NB. Whilst this blog refers throughout to crate training puppies, the same methods can be used to crate train an adult dog.
"I don’t want to put my puppy in a cage, it is cruel."
I hear this quite a bit, although crate training (and I prefer the word crate to cage) is becoming increasingly popular as puppy and dog owners are realising the benefits of crate training – and trust me, there are many benefits if done properly.
If introduced correctly, dogs do not see crates as ‘cages’, but more as their bed, a den and a safe and secure place where they can go to escape and get some peace and quiet! It can become their favourite place to sleep and a cosy area for them to go to. By nature, dogs like small, enclosed spaces, especially when they feel unsure or worried about something. If you provide your puppy or dog with its own area to escape to, it will happily seek out this area when it needs some time out.
Crate training is useful to owners as it can prevent chewing, discourage toileting (most dogs do not like going to the toilet near their bed) and it is also a useful and safe way to transport dogs during travelling. It also helps them adjust easier to situations where they may have to be crated such as at the groomers or vets, or in the recovery stages following an operation – getting them used to being in a crate at home will help them feel happier in this environment. In addition, it can also be used as a good training aid to help puppies learn to be left on their own.
It is important when crate training that your puppy feels their crate is a safe and secure place for them. It must be comfortable and a happy place to be. Therefore, crates should never be used as a punishment and you should never force your puppy inside the crate.
Choosing the Right Crate
Crates should be large enough for the puppy to comfortably stand up, turn around and lie down in. They should also be able to stretch out and always be in a natural position when sitting, standing and lying down. However, too big and your puppy will feel overwhelmed in the space and may also be encouraged to toilet at the other end to where their bed is. Depending on how big your puppy will get, you may need to factor in the need to replace the crate if your puppy out grows it.
The material the crate is made of must be safe and allow for sufficient air to flow through it. Crates can be made from plastic, wire, metal or fabric.
Creating a Safe, Secure, Happy Place
You’ll need to choose a suitable place for your puppy’s crate, this should be somewhere where your puppy likes to be. For some puppies this might be in a quiet corner, for others it might be in the living room where they can see what is going on. Don’t put the crate in a busy hallway as this will make it hard for your puppy to settle. Wherever you choose, it is important that your puppy isn’t confused or left wondering where their crate is or how they get to it. Having said that, many puppy owners when they first start crate training, keep the crate close to them and later move it to a more permanent position. For a puppy’s first night home, I recommend putting the crate in your bedroom initially to help them through the stress of being away from their mum and litter mates (read on for more information on a first night home)!
The location of the crate should not be in direct sunlight or in a draught or right next to a hot radiator.
When setting your crate up, consider the following to make it as ‘den-like’ and cosy as possible for your puppy:
Add some comfortable soft bedding for your puppy to lie on
Place some safe and interesting toys or chews inside
Place a blanket over the crate creating a safe, cosy environment
Ensure access to water using a safe and secure water bowl that isn’t possible to tip over.
Time Spent in the Crate
Some puppies love their crates while others need time to adjust. Crate training should be introduced over time and the duration a puppy spends in a crate while being trained should be gradually increased. It is important to remember that your crate should be associated only with something pleasant and training therefore, should always move at your puppy’s pace.
Even when a puppy is happy spending time in their crate, you should never leave a puppy in the crate for longer than they can hold themselves for. Leaving a puppy too long can inadvertently encourage them to toilet where they sleep making the toilet training process a lot harder (when in fact the crate should make it easier).
Keeping a puppy or dog in a crate for too long can also cause problems such as anxiety and it can also affect their muscle development and condition.
The time a dog can spend in a crate will vary depending on the dog’s age, temperament and past experiences, however, my advice is that you should not leave your dog in a crate for more than 4 hours (or for longer than they can hold themselves for). If you do need to leave them longer on the odd occasion, give them a larger area (attach a pen to the crate door for example) so that they have a separate area they are allowed to toilet in.
It is also a good idea to vary the length of time that your dog spends in its crate, especially during the crate training process. This will help prevent your dog from expecting to be let out at a particular time and reduce anxiety issues including whining or scratching at the crate.
Introducing the Crate
As mentioned above, start slowly! If the crate is all set up and looking inviting, your puppy will generally go over and investigate it! When they do, reward them by throwing a food treat into the crate or by the entrance to it. Having some treats already in the crate helps too! Repeat each time your puppy goes near the crate. If your puppy decides to settle inside the crate, allow them to do so and reward with a calm voice and a food treat. Don’t shut the door just yet, let them make their own decision about whether to stay or leave - this reinforces it as a good, safe and friendly place to be!
