivate you to find more interesting things to put in the crate.