Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and Confinement for Puppies and Dogs
Is crate training only for puppies and dogs?
Crate training is most commonly used with dogs, but it can be useful for any pet.
Why do I need to crate train my dog?
Contentment during confinement is an important life skill for puppies and dogs.
Examples of situations when being content in a crate is useful for pets:
- A safe place when home alone or unsupervised which prevents housetraining mistakes, property damage, and eating dangerous items. It also keeps pets separate from visiting workers, guests, etc. if needed.
- A safe place to sleep undisturbed.
- Excellent for speeding along house training.
- Travel by car or airplane.
- Medical care and visits to the veterinarian.
- Grooming visits.
- Boarding or vacation camp.
- A way to rest and relax for a nap or break time.
- Emergencies such as evacuations or temporary sheltering.
A crate for a pet is like a crib, travel sleeper, or a playpen for a small child. It is a safe area, often associated with resting and sleeping. Crating and confinement training are not cruel and when done properly most pets derive comfort and security from their crate. Often the crate and bed can be brought along during travel, allowing the pet to have a "home away from home."
When should I start crate training?
Crate training can start at any age. Starting early usually makes training easier. The vast majority of pets can and should be trained, but a small number may experience true distress when confined. If you try the training suggestions here and your dog shows distress such as prolonged vocalization, eliminating inside the crate, trying to escape, salivation, rapid continuous movement, or you are concerned, consult your veterinarian before continuing with your training plan.
Your dog needs daily social interaction and physical and mental exercise to remain healthy. Crating or planned confinement to an exercise pen, a pet-proofed room with a baby gate, or similar small area is an excellent management tool for times when your dog cannot be supervised or needs a quiet rest period. Make sure your dog is receiving plenty of healthy exercise and interaction. Extended periods of confinement are not healthy for animals. Confinement is not intended to be continuous or represent the majority of any pet’s time budget.
How do I choose a crate for my dog?
Different crates have pros and cons.
- easy to move, fold flat for storage
- easy to see the pet inside
- least secure: pets may damage the crate if escape is attempted
- medium weight
- easy to clean, contains messes
- provides a quiet area with less visual stimulation
Metal Box Style Crates:
- sturdy and durable for any kind of travel
- heavy and require additional storage area
- highest cost to purchase
- 'exercise pens' are folding expandable pens, often with a ceiling
- dog proofed room, with a door or baby gate and water, toys, and elimination area for puppies
The crate should be large enough for the dog to comfortably lay on his side stretched out. For puppies, you will need a smaller crate and then increase the size as the puppy grows. Some crates come with a divider designed to make the crate smaller when the dog is young, then increase the size gradually as the puppy grows larger. The crate should be the size of a bed, not a bedroom.
If you choose a pen or a room with a baby gate, expect your puppy to need an area for elimination such as a litterbox or potty pads.
For travel, smaller crates are better because if the crate is jostled, such as a rapid braking maneuver in a vehicle, there is less risk of the animal being thrown inside the crate and injured. Larger crates are often chosen for confinement in the home.
How do I train my dog to use its crate?
Positive reinforcement training is the best way to help pets learn about confinement. Before a training session, make sure your dog has had:
- enough exercise
- an opportunity to eliminate
Place the crate in a quiet area of the home near people. In some cases, families choose to have one crate or pen in the main living area of the home and a second in the bedroom for sleeping at night.
Make the crate a place for quiet enjoyment. Think of ways to encourage happy, still behavior. Ideas for how to do this include:
- feed your dog’s meals inside the crate.
- when offering edible chews, food-stuffed toys, etc. offer them in the crate.
- provide safe chew toys in the crate.
At first, leave the crate door open when providing these happy quiet experiences. Gradually, begin closing the door and walking away. For example, open the door, place the food toy inside. When the puppy or dog goes into the crate, close the door and walk away while the dog is chewing or playing with the food toy. Often when they are done playing they will rest.
For older animals if the crate is new, you may need to begin by doing these exercises beside the crate rather than inside it. Then gradually over a period of a few days or a few weeks, move closer and closer to the crate for quiet fun time and sleep time.
It is normal for some dogs to vocalize briefly, try to open the crate door, or act fidgety when confined, especially when confinement is new. Observe from a distance. If the behavior lasts a short time and does not include distress signs (prolonged vocalization, eliminating inside the crate, trying to escape, salivation, rapid continuous movement ), try waiting a short time and see if the pet will settle. Letting a dog out when they are whining or scratching will teach the animal that you will open the door when they whine or scratch. This can create problems because the pet learns to ask for attention rather than learning to settle on its own. However, if signs of significant distress are present, you will need a new plan. If you are not not sure, make a short video of the behavior and share it with your veterinarian to help you determine if you should wait it out, or if your pet is experiencing true distress and training should be discontinued.
If your puppy or dog has been quietly resting and wakens and is fidgeting or vocalizing, assume they need to eliminate. Take your puppy outside for a quiet, calm elimination break on-leash. Avoid letting the puppy run through the yard or play. Once they have eliminated, praise them and place them back in the crate with a small treat. In a few minutes, they should settle down and sleep again. Calm, quiet, brief elimination breaks will teach your puppy how to communicate when it needs to go out but that waking the family during the night will not lead to playtime.
Young puppies will often need a break during the night to go out until they are old enough to hold their bladder and bowels through the night.
Can I train my dog to get into the crate on cue?
Once your dog is willingly going into the crate, it is time to introduce a cue to ask them to go into the area. Set up a few training sessions each day and repeat the procedure anytime you will be placing your pet in the crate.
- Pick up a few pieces of kibble or small training treats.
- Say the cue, such as "Kennel" or "House," walk to the crate and wait by the door.
- Toss a treat inside for your pet to follow so they will walk into the crate.
- Once the dog goes inside, use a word such as "Yes!" or "Good!" and drop 2-3 more treats into the crate while you close the door.
- If you have already taught “sit” or “down,” ask for a sit or down. Reward with a treat, then open the door while your dog is sitting quietly and tell them “okay” so they can come out. If they try to rush out before you say "okay," calmly close the door, wait a few seconds, and try again. Only open the door when your dog is sitting still. This teaches a safe, controlled exit from the crate. Waiting until released is especially important for travel situations to prevent escapes into unfamiliar areas, roadsides, etc.
- Once your dog is quickly running into the crate when you say the cue, begin fading step 3 and skip to step 4 to reward the crate behavior.
Practice from greater and greater distances until your dog will happily run to their crate from anywhere in the home.
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