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If a new puppy has come into your life recently, you may be considering crate training them. And you’d have good reason to do so. Crate training can aid in potty training, help puppies adjust to being alone, and give them a safe place to retreat when they need downtime.
Most experts recommend crate training your puppy as soon as you bring them home (usually around eight weeks). “If you start the crate training process the first night, this has significant benefits,” Christine Young, CPDT-KA, founder of The Puppy Care Company, an online and in-person dog training company tells us. Generally, training will be easier if you start before your puppy is 12 weeks old. But no rule says crate training must begin at this point, she adds. You can decide to crate train your dog when they are an adult, too, but it may be more difficult then.
But teaching a puppy to enjoy a crate can be overwhelming, especially for first-time pet parents. To break down the process into manageable steps, we speak with a positive-reinforcement trainer specializing in puppy training. We also look at solutions for common obstacles and share what to do when you’ve hit a roadblock.
1. Embrace Short Training Sessions
When it comes to crate training your puppy, patience is key. “Your sweet new puppy needs time to bond, build trust, and learn new routines,” says Young.
The challenge is getting your puppy to understand that their crate is a safe space, not a scary enclosed cage. Some pups catch on to this quickly, but others need some convincing. Slowly conditioning your puppy will prevent frustration and help them to feel safe in this new environment. Aim for short sessions (slow is fast!), and take the following steps for the best chance of success.
2. Choose a Crate that Is Easy to Use
Choosing the right crate for your pup can make all the difference during training. The best crates for puppies are durable and easy to clean. Because puppies tend to be more energetic and curious than adult dogs, opt for a sturdy crate that can handle a bit of wear and tear. And since potty accidents are bound to happen, you’ll appreciate a crate that’s simple to wash.
Metal and plastic crates are good options, but avoid fabric or wood, as these materials won’t fare as well against sharp puppy teeth. Metal and plastic are also the easiest materials to clean, and many feature a slide-out tray for simplified washing.
Size is another consideration. To avoid the expense of having to buy multiple crates as your puppy grows, choose one based on how large you expect your pup to become. Most wire crates come with a divider, which helps limit where your puppy can access (and prevent them from going to the bathroom in the extra space). You can then remove or adjust the divider as your puppy gets bigger.
To minimize your puppy’s anxiety, most experts recommend keeping your puppy’s crate in an area where your family hangs out.
3. Associate Fun & Calm with the Crate
You want your puppy to feel comfortable and safe in their crate, so try to make it as inviting as possible. Toss in their favorite chew toy, a cozy dog blanket, or a crate bed to make the crate a place they want to be.
Another part of establishing the crate as a calm, safe space is refraining from using it as punishment. Never force your puppy into the crate or raise your voice and command them to go inside. Using fear and force will only create negative associations and could delay your crate training progress.
4. Treat Your Dog Whenever They’re In the Crate
Once you have your puppy’s crate ready, it’s time for training to begin.
“Encourage your puppy to enter the crate by placing their favorite treats inside,” advises Young, saying to start with the crate door open. “Let this be a fun game where they can choose to go in and out on their own time,” she adds.
Once you can see your puppy feels safe inside, toss the treats one after the other to the back of the crate.
5. Gradually Increase Time in Crate
As your puppy becomes more comfortable, incrementally build up their time in the crate. Young tells us that multiple short training sessions throughout the day are the best way to accomplish this. Start with two minutes, then gradually extend the time for each training session by a couple of minutes.
During this time, reward calm behavior in the crate with treats, chews, or frozen enrichment toys. As your puppy acclimates to crate time, you can also begin to step away from them. “Once your puppy is getting comfortable in the crate, gradually increase your distance from it while still keeping an eye on them,” says Young. She also recommends doing this with the door open. Barrier frustration can be a concern for some dogs. Making sure puppies don’t feel like the crate is a trap is an important association time for them.
6. Close the Crate Door for Short Periods
Once they’ve become more comfortable with you approaching and walking away from the crate, you can move onto closing the door. Give your puppy a meal in their crate and close the door while they’re munching away. To maintain trust, open the door again when they’ve completed their food—or show signs of wanting to leave. Wait for your dog to sit before opening the door so you don’t encourage a rush towards exits.
radually build up how long your dog is inside the crate by leaving the door closed for longer periods (adding a few minutes at a time) after they’ve completed their food.
