How to Crate Train a Puppy

Our crate training method is built around the philosophy of building crate desire and minimizing unpleasant experiences in the crate in the first weeks of training. As the puppy’s desire for the crate increases, the amount of time that a puppy is confined to it is increased. We suggest other methods of control or confinement while working on building this love of a crate.

Crate training can be very simple, but with traditional crate-training methods, the resulting feelings that a puppy will develop toward his crate can vary quite a bit from puppy to puppy. All puppies need to learn to accept restraint and structure which can be difficult for some puppies. Confinement is necessary for house training to be successful. We have, however, found that there are ways to increase “crate desire” while still confining a puppy when he needs to be. If you decide to crate train using traditional methods, the idea is straight-forward. Put the puppy in the crate and lock the door. Most puppies cry. Ignore them. Never let them out while they cry. Often it works, but there are ways to help a puppy to love a crate instead of tolerate it and we feel that the extra time spent in using these methods is worth the results. This page and the links from this page give ways that you can make your puppy fall in love with his crate. Use them exclusively or add a few of these ideas to the traditional crate training method.

Though we recommend making as many of your puppy’s early experiences with a crate positive, it doesn’t have to be ALL positive. However, the more time a crate can be used in a positive way, the better chance of having a puppy who will grow up to love his crate. A good analogy is putting pennies in a bank. Every penny in the bank or positive experience in a crate (food, bones, security) builds crate love. Every negative crate experience (being shut in when wanting to play, feeling alone because they’re not sure if you will return, being left in the crate too long) is a penny out of the bank and produces negative feelings about the crate. The more money in your bank, the greater the love of the crate the dog will have. If you bankrupt your “crate bank”, your dog may hate the crate so much that he’ll cower or whine or run from you as soon as you open the crate door. Perfection isn’t necessary, but balancing the negative that will inevitably come by making the effort to provide the positive will make crate training go much smoother. Of course, if you don’t care to use a crate with your dog once he’s totally house trained, the work to create a desire for a crate is not needed. You may not care that your puppy likes the crate as long as it serves its purpose. However, crates can be tremendously useful beyond house training and have a variety of uses, even for an adult.

Following is a list of ways to help your puppy to love his crate:

  1. Feed all meals in a crate. On the first day, put the food bowl in the back of the crate and let your puppy go in after it. Close the door but watch for when he’s finished and let him out immediately. On the second day, after feeding at least 3 meals with the bowl in the back, lure him in and put the bowl next to the door. By the third day, he should be ready for Meal Time Training.
  2. Leave your puppy in his crate for an increasingly long period of time with a bone or favorite toy after a meal. Start off letting him out immediately after the meal for several days to a week. Then gradually increase the time (by 5 minutes per day). Don’t go over 30 minutes after a meal or he’ll need to potty.
  3. Have your puppy take as many naps in his crate as you have the time to follow our method of Nap Time Crate Training. At first our method of getting a puppy to nap is time consuming but it pays off within a few weeks. If you can’t do it right, just let him sleep in a pen.
  4. Don’t put your puppy in the crate at any other time besides meal times and nap times for at least the first week or two and build up the time gradually for other times in a crate until you know your puppy has accepted and likes his crate.  For naps, don’t put him in the crate until he is lying down and is almost asleep for these early weeks. Later you will teach him to adapt his nap schedule to your schedule.
  5. Make sure your puppy gets enough age appropriate exercise so that he wants to rest in his crate.  A puppy that is not given ample opportunities to exercise will certainly resist a crate.
  6. Don’t put your puppy in the crate if it’s been too long since he’s peed. It is good to put a puppy in the crate when the timing is such that when he wakes up, he needs to go potty, but you don’t want to put a puppy in a crate that needs to go potty now.
  7. Always keep a favorite bone and a couple of other toys in the crate.  For at least the first few days, put something from your breeder’s home so that he can smell the comforting smells of what used to be his home.
  8. Give your puppy a few treats or pieces of dog food every time he goes in the crate or give him a toy with food in it in his crate such as a stuffed kong.
  9. In the beginning, keep the crate in a room where your puppy can see you.
  10. Regularly put food in your puppy’s crate and close him OUT of the crate. Let him pine for the food for a few minutes before opening the crate to let him have it.
  11. Regularly open your puppy’s crate, stand beside the crate, and reward your puppy with treats when he goes into his crate. For this, don’t encourage or lure or place him in the crate. You want your puppy to go in on his own so that he gets rewarded for making the decision to go in there himself. Simply open the door and wait. Make sure the crate is in a small pen so that he doesn’t wander off. If he gets distracted, call him back and maybe tap inside the crate the first few times. The eventual goal is a puppy that will go in his crate without being commanded, coaxed, or asked. The first few times you do this exercise, reward him for just one foot in the crate and gradually increase the criteria before he gets his reward until he is going completely into the crate and then looking to you for the treat. When rewarding your puppy, always stick your hand with the treat in it way to the back of the crate so that he understands that he needs to be all the way in the crate and that the reward comes inside the crate, not at the edge of it.
  12. Use a lot of healthy treats (or I use just plain dog food) to reward your puppy when he is being good in the crate. Drop a treat or 3 or 4 pieces of food in every few minutes just for being quiet. Make sure that you randomly reward him so that he is always expecting that a treat could come anytime. Don’t be too predictable with your rewards. At first reward every minute or 2. Gradually increase the amount of time between some rewards. For example reward one time after a minute. The next time after 5 minutes, then after 30 seconds, etc. Make sure you adjust the amount of food you feed at mealtimes to compensate for the amount you are treating him.

