A crate-trained dog makes traveling, potty training, and bedtime much easier and more enjoyable for both you and your dog. A crate will also give your pooch it’s own safe, familiar place to rest and relax.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not an all-around guide to crate training. It will give a few general don’ts and do’s and then provide some basic games to play as you are introducing your dog to his crate. There are several training blogs, books and other resources for additional crate training. If you take your time and stay positive your dog will learn to love their crate in no time!
The goals for the following crate training exercises are:
- Teaching the dog that they receive rewards (in the form of praise and cookies) for being in the crate.
- Teaching the dog to be quiet and calm in the crate.
- Teaching the dog to enter the crate and stay inside until they are given a release word.
It’s important that you pick the right sized crate for your dog. The crate should be large enough so that the dog can stand up and turn around. If you have a puppy, buy a crate that will be the appropriate size when the dog is full grown and use a space divider that can be adjusted as the pup matures. A cardboard box is the perfect space divider since you can simply replace it with smaller sizes as the puppy grows. If the crate is too large the puppy is more likely to go to the bathroom inside it.
Do’s and Don’ts of Crate Training
- Don’t use the crate as a time out or punishment tool. The crate should always be a positive place for a dog.
- Don’t force the dog to go into the crate. The pooch should enter on their own.
- Don’t leave toys in the crate that a dog can potentially chew to pieces and swallow.
- Don’t allow children or adults to tease your dog when it is crated.
- Do keep your training sessions brief and very gradually build up to more time spent in the crate.
- Do toss treats into the crate and encourage your dog to retrieve them and explore the crate on its own.
- Do feed the dog meals in the crate, keeping the door open so the dog can exit after the meal is finished.
- Do place the crate in a social area of the house, such as the living room or kitchen so your dog doesn’t feel isolated when its in the crate.
- Do be sure to let your dog outside to eliminate before crating him.
Game #1 The Magical Crate of Treats and Toys!
This is an easy first exercise. When your dog isn’t in the room place a few “cookies” in their crate, this could be a favorite toy, peanut butter kong, hot dogs, etc. For the sake of clarity we will call all treats “cookies.” Let your dog discover the cookies on their own. The crate isn’t scary, it’s the bearer of delicious fun! Leave the door open the first few times you do this. If your dog seems happy and secure in the crate close the door for a few seconds, while he is happily munching, then open to allow him to exit.
Game #2 The Cookie Toss Game
Once your dog is entering the crate on his own you can move on to more interactive games. Get a large amount of small cookies ready and begin by tossing one into the crate. Let your dog enter on its own, do not coax or force the dog into the crate. Once the dog enters immediately praise them, after they eat their cookie call them back to you and then throw another cookie into the crate so they will re-enter. Repeat this process for 5-10 minutes. Remember to stay positive and pay attention to your dog, if they are getting bored with the game be sure to give them a break, you can always play again later.
Game #3 Closing the Door
After your dog is comfortable retrieving cookies in the crate it’s time to add to Game #2 by closing the door for short periods of time. Start by tossing a cookie in. Fido will enter to retrieve the cookie, now close the door for 2-3 seconds. The goal here is for your dog to stay quiet and calm, we don’t want to close the door for too long or they may bark, whine or scratch at the door. If they do any of these things and we open the door we are reinforcing bad behavior. “If I just whine a bit, they open the crate door…” So keep it brief and slowly add a few more seconds to each training session.
Game #4 Meal Time in the Den
This is an incredibly easy exercise that I have used for all of my foster dogs. Simply feed your dog their meals in the crate. I start with the door open but usually after a few days you’ll notice the dog is so excited about dinner time that they won’t even notice if you close the door. If you do close the door be sure to stand by and open it before they finish their meal so they can exit freely.
Game #5 No Bolting, Please!
We want our dog to exit their crate gracefully and calmly. This is for two main reasons. #1 A dog that bolts out of their crate may run into you or someone else. More importantly #2 For safety. Imagine you’re transporting your crated dog to the vet for their annual check-up. You open the car door then open their crate and the dog excitedly bolts from the crate into a busy parking lot or street. It’s very important that your dog stays put until you tell it otherwise. Once a dog is comfortable being crated, with the door closed, you can teach them to exit calmly. The easiest method I’ve found is simply closing the door when your dog tries to bolt. Toss a cookie into the crate. When your dog enters close the door. Now open the door. If your dog stays put then praise them and give them a cookie. If they begin to move forward close the door. Wait until Fido has settled down again and open the door a few inches. If he moves forward, close it. If he stays put open it a bit wider, and wider, until you can give him a cookie. Then call him out of the crate, or better yet assign a release word such as “ok” “release” “break” or any other word that you use for releasing your dog from other commands such as sit and stay. If you are unfamiliar with release words then give it a Google! Release words make training much easier! Repeat this exercise for 5-10 minutes at a time. It won’t take long for him to realize that bolting out the crate isn’t ok.
Game #6 This is Your Safe, Relaxing Place
Once your dog is comfortable entering the crate, and when you close the door for a few minutes at a time, you can begin rewarding relaxation. Remember, one of our goals is to make the crate the dog’s calm, safe place where they can sleep/relax. Toss a treat into the crate and give your dog their command to lie down. Praise and treat. Do not release the dog from their down. Wait for cues that the dog is relaxed, these include: sighing, rolling onto it’s side, stretching, yawning, licking their lips, resting their head on their paws, and even blinking. Praise them every time they do one of these things, try not to use large treats or excitable praise, just a calm “good” or “yes” or a light pet works great. After they have relaxed, and you have praised them, you may give them their release word.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned using a command, besides a release word, in any of these games. Before we can assign commands the dog needs to feel comfortable with the game/task as well as execute the desired behavior entirely. For instance, if you want your dog to enter the crate, lie down and stay then avoid assigning a cue until the dog is consistently doing all of the above. Also, if we assign “kennel up” or “crate” to entering the crate and the dog hasn’t decided that it loves it’s crate yet then the dog may learn to dread the command and associate it with negative consequences. Once your pooch is exhibiting the full behavior for entering their crate, laying down, staying put and relaxing without exhibiting signs of frustration or anxiety you can begin using a verbal and/or hand cue.
Crates are much like a wolf’s den; a safe, warm, place for your dog to rest. Crate training has several benefits. A small investment of your time and patience will help make traveling, potty-training, and leaving the house much easier and more enjoyable for both you and your dog. Check back soon for more crate-related training posts including: How to Teach your Dog to Sleep in their Kennel Through the Night and Advanced Crate Games.