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Crate Training

Dog crates are a very valuable training tool for pups as well as more mature dogs.  They make house training much faster because it is easier to predict when the pup wants to go to the toilet and they help teach a pup what it can chew because it doesn’t get access to what it can’t.  Confining the puppy for short periods when it is young actually gives it a lot more freedom later since it would have learnt the skills to fit into family life far more quickly.

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For humans, a crate might seem a bit harsh but dogs are quite different.  Dogs are den dwelling animals that like confined spaces and feel safe when they are in them.  That is not to say that crates are for long periods of time such as when the family has gone to work for the whole day as there are far better options such as a puppy play pen or a secure backyard.  Training crates are intended for short periods of time when the dog is supervised and can be brought out after an hour or two to relieve itself, go for a walk and spend time playing with the family or mixing with other pets.

Made from plastic or heavy gauge wire, training crates have a solid base and should be just big enough to allow the dog to stand normally as well as turn around and lay down comfortably.

Deciding on whether to choose plastic or wire is a personal preference.  The plastic crates are the type used for transporting pets on planes and some trainers believe that dogs like these because they are dark inside but the wire crates can be purchased with a canvas cover that makes them cosy as well.  The wire crates have a tray that pulls out for easy cleaning and suit dogs that like to see what’s going on around them or who may spend a little more time in them whilst being transported.

Soft crates are also available, made from washable canvas with a metal frame; these can be folded making them quite portable.  They are possibly not the best choice for puppies that aren’t yet house trained.

When choosing a crate for a pup that isn’t housetrained, be a little cautious about buying one at a size to suit what it will be as an adult.  The problem is that in a large crate the puppy will tend to go to the toilet at one end and sleep at the other whereas, in one that is just the right size for sleeping, the puppy is more inclined to hold on and perhaps even cry to let you know it has to go to the toilet.   Some wire crates come with a divider which will allow the space available to be reduced for a puppy but increased as it grows.

Training a dog to be happy spending time in a crate is useful at all stages of their life.  As a puppy, it makes housetraining much easier because it becomes possible to predict when it will need to go to the toilet.  Also, keeping the puppy confined for a short period encourages it to want to chew its toys that are in the crate instead of the furniture around the home.  Then, as the dog matures, it will be comfortable being transported in a crate whether in a car or plane and especially to the vets.  And, if for health reasons such as an injury the dog is required to be kept quiet, keeping it in a crate is an excellent option.

Crate training whilst still a puppy is by far the easiest option but it is still quite simple to train an adult dog following the same steps.

For older dogs, start with the crate in the main living area where it can become used to it and for puppies, put it in the puppy play pen or laundry in place of the bed.  To find out more about using puppy play pens, check out our ‘Puppy Playpens and Crates’ fact sheet.  

Leave the door of the crate open all of the time so that the puppy can go in and out and place a few treats right at the back to entice it to get all four paws in the door.  If the puppy is a bit reluctant, play with it right next to the crate giving it a few treats then throw a treat part way into the crate and wait for the puppy to go and get it.  The puppy doesn’t need to go all the way in to start as just its front paw is enough for it to gain confidence.  Over time, increase the distance into the crate that the treat is thrown and allow it to get used to going all the way in.

If the puppy goes into the crate but won’t stay there, use hollow chew toys stuffed with treats to encourage it lay down in there happily trying to extricate the treats from the toy.  Once the puppy is sitting down and chewing, close the door for just a minute but open it before it has finished the treat.  Follow this same routine over several days until the puppy is comfortable to stay in the crate even with the door closed.

Never try pushing the dog in as this may result in it being reluctant to enter the crate next time and don’t use the crate as a form of punishment.  It is far better for the crate to be a positive experience reinforced with a reward such as treats; the idea being that the value on the inside of the crate is far greater than on the outside.  Eventually the puppy will happily sleep in the crate just as it would a bed, even when the door is closed.

Click here for a video link that illustrates the above simply and easily 

The benefit of the crate in toilet training is that the puppy will be successful in becoming house trained because it won’t want to soil its own bed and will quickly learn to let you know that it needs to go to the toilet.  A puppy is in learning mode from the minute it comes into the household and will easily follow a toilet routine so long as it is consistent and the same every single time.

When the puppy is not being played with, cuddled or being trained, put it back in its crate with a chew toy and the door closed.  Then, every hour on the hour, the puppy needs to be given the chance to go to the toilet so that it never gets to the stage that it has to eliminate in the crate.  A puppy’s bladder will fill quite quickly so being conscious of time is important; set a timer for 60 minutes to make sure that the puppy is successful.

