Barbara Fitzgerald is an AKC Breeder of Merit and author of the column "Conversations with Champions" for the BCSA magazine, "Borderlines."
Making a Crate a Home
A dog that is properly introduced to his crate will view it as a safe haven and seek it out when he wants a cozy place to rest. In our practical experience, crate training, when done correctly, provides owners with peace of mind during those times when the owner cannot monitor the activities of their puppy or new dog. While many crate training articles focus on crates as a training tool for housebreaking, this article is focused on how to positively introduce your dog to his crate, so that he will happily return to it whenever you ask him to kennel up.
Proper Crate Training Utilizes Your Dog's Basic Instincts
Dogs are essentially den animals by nature, meaning they instinctively enjoy being in dark close quarters. In the wild, expectant mothers dig dens in order to whelp and raise their new puppies. In fact, I have a border collie girl that regularly digs dens or re-excavates old dens in accordance with her seasons to prepare for her coming or imaginary litters.
These dens are relatively spacious and will protect the puppies from the elements such as summer heat, winter snow, and rain. Their den maintains a relatively constant temperature, as it is typically one foot underground. Here the puppies will stay until they begin to walk and venture out short distances from the den, returning to the den to sleep and nurse. With a proper introduction to his new crate, your dog’s natural instincts will cause him or her to seek out his crate for nap time or safe haven.
Selecting the Proper Crate
There are 3 basic types of crates on the market:
- The soft-sided crate
- The plastic (or metal) hard-sided crate
- The wire mesh crate
Save the soft-sided crate for later, at a time when the dog is properly crate trained and has learned to seek comfort in his crate. Soft crates are easily destroyed, causing unnecessary expense to the owner and teaching the dog that if they try hard enough, they will eventually be able to set themselves free. The soft crate is only appropriate for dogs who are already crate trained and comfortable in their private den area. However, once the sanctity of the crate has been established, they are great for travel and indoor containment, as they offer den-like privacy via their mesh windows and adjustable fabric flaps.
Plastic (or Metal) Hard-Sided Crates
The plastic or sheet metal-sided crates are an excellent option for an adult dog. They offer den-like privacy and are the only crates rated for air travel. On the downside, plastic crates are not easy to disassemble and reassemble, which is not a problem with small dog crates but becomes an issue when moving large dog crates within the home or on a trip from car to hotel room. Additionally, they cannot be safely reconfigured to accommodate growing puppies.
Wire Mesh Crates
This leaves the collapsible wire mesh crate with a movable divider as the preferred training crate for growing dogs as well as for travel with large dogs. You will want to purchase a crate that will accommodate your puppy when fully grown, and that also includes a divider which you can use to limit his sleeping area as well as easily adjust the space as he grows.
When fitting his sleeping area, the sleeping space should allow for comfortable rest so that he can stretch out but should not be so large that it provides him with enough space for him to stake out two areas: one for sleeping and another one for eliminating. A puppy that gets into the habit of soiling his crate will be very difficult to housebreak. The privacy-den effect can be added to the wire crate by draping the crate with a sheet or towel.
For wire crates for crate training, we recommend the PetMate ProValue line of wire folding crates. This line comes with a divider that is easily shifted as your puppy grows, as well as a sturdy crate pan with smoothed, rounded edges. The last crate we bought, a MidWest iCrate, was the first to have its pan crack; replacement crate pans cost as much as the actual crate. The PetMate pans are also antimicrobial, which you will appreciate in your home.
Teaching Your Dog to Kennel Up!
On day one, it’s a good idea to start by teaching your dog to enter his crate on command. You can begin by saying, “kennel up," “go to your crate,” “get in” or any phrase of your choosing, and then tossing a treat into the crate. Your dog will quickly find going into the crate is a rewarding exercise. Initially, leave the crate door open to let him come and go as he pleases. Repeat the training session several times during the first few days with four to five “kennel ups” or “go-ins” per session.
If you plan on using clicker training, you will want to click the clicker when the dog enters the crate to retrieve his reward. Once he begins to enter the crate on command, switch to treating him after he has entered the crate on his own. As his understanding of the command solidifies, you can begin to reward him intermittently—sometimes he receives a treat, other times no treat and on the rare occasion he gets the “jackpot,” four or five small treats.
Feed His Meals in the Crate
Give the command to “kennel up,” and place the food bowl in the crate. Once he has entered the crate, you may shut the crate door. When the dog or puppy has finished their meal say "Good kennel up" and open the door. For young puppies, you will want to take them out for a potty break within 30-45 minutes after the puppy has finished his meal. If you have multiple dogs, crate feeding is a good way to prevent rapid eaters from muscling out the slower eaters from their food bowls.
Train Your Dog for Bedtime
If possible, we recommend bringing the crate to your bedroom for bedtime to keep an eye on him and provide some extra comfort in his new surroundings. As the dog becomes more comfortable in his crate, you may choose to crate him in the evenings in another area of the house. You can include a chew toy in the crate to entertain him until he exhausts; we recommend selecting one without a squeaker.
Be prepared, you may have a night or two of your dog or puppy “crying” himself to sleep. Be careful not to let the dog out of his crate while he is barking or misbehaving. Only let him out when he is behaving himself—unless you suspect he is about to have a potty accident.
