Crate training

This guide should be used for dogs that show little or no fear of the crate. For dogs that have a past negative history associated with the crate or show hesitation walking inside for visible treats, please refer to our sister article, “Crate Training the Fearful Dog.” Like all behavioral conditioning, crate training should be done slowly and patiently, using the dog’s comfort signals as cues to proceed. Depending on your dog’s behavioral history with the crate, temperament, and your training skill level, it may take multiple training sessions over several days to condition completely. While this guide may seem tedious, by taking this conservative approach you will set both yourself and your dog up for long-term success and drastically reduce any potential mishaps that can create negative associations with the crate. With initial training, the dog should never be locked into the crate; in fact, the door should not be moved at all until the dog voluntarily enters the crate without hesitation. The crate should be viewed by the dog as a place to find high-value rewards, comfort, or relaxation-- not a “jail” where it is locked away. It is of paramount importance to never use the crate for punishment; instead, the crate is always associated with a reward. Always give your dog a treat for going into the crate. This means that even if your dog has been completely conditioned to the crate, shows no distressed body language, and crates instantly, a treat should still be used to reinforce the behavior. We recommend putting a comfortable bed inside of the crate unless your dog has a behavioral history of destroying or ingesting these. We also recommend feeding your dog at least part of its daily kibble in the crate to further the positive association with the crate. If you are using a wire crate, some dogs find it more comfortable to have a sheet or blanket draped over their crate, as creates a darker, den-like feel. Although dogs spend a large portion of their day sleeping or resting, it is important to keep a toy, bone, or bully stick inside your dog’s crate for behavioral enrichment to alleviate boredom and further ensure that a positive association is maintained. Finally, the crate should be placed in a comfortable area, out of direct sunlight, and in a quiet, low-traffic area.

Step 1: Repetition to build confidence

  1. With the crate door open, stand beside the crate. Lure your dog into the crate with some tasty high-value treats by dropping some inside. If the dog is well-adjusted and has no negative history with the crate, this step can be very straightforward, with the dog showing no hesitation on entering immediately to eat the visible treats inside. If this is your dog, skip to step 2.

  2. If your dog is a little apprehensive about going into the crate, he can be lured nearby by placing treats just inside the lip of the crate, or even outside the crate. The trainer can also take a step back to give the dog space as he investigates the treats and the crate.

  3. As the dog approaches and eats the treats, mark the small approximations with a verbal “yes” to help communicate to the dog what the desired behavior is. For example, at first, your dog may only stick its head into the crate to get the treats; you should mark and reward the dog just for sticking its head in.

  4. When the dog shows no hesitation at this step, the trainer proceeds by baiting the dog with treats a few inches back, again marking and rewarding after the dog eats the treats. This process is continued until the dog shows no hesitation walking all the way into the crate.

  5. Once his whole body is in the crate, giving him a “jackpot” of treats consisting of 10-15 pieces will strengthen the behavior and also increase the time he is in the crate while he searches for each piece.

  6. During this process, remember to:

    a. Praise your dog during this entire process.

    b. Allow your dog to exit the crate as he desires (don't move the door or crowd his person space).

    c. Never physically force your dog to go into the crate.

    d. If your dog refuses to go into the crate, take a break and try again later.

Step 2: Adding the cue and fading out luring

  1. Once your dog is completely comfortable going into the crate by luring him in by placing visible treats in the back of the crate, it is time to condition the cue to crate and increase your criteria so that the dog enters the crate before the treat is dropped inside.

  2. Start by saying “Crate” while pointing to the crate and dropping one or two small treats in. Once your dog goes into the crate, mark the behavior with a “yes” or a click and drop more treats into the crate.

  3. At this stage, it will help the dog transition to crating without seeing a visible food reward already in the crate by using a relatively small piece of food to lure him in, and three to five small pieces once he is actually in the crate and has just finished eating the bait.

  4. Allow your dog to come back out of the crate. After establishing the crate as a positive experience, you may even need to encourage the dog to come out by kneeling and calling him for a good scratch or another small treat.

  5. Once the dog is out of the crate, repeat the process: Once again, say “crate” before pointing to the crate, tossing a few treats in. Once the dog enters, mark the behavior with a “yes” or click, drop more treats in, and then call the dog back out.