7. Work on Duration in the Crate
When your puppy has mastered staying calm in the crate for 30 minutes, begin leaving the house for brief periods. You may need to practice opening and closing the door without leaving before actually stepping out. This can look like:
- Putting on your shoes and sitting on the couch
- Taking off your shoes and opening the door but not leaving
- Leaving with the door wide open
- Leaving and immediately returning
With each of these steps, wait a five minutes before leaving your puppy out.
Never leave your puppy alone for longer than three hours at a time. Even three hours may be too long if your puppy is very young and has an underdeveloped bladder. If you do need to keep your puppy in the crate for an extended amount of time, consider having someone stop in for a potty break. A neighbor who works from home or a dog walker are good options to make sure your puppy isn’t holding their bladder for too long.
How Long Does Crate Training Take?
The timeline will vary from dog to dog, but you should start to see your pet become comfortable with the training process after a few days of two to three training sessions per day. The important thing is not to rush your puppy.
“Crate training can take days, weeks, or months depending on age, temperament, and past experiences,” says Young. A well-adjusted puppy may be able to conquer crate training within a week but not be able to be fully alone until a few months.
How successful crate training goes may also depend on what happens while your puppy is in the crate. For example, if your puppy’s first three hour crate session is when there is construction next door, they may be scared to enter the crate. You may find yourself going back to step one to help them regain positive associations with the crate.
“Just like learning a TikTok dance or a new language, training takes practice and patience to become fluent,” Young points out. “Whatever your new puppy is struggling with the most, it’s important for you to slow down and learn how to help them succeed.”
Signs to Slow Down Your Training Process
Behavior issues like whining, barking, or scratching inside the crate can be frustrating, but it’s critical to be patient and gentle during this time.
“It’s important to understand that crate training can be challenging for a young dog who has experienced a rapid change in their environment,” says Young.
To help you out, here are some common crate-training hurdles—and the tools and tricks to overcome them.
Whining and barking may signal it’s time to slow down
Some amount of whining for the first few days is normal and to be expected. However, if your puppy continues to protest after several days, it could indicate that you’ve taken things too quickly, and you may need to start again at an earlier step.
As long as your puppy has had a chance to relieve themselves, isn’t showing signs of distress, and is otherwise comfortable and safe, you can ignore the behavior. It’s not easy! But responding to it will only teach your puppy that whining is a way out of the crate.
One way to help your puppy settle is by distracting them with chews or frozen enrichment toys. “Chewing and licking are important self-reinforcing activities that keep your dog occupied,” explains Young. “When you figure out your pup’s preferences, they will happily settle in contained spaces.”
She recommends stuffing and freezing snacks and meals in safe containers like a West Paw Topple, lick mats, and lick bowls. Experiment with different spreads like canned pumpkin, dog-safe peanut butter, canned dog food, or kibble soaked in bone broth.
“You may also want to consider using products such as crate covers, a heartbeat buddy, and calming aids like pheromone sprays or diffusers,” says Young. “Interactive toys can also help keep your puppy occupied in small spaces.”
Accidents in the crate can often be resolved by reevaluating crate size
Accidents are a part of puppyhood, but you can minimize them by using the right size crate. A crate that’s too large allows for separate pottying and sleeping areas. Eliminate this option by choosing a crate that’s just large enough to let your puppy stand, turn around, and lie down comfortably. Metal dividers are handy for customizing a crate’s size as your puppy grows.
Additionally, make sure to let your puppy potty before putting them in the crate. And don’t punish them if they do have an accident.
Tips for Crate Training at Night
“When crate training a puppy at night, it’s important to keep the crate close to you and establish it as a safe and comfortable sleeping place for your furry friend,” says Young. She gives three tips for encouraging peaceful, sleeping through the night crating:
- Take your puppy out for one last potty break before bedtime, even if it means waking them up.
- Avoid using the crate as a place for punishment, as this can create an association with negative feelings.
- Consider the type of crate designs available along with your individual pup. Your puppy may appreciate the extra coverage and privacy of a plastic enclosure. You can also use sound-dampening, fitted crate covers.
What To Do If Crate Training Just Isn’t Working
While many dogs can be crate trained, it doesn’t always work for every dog. Whether it’s due to a medical issue, severe anxiety, or past trauma, some dogs simply cannot adjust to being in a crate. In these cases, it’s best to consult a professional trainer or vet behaviorist for support.
If crate training still isn’t a good fit, consider these alternatives:
- Set up a puppy-proof space in your home, using an appropriately sized X-pen or dog gate to cordon off a dog-safe room
- Hire a pet sitter to stay at your house or use doggy daycare when you’ll be gone for longer periods.
- Enlist the help of a friend, neighbor, or dog walker to care for your dog while you’re away.