AKC GoodDog! Helpline (GDH) is our telephone and video dog training consultation service. We offer live, personalized assistance with your questions about training your puppy or dog. To celebrate GDH’s 10th anniversary in 2023, we’ve rounded up the most common questions that our dog trainers hear from owners just like you. A common question is, “How do I crate train my dog?”
Your dog’s crate is their personal den, a place to relax, sleep, and feel safe. Crate training has many benefits, like implementing a routine for your dog and helping regulate their potty training schedule. It’s also an important tool to teach your dog how to be alone. But how do you safely and effectively use a crate without making your dog feel like you’re punishing them?
Whether you have a new puppy or an adult dog, with the right approach, you can train them to feel comfortable in their crate. Making sure you choose the right crate size for your dog is also an important part of successful crate training. These 10 tips will help make crate training your dog a positive and successful experience. Soon, your dog will look forward to spending time in a private space that’s entirely theirs.
1. Encourage Your Dog to Explore Their Crate
When you first expose them to a crate, your dog might be anxious and not want to enter. Try to avoid forcing your dog into the crate, since that can create a negative association. If they’re afraid of entering an enclosed space, pushing them to go in will only make them more nervous. This might make them feel negatively about the crate, which is harder to unlearn.
Instead, encourage your dog to enter and explore on their own. A perfect way to do that is to lay a trail of dog food or training treats that leads inside. Hold the crate door open, so it doesn’t accidentally close on your dog. These early associations will greatly impact how your dog sees the crate — first impressions matter!
If your dog is hesitant, encourage them to go a bit farther each time you lay the trail until they finally feel confident about going inside. Patience is key: your dog is trying to understand something new. Make sure to wait to close the door behind them when they are voluntarily going in and out on their own. If you close the door too early on, they may also react negatively and feel trapped in this new space.
2. Create Positive Association with the Crate
Your dog’s crate is an effective tool to help keep them out of trouble, but you don’t want them to feel like they’re being put in a time-out either. Make it a priority to create a positive association every time you use the crate, so your dog only has positive feelings when they’re going in it. This can mean offering a tasty dog treat for entering, keeping a bully stick inside, or giving your dog lots of praise.
These incentives and positivity towards the crate will help your dog see the crate as a place they want to be. Instead of punishment, you want to establish crate time to let them calm down. If they see it as a place where they feel safe and can relax, it’ll be more effective to also prevent unwanted dog behavior.
3. Reward Calm Behavior in the Crate
Once your dog is happily spending time inside their crate, it’s important not to take that for granted. Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarded, and calm, quiet relaxation is exactly what you want. If you reinforce that this is what you want your dog to be doing, they’ll keep doing it, knowing that it makes you happy and they get a reward out of it.
Make your expectations clear by rewarding your dog when they behave calmly in the crate, or willingly go to the crate on their own. These rewards could be anything from soft praise to a few soft, chewy dog treats. Try to reward your dog in a way that keeps them relaxed, since you want to avoid riling them up again after they’ve gone to their calm place.
4. Keep Rewards Near the Crate
To reinforce crate training and proper behavior in the crate, you’ll want to provide a reward in the moment. If praise is associated with going in the crate, they’re more likely to make the connection that this is what you want them to do. If you need five minutes to dig out treats from the bottom of your kitchen cupboard, your dog may have become bored by then, and try other behaviors, like barking or pawing at the crate door, to get your attention.
Rewarding your dog promptly to make that connection means you’ll want to have those rewards close by. Keep a sealed container of dry dog food, a bag of dog treats, or some dog chew toys right near the crate so you can reinforce this good behavior right after it happens.
5. Practice Positive Dog Crate Cues
It’s helpful to teach your dog to enter their crate on cue, especially if you’re traveling with your dog or faced with an emergency evacuation. Even in a situation where you need to get the door, or you need them to be in another room, saying “crate” or “kennel up” can tell your dog when you want them to go inside. If you practice using the verbal command before your dog enters the crate, then reward them once they’re inside, soon they will associate the cue with the action, and you can begin to ask for the behavior.