  6. After a few repetitions of the dog crating with no hesitation, give the cue to crate once again, but this time do not place a treat inside the crate. Instead, wait for the dog to enter the crate before marking the behavior and delivering the food reward.

    a. If the dog seems confused or hesitates, give him a moment and cue him once more by pointing to the crate and saying "crate."

    b. If the dog seems confused after the third time, don't worry; simply relax your criteria and throw a treat in again. Once the dog enters, again mark the behavior and toss in several more treats.

    c. If after temporarily relaxing the criteria the dog still is not responding to the cue without seeing food in the crate, simply break down the behavior into smaller parts. Mark small approximations and toss the treat inside the crate for each small progression after each cue:

  • Taking a step towards the crate

  • Putting his head inside the crate/sniffing the crate

  • Placing one paw inside

  • Placing two paws inside

  • Walking inside the crate all the way

Step 3: Closing the door

  1. Now that the dog crates on cue, the next step is conditioning the dog to not only allow you to close the door without showing signs of anxiety but actually look forward to the door being closed because he associates the door closing with high-value reinforcers.

  2. Once again, ask your dog to “crate,” mark the behavior with a “yes” or a click, and drop some treats in. While your dog is enjoying its treats, close the door for only a second. As the door closes, use your chosen bridge (click or “yes”), and immediately open the door and toss a few more treats in.

  3. During these early stages, the crate door should only be closed for a second (do not try to latch it) and immediately opened again. If the dog chooses to walk out, continue with these repetitions until he will stand or lie down in the crate for a few seconds before walking out and is un-phased by the movement of the door.

  4. As the dog begins to wait a few seconds before coming out of the crate, he should be facing the door and looking at you, waiting for more treats. As he watches the door, close the door for a split second, mark the exact moment the door is closed, and open the door again completely before tossing a few treats inside.

  5. By allowing the dog to see the door closed before clicking and treating, he will begin to associate the door closing with the delivery of the food rewards.

  6. Remember if the dog shows any signs of nervousness about closing the door, relax your criteria, go back an approximation, and proceed again only when he is performing the behavior without hesitation.

Step 4: Adding duration to the door being shut

  1. Once the dog allows the door to close while exhibiting calm body language, the next step is to gradually increase the amount of time the door is closed before delivering the reward.

  2. Instead of closing the door for one second before reinforcing, add a second before bridging the dog and immediately opening the door to toss in a treat or two.

  3. Repeat this, adding only a second or two to each repetition. Be attuned to your dog’s body language; if he moves towards the door, whimpers, or seems nervous in any way, open the crate door immediately and allow him to exit.

  4. If your dog seems agitated or anxious, it is a sign that the training has progressed too hastily. If these signs occur, relax your criteria to the amount of time your dog was successfully in the crate with the door closed without becoming anxious or agitated. Use repetitions to continue to build confidence before attempting to increase duration.

Step 5: Latching the door and continuing to add duration

  1. Once your dog is successfully able to stay in its crate with the door being held shut for a minute or two, the next step is to begin latching the door. Cue the dog to crate as before, but this time when the door is closed, latch it. As soon as the door is latched, mark the behavior with a bridge, reinforce the dog, and immediately unlatch the door.

  2. Allow the dog to come out of the crate if he chooses and perform repetitions latching the door, each time adding a second or two of duration before bridging, delivering the reinforcer, and opening the crate.

  3. If the dog is comfortable in the crate and makes no attempt to exit once the door is opened, close the door again, continuing to add duration with each repetition. Remember to open the door again each time after delivering the reward and give the dog a chance to exit if he so chooses.

  4. Increase the amount of time the dog is in the crate with you sitting nearby until he will stay in for 10 to 15 minutes without signs of distress.

    a. At this point, you can add a toy, bone, or bully stick to the crate so that the dog has a constant source of reinforcement.

    b. As you are sitting near the crate, reinforce the dog for a calm, relaxed body posture whenever possible. If the dog is sitting, lying down, and otherwise showing signs of being content, reinforcing those moments will teach the dog that relaxation and patience is rewarded.

    c. If the dog shows signs that he does not want to be in the crate-- even mild signs-- open the door and allow him the opportunity to exit the crate. Remember to empower the dog by teaching him that he is not trapped.

Step 6: Increasing distance

  1. Once the dog is comfortable for 10-15 minutes in the crate with you nearby, the next approximation is increasing distance.