Every hour, go to the crate, put the puppy on the leash and walk it straight to the toilet area and say “Go pee” or “Go toilet” and stand and wait for the puppy to go.  Very young puppies will probably have to be carried but getting to the stage where a lead is used helps with control.

When the puppy goes to the toilet, give it lots of praise and food rewards and increase the length of time between toilet breaks as the puppy grows.  At night time, don’t let the puppy have a drink for around an hour before bed time and just before it is to go to bed take it to the toilet following the normal toilet routine.  You may find that the puppy will get through most of the night without having to go to the toilet.  However, if it does wake up and cry to go to the toilet, take it straight out following the normal routine and put it straight back to bed.  Don’t be tempted to play with the puppy as this will teach it to cry even if it just wants some attention from mum or dad.  It is far better to lavish it with praise and love in the morning when it is the correct time to wake up.

The puppy should be taught to enter and leave the crate on command.  In the home this may not seem like a big issue but in fact, it is an important skill when the dog is out in public.  Many dogs are transported in vehicles and become very excited when they get to their destination.  Often, as soon as the door is opened, dogs bolt from the car possibly into traffic or on an uncontrolled jaunt and some can be impossible to get back into the car at the end of the visit.  Even if the dog is not in a crate, having commands to enter and exit the car are very valuable tools.

Teaching these commands relies on the puppy learning to sit so that it is controlled when the crate door is opened.  This can be done outside the crate as well as reinforced whilst the puppy is in the crate with the door open.  To teach the ‘sit’ command, have the puppy facing you and if it is already sitting encourage it to stand.  Hold a small piece of a high value treat such as a cookie or sausage between your fingers and gradually move it over the puppy’s head so that it raises its nose to follow.  Don’t do it so high that the dog jumps at it.  As its nose goes up, its bottom will go down and at that very moment say ‘sit’ and let the pup have the treat.  Repeat this routine often at different times throughout the day.

So, to teach the puppy to enter and exit the crate, follow these steps:

  1. Have the puppy sitting outside the crate then put some high value treats inside the crate, right at the back.  Say ‘In’ and use a hand motion towards the crate.  When the puppy is at the back of the crate wait for it to eat the treat and as it turns around to face you, reward it again to stop it in its tracks.  Give the command ‘sit’ and reward again if it does.  If it doesn’t sit, follow the training method above to teach ‘sit’.  Close the crate door.
  2. To exit the crate, wait a few seconds after closing the crate door in Step 1.  If the pup is still seated at the back of the crate, lean right in and give it a treat as a reward whilst attaching its lead and then rewarding again.  If it isn’t seated, follow the ‘sit’ training routine again before attaching the lead. The aim is to keep the puppy seated at the back of the crate when its lead is being put on.  Then, give a command such as ‘come’ or ‘ok’ and give a hand signal to encourage the dog out of the crate, rewarding it as soon as it is successful.
  3. Repeat these routines over and over again with the crate in different parts of the house, each time extending the length of time that the door is closed between exiting and entering.  Gradually build up to following the same routines with the crate in the car, first at home and then at the park.  Ideally, the dog will associate the noise of the door latch opening with its need to sit at the back of the crate and wait for its lead to be attached.

What if the dog won’t come out of the crate?  This is an interesting situation since the training so far has been all about trying to get the dog to go in.  However, in the process the dog has learnt that there is a great deal of value in the crate (that is, chew toys and rewards) and is hoping that if it stays in there it will get some more.

Assuming that the command to come out is ‘come’ and that the dog actually knows this command well, never repeat the command after saying it once.  Commands should never be repeated if a dog already knows it.  However, there should be a consequence for the dog not coming out though that should not be punishment as this will undo the positive training already associated with the crate.  In this case, the best thing to do is to close the crate door.  This will demonstrate to the dog that it made the wrong choice and that it will not be rewarded.  Walk away or even turn your back for just a minute then return and follow the routine again.

Crate games are lots of fun for a puppy and an adult dog and they help to reinforce the skills that it has learnt through training and teach it that good things happen when it is in the crate.  They also teach the dog impulse control which is such an important skill for dogs that get to the park or the beach and even those that are around kids a lot.  Impulse control is also a vital skill for dogs that take part in sports such as agility, doggy dancing or obedience.

Try some of the fun crate games in our ‘Great Crate Games’ fact sheet.

Remove the dog’s collar before putting it in the crate to make sure that there is no chance of it getting caught on the wire or clips, especially if it is going to be left unsupervised.

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