Once your puppy is happily going into the crate of their own accord, start to close the door for a few seconds at a time and then increase the time the door is closed – as long as your puppy is relaxed. It is a good idea to encourage your puppy in when they are tired (after playing or exercising for example) and then close the door for a few seconds.
Remember, every time your puppy goes in and out of the crate it has to be a positive experience.
Leaving your Puppy in the Crate
A great way to start increasing the length of time your puppy is happy to stay in the crate is to feed them in it. Place their dinner bowl inside the crate and encourage them in to eat it. Do this a few times with the door left open. As your puppy becomes more comfortable eating in the crate, you can introduce closing the door – but do this only when your puppy starts to eat. Then just before your puppy finishes their dinner, open the door. You should then start to progress to leaving the door closed for a few minutes after they finish their dinner. If your puppy whines, wait until they are quiet before opening the door.
Once you have achieved this, your puppy should well and truly know that their crate is a safe place and one that is comfy, fun and where they get their all important food!
Once your puppy is happy in the crate for 10 minutes after finishing their meal, you can start to leave your puppy in the crate for longer periods and work up to you leaving the room. Start by gradually increasing the distance between you and the crate while your puppy is settled. Be aware that this process can take anything from a few hours to a few days, but persevere as it is important not to rush it. If your puppy begins to whine, make sure you only let them out when they are quiet.
When you are confident your puppy is ready for you to leave the room, remember to make sure you maintain your puppy’s positive association with the crate by placing a tasty chew or a Kong stuffed with food in their crate. These will keep your puppy entertained and occupied. After you have shut the crate door, sit quietly next to the crate where they can see you for a few minutes. Then leave the room for a short time, return and let them out. Repeat this several times during the day and each time increase the time you are out of sight until you can reach 30 minutes.
Once your puppy can be left without any signs of distress for 30 minutes, you can start to leave your puppy for short periods of time. If you follow the points below before leaving your puppy, they will be more relaxed about being left in their crate:
Feed your puppy
Exercise your puppy
Ensure they have been to the toilet
Don’t make too much fuss of them
Reward them for getting into their crate
Leave them with something safe to enjoy (such as a Kong)
When you return to your puppy, keep the welcome low key.
Crating your Puppy at Night
The first night can be very stressful for your puppy, but it needn’t be. I recommend that you let your puppy sleep in their crate in your bedroom with you for at least the first week (or for you to sleep next to their sleeping area). This is for 2 reasons:
Remember, it is the first night they are away from their mum and litter mates so their first night can feel very lonely. By staying with them, you can give them some company and comfort during this stressful time and take away any anxiety that they may feel.
You can easily hear and respond to their requests for the toilet. Getting up in the night to let them out to empty their bladder really speeds up the toilet training.
ALWAYS take your puppy outside for a toilet just before going to bed and then make sure they have a safe toy or treat to help them settle. If you make the crate an enjoyable place to be you should be able to make the night time transition quite easy.
With young puppies or older dogs you may need to take them out for toilet breaks during the night.
It is best to do this quietly with as less fuss as possible and certainly no play! Once they have gone to the toilet, place your puppy back in its crate. Try not to interact with the puppy as this will be seen as a reward, keep everything low key so that they settle back down more easily. Do reward your puppy when they have settled and are quiet though, a simple ‘good boy/girl’ along with a stroke will suffice.
If your puppy does toilet in the crate, don’t punish them - they haven’t done it on purpose and they are probably just as unhappy about it as you! Just make sure you wash everything and use a cleaner that will help eliminate the smell so as not to encourage your puppy to do it again.
Should you let them cry it out?
Research suggests that puppies left to ‘cry it out’ have an increased risk of separation issues as they get older. My advice for the first few nights of crate training, would be to have your puppy with you in the bedroom and then to gradually move them out to their permanent sleeping area as they start to settle in to their new home.
Will I reinforce the crying/barking if I go to them?
For a baby puppy, who you have just bought home, crying and barking at night time will signify either that they are distressed or that they need the toilet. Ignoring their cries, is likely to slow down their toilet training and increase their anxiety. Therefore, if you hear your puppy crying, just reassure them by popping your hand in to their crate to see if they settle or take them out to the toilet.
Getting your puppy used to a crate is one of the best things you can train your puppy to do. It might look like a long process, but if done correctly from the start it doesn’t have to be difficult and for some puppies, can be achieved quicker than you might think!