You can recognize a puppy or dog that is in need of a potty break when you see him turning in circles and looking at the bottom of the crate. In that instance carry him out for a potty (literally if this is a young puppy), praise him for the potty, give him a short walk as a reward and then return him to the crate for the evening.
Remember to give him a small reward for kenneling up at bedtime as well. In the morning, be careful to get your dog to his potty area immediately after leaving his kennel. With young puppies, carry them outside to avoid unintended accidents on the way to the door.
Avoid Using the Crate as Punishment
While you are introducing your puppy or dog to his new crate, avoid using the crate as a form of punishment. You are trying to engender positive feelings towards the crate, so if at any point during your training sessions you find yourself beginning to get frustrated, stop and switch to a new activity. Dogs will pick up on your emotions and your frustration will likely cause your dog or puppy to mistrust or fear the crate.
Crate Duration Times for Puppies and Young Dogs
While sleeping in the evenings, the dog’s digestive system slows down considerably, allowing him to remain crated for an 8-hour stretch. During the daytime, dogs should be crated a maximum of 4 to 5 hours at a time. It is important that during their crate time they have access to water; a stainless steel pail hooked to the side of the crate or crate door works best.
Young puppies require more frequent potty breaks than adults. Puppy ages and their relative maximum crating times are:
- 8–10 weeks: 30–60 minutes
- 11–14 weeks: 1–3 hours
- 15–16 weeks: 3–4 hours
- 17+ weeks: 4–5 hours
If you are on a working schedule that prevents you from coming home to give your dog regular potty breaks, you will want to create an indoor pen area or hire a professional dog walker. When creating an indoor pen, select a site with an easy to clean floor and provide puppy potty training pads, so that he has an appropriate area to eliminate on. Most puppy training pads come with a scent to encourage elimination on them and not other areas of the pen.
Before leaving for work and penning or crating your puppy or dog, be sure to give him at least 30 to 60 minutes of exercise depending on his size and age. Make sure to release him as soon as you return. Your arrival will trigger excitement and speed up his digestive system.
When you are home and enjoying time with your new puppy or dog, leave the door to the crate open, and you will soon find that he looks forward to relaxing in his own private area. If you are planning on a task that you expect your dog to find unpleasant, such as a bath, close the door to the crate before he realizes your intentions so that he cannot hide in it. You want to avoid turning his safe haven into a battleground by trying to drag him out of his den.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Barbara Fitzgerald (author) from Georgia on August 25, 2020:
Hi Rubalani: That sounds like an exhausting potty training problem. Part of the problem, is your puppy is now in the habit of waking up and playing at that hour. Have you tried playing fetch or doing something with him after dinner to wear him out? Maybe even a 3/4 mile walk after dinner will help drain some of that excess energy.
14 weeks is when many puppies begin teething. You might also want to try putting a chew toy in his crate at bedtime as well. Then if he wakes up and is bored, he has something to entertain him. You can find a list of good chew toys for power chewers, like a Bernese Mountain dog, here: https://themodernbark.petgiftsonline.com/2016/01/5...
rubalani on August 25, 2020:
My 14 week old Bernese Mountain dog puppy is going to bed in her crate at 11;00pm every night and waking up at 4am wild and hyper. Barking, chewing, biting etc... I give her a late night potty break and do not speak to her at 4am and make it a quiet interaction just enough time for her to pee, but as soon as we get back in the house she goes crazy running aroiund and barking. How do I get her to go back in her crate quietly after a 4am potty break ?
Salvador Robert on April 16, 2020:
To be or not to be.
Dogs are essentially den animals by nature, meaning they instinctively enjoy being in dark close quarters. (article)
Dogs are not essentially den animals by nature.(Dr Mark)
dMartens47 on August 19, 2018:
We need this kind of training for the new pup Roger. We mostly travel and he will be going with us most of the time. Thinking of getting a camper or considering tonneau covers we saw at 4WheelOnline for the truck where we can put his crate. I prefer the retractable ones that can be easily adjusted. Sometimes we haul tall stuff so we can't decide for the camper. Roger is bit timid but having good improvements so far. His crate fits at the back seat and soon we will train him at the bed along with my eldest kid for short rides. Of course we will make sure the weather is fine for both of them.
Barbara Fitzgerald (author) from Georgia on October 20, 2015:
Hi Kathy: My dogs love their crates, and they especially love sneaking into each other's crates for a special nap-time.
Kathy McGraw from California on October 20, 2015:
I never used a crate with my little one, but know a few people that do. In fact reading this I was visualizing my friend that does it right, and the one that does it wrong. Loved the article....thanks.
Barbara Fitzgerald (author) from Georgia on February 10, 2013:
Hi DrMark1961 - I leave the doors to the dog crates open all day long, and my dogs go into their crates on their own to nap. When young dogs are attending AKC functions for the first time, they are very anxious to return to their crates as a safe haven. My dogs don't view their crates as prisons. They enter them on their own volition and curl up at the backs of them several times a day.
Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 10, 2013:
Dogs are not essentially den animals by nature. The minute you slam a door closed in a crate you have locked your dog in a prison. If you want to use it for potty training, fine. If you want to use it as an excuse to not train your dog, it indicates laziness and unwillingness to care.