Try to your crate-related cues with a happy or neutral tone of voice. You want your dog to be excited about entering, not worried that something bad is about to happen or that they’re in trouble. This way, you’ll be able to maintain positive associations with the crate. Even in a stressful situation where you need your dog to go into their crate, try to give the cue neutrally. Your dog will sense your stress in your voice, and if you are consistently telling your dog to go to their crate in this tone, they will also associate stress with their crate.
6. Feed Your Dog Inside the Crate
Another way you can encourage your dog to explore their crate is by feeding them regular meals inside the crate. You can do this easily by putting their dog food dish in the back of the crate. This will form a positive association in your dog’s mind between the crate and eating.
Many dogs look forward to eating, so if their crate also becomes the place where they have their meals, they’ll look forward to being there more. If your dog is reluctant to enter the crate, even to eat, you can start off with the food dish in front of the door. Then, with each meal, slowly move the bowl farther and farther inside. Be patient with your dog — it’s possible that they will need more time to get used to eating in the crate. You may need to keep the bowl in certain spots first before moving it further into the crate.
7. Provide Dog Toys in the Crate
It’s important to give your dog something to do inside their crate, particularly when you are still teaching them to settle down and relax. Enjoying a food-stuffed dog chew toy is a perfect in-crate activity. Your dog can interact with the toy while receiving delicious rewards. This builds even more positive associations, teaches your dog appropriate chewing behavior, and gives them something to do.
For example, your dog might enjoy gnawing on a chew toy filled with a spreadable, dog-safe peanut butter snack. They might also have fun playing with interactive dog toys. You can hide small, crunchy treats in a treat dispenser or puzzle toy or game, then watch your dog have fun while trying to find the snacks.
Be sure you’re choosing the right chew toys for your dog, especially if they will be in their crates unsupervised. They should be large enough that your dog can’t swallow them and suitable for your dog’s chew style. A power chewer, for example, can tear through softer toys in minutes, and pieces of torn-up toys can be a choking hazard. Any time you provide your dog with a new style of toy, supervise them for a while to be sure it’s a safe choice for them.
8. Use More Than One Crate
It can be helpful to provide your dog with different crates for different purposes, rather than expecting one crate in one location to meet all your needs. For example, your dog should have a crate in a quiet part of your home for resting and sleeping, especially if you want them to sleep in a crate overnight. When you’re potty training, consider putting another crate near a door that goes outside. You can also put a crate in the dining room if you don’t want your dog to feel lonely while you eat.
Start with one crate, and once they’re comfortable with it and see their crate as a safe space, they’ll be more open to other crates in different areas. They’ll hopefully learn to see these crates as places of relaxation, so they’ll feel comfortable having their own space in different rooms of the house.
9. Avoid Crating Your Dog With Force or Anger
If you catch your dog destroying your house or jumping all over visitors, it’s tempting to get frustrated and banish them to their crate. While there’s nothing wrong with giving your dog time and space away from trouble, it’s important to do so calmly and gently. Especially if you often use this tone to send your dog to their crate, they will associate it with a place of punishment. Over time, they won’t be calm when they’re in their crate, but rather nervous that they’ve done something wrong and upset you.
After all, you don’t want to ruin all the positive associations you worked so hard to create. If your dog links the crate with your anger, they will stop seeing it as a safe area, and you will have trouble getting them inside next time. It’s the opposite of what you want for your dog when crate training them.
10. Let Your Dog Out Once They’re Calm
Remember that dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarded. If your dog wants out of their crate and you open the door, whatever they were doing at that moment will convince them that behavior was the key to release. If that was barking or whining, they will bark or whine next time, and that’s not what you want. You want them to connect calm behavior as release, so that they continue to model calm behavior in their crate.
You don’t want to undo all the hard work you did to build up calm crate behavior. Instead, before opening the door, ask for a calm behavior, such as having your dog sit or lay down. Slowly delay opening the door for longer and longer periods of time until your dog will patiently wait for you to open it.
AKC GoodDog! Helpline is celebrating ten years of supporting dog owners. If you need support, experts at AKC GoodDog! Helpline are available by phone or video to answer any training questions that come up, from housetraining your puppy to unwanted behaviors in senior dogs. Join the nearly one million dog owners who trust AKC GoodDog! Helpline today.