Even though crate training is most often associated with puppies, there are plenty of reasons to crate train an older dog. A crate is not only the safest way to transport a dog in the car (and a requirement on a plane), it’s an essential tool in emergency situations. If you need to evacuate your home due to a natural disaster or if your dog is severely injured, their ability to relax safely inside a crate can make a stressful situation a little more manageable.
There is no reason an older dog cannot be crate trained, even if they’ve lived their entire lives without any crate exposure. The key is to move slowly. No dog—puppy, adolescent, adult or senior—will be comfortable in a crate if they are locked inside the space without preparation or training. Confinement can be frightening for a dog and that goes double for pups who have been members of the same family for years. Suddenly deciding to use a crate without gradually desensitizing your dog to the space is likely to make them feel they are being punished.
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The more comfortable a crate is, the more easily an older dog will adjust to it. First be sure that the kennel you’ve chosen is large enough for your dog to comfortably stand up, lay down and turn around. If your dog is housebroken, there’s no harm in getting an extra-large crate for maximum comfort as long as you don’t plan to move it around frequently.
With the exception of sleeping overnight, a dog should never be locked inside of a crate for more than three hours without a break. Placing a comfortable dog bed or soft blankets inside can help your dog to cuddle up and nap during crate time. Dogs have the natural inclination to want to den in a cool, dark place so you may also want to place a blanket over a portion of the crate (or the whole thing) to block out excess light.
It’s fine for a dog to have more than one crate. In fact, setting up two crates, one in the car and one in the house, can make your life easier by eliminating the need to lug a single kennel from one place to another. While your indoor crate should be made of sturdy metal or plastic, a collapsible metal or nylon crate or a lightweight plastic crate with a handle are good portable options for travel.
If you have more than one dog, in most cases each should have their own designated crate. If, however, you have a bonded pair or a nursing mama dog, you may be able to crate them together as long as the space is large enough for both to be comfortable inside.
Begin introducing your older dog to the crate by helping them to form positive associations at their own pace.
- Place the crate in an area where the family frequently spends time such as the kitchen or living room.
- At meal time, put the food inside of the crate and leave the door open as your dog eats.
- Between meals, give your dog chewies or stuffed food puzzle toys, to snack on inside of the crate while the door is open. If they carry the object elsewhere, gently return it to the crate.
When your dog is comfortable eating inside of the crate, move on to desensitizing them to the closed door.
- Close the door when your dog is eating. Open the door when the food is gone.
- Begin gradually increasing how long you leave the door closed after they’ve finished their meal, chewie or puzzle toy. How much you increase each day depends on the dog. Some will only be able to handle an increase of 5-10 seconds a day at first. Others may be comfortable adding one or more minutes at a time.
- Pay attention to your dog’s response. If they begin to whine, bark or show other signs of distress, you are probably asking for too much too quickly. Take a step back and slow down.
If your dog continues to struggle over a period of several weeks, add some additional desensitization training.
- Throw a treat inside the crate and encourage your dog to follow it. Close the door for a second then immediately open it again, allowing your dog to exit the crate. Repeat.
- Throw a treat inside the crate and encourage your dog to follow it. Close the door for five seconds then allow your dog to exit the crate. Repeat.
- Continue to increase your time in small increments of five or ten seconds. As you progress, increase the length of each increment, too. For example, for a dog that can comfortably be inside the crate for 10 minutes, you can likely add at least two minutes to the next training session without too much distress.