I’ve talked about crate training before, but I think it’s time to do it again, step-by-step. I’m gearing this toward puppies, but it applies to dogs. The only real differences are that dogs will either learn a lot faster, or they’ll have some previous crate trauma to get through and therefore move a lot slower. Whichever way it goes, just work at their schedule. (“Their schedule” = getting closer/farther into the crate as they become comfortable with where they are, or staying in the crate longer as they become comfortable being in there.)
When I start crate training, I don’t just shove a puppy or dog in a crate and walk away. We start carefully. I set the crate somewhere they can see it as they’re out and about. Then I toss treats toward the crate. If the pup is nervous about getting within five feet, then I toss the treat so it’s six feet away. When the pup is comfortable doing that, I toss treats five feet away. We gradually move closer.
Note that at this point, when I say “I toss treats,” I usually mean that I’m sitting on my couch, working on my computer, and every few minutes I toss a treat that way. This may last for HOURS. I might as well get comfortable.
Now, this alone will go a long way toward getting a dog used to a crate. As they start going in to get a treat, I add the words, “In your crate,” every time I toss a treat in there, regardless of whether or not my dog goes in. I also add dinner and breakfast to the mix. By the time we’re ready for a meal, the pup is probably willing to take a treat from just inside the crate. I set their food bowl just inside the crate (just outside the crate if they’re not comfortable enough yet to eat inside it), and let them at. I don’t expect them to go inside the crate to eat. Most likely, their bodies will stick out while their heads are in. That’s fine! I’m building up confidence and fearlessness.
As they become more comfortable, I’ll move the bowl farther into the crate. (I may do this all during one meal, by giving them only part of their meal at a time.) Once they’re willing to step inside the crate, I close the door while they eat, and open it as soon as they’re done.
Now, what’s happened so far is that they’ve made positive associations with their crate via treats and food. They’re comfortable around it. They know good things happen there. If they spook easily inside their crate, continue doing this until they aren’t spooky. This is the base from which we want to progress. With dogs who have no trauma and with puppies, this usually takes me 6-12 hours. I typically get a dog in the morning, and by that evening they’re sleeping in their crate.
But wait! There’s another step.
Now they’re going into their crate to get their treats and dinner, no problem. Many dogs will want you to step away from the crate before they go in: that’s fine. Now I close the door when they eat. No problem. Next I leave it closed for several minutes.
If my dog is quiet and calm, then after five to ten minutes I’ll open the door and let them out. Most likely, though, after just a few minutes they’ll whine or scratch. At this point, I tap the crate. If the dog doesn’t stop, I tap harder, creating a little earthquake. Because the dog knows the crate is safe, they relate this new thing to whining, instead of relating it to being in the crate. I might make my bad dog noise, but more likely I’m just going to be quiet. When the dog stays quiet for several seconds, I open the door, block them from coming out, give them a treat, and then let them out. Now they’ve learned that whining creates earthquakes, but being quiet gets them treats and lets them out. (I block the crate to give them their treat so they don’t feel they’re getting a treat for ‘escaping’, but for hanging out in their crate.)
Step three! I’m going to add toys and good chew things (like kongs filled with peanut butter), and I’m going to keep on with the treats. Now when my dog goes in, I’m going to leave the crate closed for 20 minutes. Every time we start barking or whining, we get an earthquake OR I’ll use a squirt bottle. When they’ve been quiet for several seconds, we get another treat. Most dogs and puppies settle down within this first long session. They know the crate is a good place to be, and they’d rather not get squirted. I stay calm and quiet. When they’re quiet, they get treats. After 20 minutes, I open the crate, give them a treat, and let them out.
I will then immediately toss a treat back into the crate. If they run in to get it, I praise them and give them another one inside the crate. If they don’t, I just walk away. No big deal. What am I doing here? I’m teaching them that they won’t always get shut in, and that everything is fine.
I also take away any really fun chew thing (kong with peanut butter, bully sticks, the favorite toy). It is for crate-time ONLY. That way, if your dog really wants it, they’ll happily go in their crate so they can have it.
Using this method, dogs without trauma and puppies are fully crate trained typically within 12 to 24 hours. Puppies might have a lirtle bit of residual whining, but it’s VERY minimal. When I say “My dog is crate trained,” I mean, “they go in the crate willingly when I ask (even if I might need to straighten up and step away while they go in to get their treat), they stay quiet until I let them out, they aren’t panicky, stressed, or unhappy.”
It takes most people significantly longer to get their dogs crate trained. Most people aren’t professional dog trainers, so assume it’ll take you longer! But if it’s taking days, there’s probably something funny going on. (Most often, the dogs are perfectly comfortable at that stage, and the owners are lingering to make sure. If this is you, give your dog a little nudge along and see what happens!)