We recommend starting off an 8 week old puppy’s life in your home by coordinating your daytime schedule with your puppy’s nap schedule.  You can adjust your puppy’s schedule to yours to a degree but young puppies sleep often and for fairly short periods (usually for about an hour or sometimes for up to two hours many times a day).

Do your best to make crate time a positive experience and to keep your puppy from crying, whining, or barking.  But if your puppy does do any of these things, you never reward him by taking him out of the crate with one exception.  Take him out if you suspect that he needs to pee.  Try your best to never have a puppy in the crate that needs to pee in the daytime.  At night time, it can’t be helped if your puppy cannot hold it all night and you choose to have him sleep in a crate before his bladder is sufficiently developed for all night. See our page on Over-night Crate Training for more information about handling a young puppy at night.

If you carefully follow the crate training guidelines laid forth here, you shouldn’t have a puppy peeing in the crate but if it should happen, you need to thoroughly clean the crate and all bedding including spraying the crate with a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water.  You might need to size the crate down.  And you need to back up considerably on your training to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  This means watching your puppy more carefully.  It means not pushing bladder control as much as encouraging consistency in keeping the crate dry.

Do not overuse the crate.  Your puppy should only be crated for the amount of time that he needs to sleep.  Your puppy should be learning to adapt his sleep schedule to suit the family’s schedule. If you want your puppy to continue liking his crate, you can’t expect him to spend more than four or five daytime hours in there and you can’t expect a puppy to hold his potty for more than the amount of time listed in our table of potty expectations.  If you need a “babysitter” for your puppy for more time than he needs to sleep, I suggest an exercise pen.

As the time that your puppy can be trusted in the house increases, you may find yourself needing the crate less and less.  Sometime around the time a puppy is 5 or 6 months old, they may not actually need the crate during the day.  By 6-8 months, most puppies are safe out of the crate at night as well.  Others don’t attain sufficient bladder control to be trusted loose in the house for a full night until close to a year.  If you’d like your dog to sleep free in the home, that is fine but I suggest that you continue feeding and occasionally putting your dog in a crate so that you can use the crate when needed.  It comes in handy when traveling, when you have company that doesn’t care for dogs, when vacuuming or mopping the floor, or when you just need a doggy break.