Whether you’re bringing a puppy home for the first time or adopting an older dog, a crate is one of the handiest tools you can have as a pet parent. And don’t worry: Crating your dog isn’t cruel. In fact, most trainers and veterinarians recommend it. “I’m not aware of a single professional dog trainer who does not crate his or her dogs,” says Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, a dog behavior specialist and founder of USA Dog Behavior. “Every single one, including myself, crates their dogs.”
And while there’s no doubt crate training is convenient for you (it’s one of the easiest ways to house break your pup—and keep them out of trouble!), it’s also good for your dog. “A crate uses a dog’s natural instinct to create a safe space for them to relax,” says Sheaffer. “They like living in dens, and once they feel comfortable, you’ll see a dog walk into and spend time in a crate on their own.”
So what’s the best way to crate train your dog? Here, Sheaffer explains how to make it a pain-free process, no matter the age or life stage of your pup.
1. Choose a comfy crate
“You want a crate that’s big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around without hitting their head on the top of the crate—no bigger,” says Sheaffer. “We’re going for a den feel, and you don’t want a big den.” While most people use wire crates, covered crates with a vented plastic lid are actually best. “If you do have a wire crate, cover the top and sides with a towel or a blanket so it feels more like a den.” And make sure the inside is comfy, too. “A helpful tool is an old blanket or quilt,” says Sheaffer. “Wad the blanket up into a sort of nest, and your dog will love it.”
2. Start slow and take small steps
“I can’t stress enough that the acclimation process needs to be slow,” says Sheaffer. “Don’t think you can bring the dog home and go from zero to ten hours instantly.” Start by teaching your pup to associate the crate with positive feelings. Do this by rewarding your dog for going into the crate for short periods of time and placing their food bowl in the crate when it’s mealtime, says Sheaffer. “Leave the door open initially,” he suggests. “As your dog becomes more comfortable, you can start lengthening the time they spend inside, and eventually, close the door of the crate.” Above all, make sure your dog sees the crate as a positive experience.
3. Limit your pup’s time in the crate
Dogs are meant to be with people, so “besides sleeping, your dog should be in the crate for no more than six hours at a time,” says Sheaffer. Start by crating your pup for short intervals—anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Every dog is different so pay attention to their body language to determine when they need to come out. And be on the lookout for signs of separation anxiety. Vocalizing, defecating and urinating in the crate, corner digging in the crate, and biting the sides of the crate are all stress behaviors. If you think your dog may suffer from separation anxiety, make an appointment with a trainer to address it, recommends Sheaffer. “Separation anxiety is a complex issue with no quick fix,” he explains. “The crate keeps the dog from injuring themself or damaging the property but it isn’t the answer for separation anxiety.”
4. Practice patience
“The number one mistake people make with crate training is moving too fast,” says Sheaffer. “Remember, your dog doesn’t understand English so take it easy. You wouldn’t expect your child to be potty trained in a day.” Generally, it’s easier to crate train a puppy but adult dogs can be acclimated to a crate, too. Just be sure to use the same, slow moving technique you’d use with a puppy. While the amount of time it takes to crate train your dog will depend on the pup, Sheaffer says to give the process about a month. “The responsibility is 50-50,” he notes. “The owner being consistent is half of the equation.”
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