How to Use a Crate to Train Your Puppy

Behavior & training
husky puppy stretching by crate

The crate is a valuable tool for raising a new puppy. Just as human parents use playpens and baby cribs to keep children safe when they are unable to be supervised, dogs who are safely confined to a crate while owners are unable to mentally or physically supervise them are prevented from doing unwanted behaviors. These behaviors can include chewing on furniture, chasing the cat, biting the children or getting into the trash. The crate is also one of the easiest ways to facilitate house training. Most dogs enjoy their crate and when paired with good stuff, your dog will begin to venture into his crate on his own.

What crate should you get for your puppy?

Crates come in many styles. The most common are plastic kennels and wire metal crates. You can now buy designer crates made of wood or with wicker coverings to match the décor of your home.

When selecting a crate choose one that will allow your dog stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably. If you have a large breed dog, you can purchase the size of kennel he will need as an adult and buy the crate divider to make the crate smaller while he is a puppy. Be sure to use the divider as too much room will allow him to eliminate in one area and sleep in another – not good!

Teach Your Puppy to Be Comfortable in the Crate

The process of crate training is typically easy. However, due to previous experience, age, or personality some dogs may not readily acclimate to being alone in the crate. The crate should always be associated with something pleasant, and training will be easiest if done in small steps.

It is best if you start the crate training process on a weekend when you can be around to help your dog acclimate. It is unfair to get a new dog on Monday evening and expect him to be alone in a crate for eight hours in a new place on Tuesday while you are at work.

Find a Good Area For the Crate

Place the crate in an area of your house where the family spends a lot of time, such as the family room. You can make the crate more comfortable by putting a soft blanket or towel inside. Even if the family room isn’t where you want the crate long term, for training purposes, it is easier that the crate be in a neutral area, rather than isolated in a bedroom or the basement. Once your dog is crate trained, the crate can be moved to a more ideal location.

Positive Reinforcement With the Crate

To encourage your dog to enter the crate, drop high value food treats inside. Don’t be stingy, use something good like small pieces of chicken – he won’t learn to beg. You can encourage him to investigate his crate, but if he refuses, that’s okay – don’t force him to enter. Leave the food inside and walk away. He will smell the treats and more than likely venture in on his own.

Begin Crate Feeding

Begin feeding your dog every meal in his crate. At dinner time, after you have made his bowl, say “kennel up” as you walk over to the crate. If your dog is reluctant to enter the crate, put the bowl only as far inside as he will readily go without becoming fearful or anxious. Each time you feed him, place the bowl a little further back in the crate.

By saying “kennel up” you will establish a cue that means go to your crate. This way you don’t have to physically place your dog in the crate each time. Do not leave food in the crate while you are gone; if he doesn't eat his meal within five minutes take it up. Once your dog is readily running into his crate you can begin closing the door while he's eating.

Crating Your Dog When Leaving

When your dog is running into his crate for food and toys, going in relaxed on his own, and able to remain in his crate calmly for a short period of time while you’re home, he is ready to be left alone. In the beginning you should leave for short periods of time – run to the drug store or to grab take out. This will ensure that your dog is ok with your absence.

Don’t make your departures emotional and prolonged, but matter-of-fact. Praise your dog briefly, give him a treat or a stuffed Kong® for entering the crate and then leave quietly. When you return home, don’t reward your dog for excited behavior by responding to him in an excited, enthusiastic way - keep arrivals low key. Continue to crate your dog for short periods of time when you’re home so he doesn’t associate crating with being left alone.

It is recommended that in the first several weeks of having a new dog you plan to come home on lunch to check on your dog and give him a bathroom break. While most dogs will do fine with the crate training process you want to ensure that your dog is comfortable with your absence and build up to long periods of confinement.

If you are raising a puppy, you should note that the average puppy can hold his bladder for one hour per month he is old plus one - this is during resting times. A four month old puppy should be able to realistically hold his bladder for four to five hours while you are away.

Training Tip: Don’t Only Crate When Leaving

The biggest mistake pet parents make when crate training their dog is to only use the crate when they are gone from the house or at night to sleep. Your dog will quickly learn the pattern and may become frustrated if confined while you are home, resulting in barking and whining.

Use your crate multiple times per day for short increments of time. The more the crate is used, the more comfortable your dog will be with it. If your dog is going to get a bone to chew on, let him have it in his crate. If you are going to read a book, put your dog in his crate. If you are cleaning house, put your dog in his crate.

Crating Your Dog At Night

Initially, 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 eliminate during the night, and you’ll want to be able to hear your puppy when he whines to be let outside. Older dogs, too, should initially be kept nearby so that crating doesn’t become associated with social isolation. Once your dog is sleeping comfortably through the night with his crate near you, you can begin to gradually move it to the location you prefer.

What do I do if my puppy is whining?

Most puppies will wine for a few minutes when they are first put into their crate but calm down on their own. If this is true for your puppy, ignoring him when he is trying to gain your attention is the most appropriate action. If your puppy appears stressed, panicked, drooling, digging at the bottom of the crate, chewing on the bars, barking for more than five minutes, you should let him out and contact a professional trainer. If your puppy begins to bark in the middle of the night or after waking up from a nap, you can let him out to eliminate. If you need to put him back in his kennel, offer him a bone and ignore any further barking.

The crate is a training aid, not a magical solution that should replace training proper house manners. When your dog is an adult and has been trained on how to behave in the house (around 18 months for most) you can begin to allow him more freedom outside of the crate when you are not home.