  2. Cue the dog to crate and latch it after the dog enters. After latching the crate, drop in a few treats and take a couple of steps away. Pause for a few seconds, bridge the dog, then walk briskly back to the crate to deliver the food reward and open the door.

  3. Repeat this process, being keenly aware of any signs of distress in your dog. The goal is to teach the dog that walking away from the crate is a good thing: it means high-value treats.

  4. After opening the door, call the dog out of the crate if he does not come out on his own. From a distance of just a few paces away, cue the dog to the crate. After all of the positive history with the crate, the dog should crate without you having to be near the crate. If the dog hesitates, wait a moment and cue him again. If he still doesn’t offer to crate, take a step toward the crate to prompt him. Repeat this until the behavior is fluent.

  5. Continue increasing distance until you are at the threshold of the door to the room where the crate is. If the dog is calm and willingly participates in the training session (he goes back in the crate with little to no hesitation when cued to do so, or he stays in the crate voluntarily even after opening the door) begin adding duration to being latched in the crate before bridging and walking back to deliver the reward and open the door. The behavior should look like the following:

    a. Cue the dog to “crate” from the threshold of the room

    b. As the dog enters the crate, follow up and latch the door.

    c. Walk away to the threshold of the room.

    d. Hold still and increase the amount of time by a second or two.

    e. Bridge, and walk toward the crate.

    f. Drop treats into the crate.

    g. Open the door and allow the dog to exit/ call him out.

    h. Repeat the process, adding a few seconds each time.

    i. Pay attention to the dog’s body language to make sure you are going at his pace and not moving too quickly or too slowly.

    j. Be aware of the dog’s attention span. If the dog begins to slow down or hesitate, he is likely at the end of his attention span or appetite.

    k. Remember that training with three or four short, positive sessions throughout the day is much better than one long session.

Step 7: Leaving the dog crated while you are out of sight

  1. Repeat step 6, but this time walk through the threshold of the room so that you are completely out of sight for just a moment. It is very important to increase the amount of time you are out of sight very slowly to avoid causing undesirable behaviors such as whimpering, whining, barking, or other behaviors related to separation anxiety

  2. If your dog whimpers, scratches at the crate, or you can hear signs of anxiety while you are just around the corner, it is of paramount importance that you do not return to the dog until he is quiet. If you return when the dog is showing anxious behaviors, he will likely associate those behaviors with you returning

    a. Remember if there are signs of distress, it means you’ve gone too far too fast and need to back up to the amount of time your dog was successful before continuing to increase duration again.

    b. Increase the amount of time you are waiting around the corner until the dog is quiet and calm for approximately 5 minutes before returning to open the door.

Step 8: Long-term crating

  1. Conditioning the dog to be left in the crate for long durations (30+ minutes to hours at a time) should be trained while you are at the house but in a different room. It is inadvisable to leave the dog completely unsupervised in the crate where sounds of distress cannot be heard until you are confident that the dog is completely comfortable.

  2. Cue the dog to crate and place a high-value reinforcer that will take a long time for the dog to finish. A raw soup bone with meat and marrow attached, bully stick, Kong with peanut butter, and other such items will keep the dog occupied for a long while.

  3. Gradually build duration 5-10 minutes with each training session until the dog predictably relaxes in the crate for the desired duration.

Tips for Success

  • Never leave your dog in the crate longer than he has been previously conditioned to.

  • Once your dog is completely acclimated to the crate, never leave it crated for more than 4 hours without a potty break, or you run the risk of causing bladder infections.

  • If your dog is routinely defecating in the crate that means you’re leaving it in the crate for too long. • Make sure your dog is getting adequate mental stimulation and physical exercise. A dog that doesn’t have these outlets on a daily basis will be restless in the crate regardless of how well trained he is.

  • Always leave a small bowl of water and a high-value treat such as a bone or bully stick when crating the dog for more than a few minutes. (These items should be given only in the crate. Do not allow your dog free access to these high-value, long-lasting reinforcers unless he is in the crate.)

  • Small WIFI cameras can be cheaply purchased for monitoring your dog on your smartphone or computer. These are extremely useful for watching your dog while you are in another room, or later when he is left unsupervised while you are out of the house.

  • For long periods of crating (2 hours or more), a “Manners Minder” programmable feeder or a simple timed pet feeder can be placed in the crate. These devices allow treats to be dispensed throughout the day.

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