Sunday, October 6, 2013

Puppy Foundations: Crate Training

Comet, 2008

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

I strongly advocate for crate training new puppies from the first days they're home. While I understand that some people feel it’s not fair to lock a dog in a small space—and I'm sympathetic to that viewpoint—my experience is that it's an invaluable asset for housebreaking a young pup and keeping him safe, and it's that it’s an invaluable lifelong skill for a dog to feel comfortable in a crate. It has also been my experience that a properly exercised dog who is conditioned to like the crate and is only crated for an appropriate amount of the day ends up sleeping for 95% of the time he spends in there anyway.

When you bring a pup home, you need to build positive associations with the crate before you even close the door. Set up shop right next to the crate together, and toss small treats into the crate. If he’s nervous about even going in, make a little Hansel and Gretel trail of cookies around the entrance so he gets comfortable there. Then put one far enough in that he needs to put one paw in to get it, then two, then more. The key is to keep it low key and positive. Acclimation sessions should be short and should end on a good note. If your puppy seems stressed, then ask him for something easier and end the session. A constant theme in my dog training advice will continue to be that short, low-key sessions several times a day are typically more effective than long or intense sessions, especially for potentially stressful situations.

Once he has the hang of prancing in and out to get his cookie, practice closing the door, giving a cookie, and opening it right back up again.  If he's never forced, he'll probably be pretty happy to go in there and get a special treat every time. Once he has the hang of it, make the cookies more sporadic, so sometimes he goes in and gets a "good boy" but no cookie. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to give it a cue, like “crate.” Pretty soon, you should have a dog who runs into the crate, turns around, and looks at you expectantly.

Once you’ve graduated to closing the door, spend time together when he's in the crate and you're can hang out right next to him, working quietly on something. Periodically pop in a cookie when he's been quiet and settled for a while. You want lots of associations with fun, family, and food in order to balance out feelings of loneliness or anxiety. During Comet’s first days in the crate, I would send him in there when he seemed tired and then lie on the floor with the door open, blocking him in with my body. I’d read a book or doze off, and he’d figure out how to lie with his head on my arm. It is one my my favorite memories of his puppyhood.

If you do need to crate him before he feels totally safe and good there, don’t coax him in. Just place him in gently, close the door, and walk away with a minimum of fuss. If he cries, you need to ignore it. It’ll be heartbreaking at first, but if you talk to him, reenter the room, or open the crate door, you’ll teach him that the crying works. Only quiet dogs get let back out.

As long as positive associations are built carefully and the dog is not crated excessively, crate training pays off beautifully in a dog’s life. And during puppyhood, crate training can lead to a mostly housebroken pup in as little as a week or two.

A brand new pup cannot hold his bladder for very long, and pups develop at different speeds. At eight weeks, pups may need to pee as often as every half hour, so until he is about three months old, don’t plan to leave your pup for more than an hour or two, or you risk a miserable experience for him that can set back his progress. At night, nature slows down the waterworks, but even so, many pups cannot last more than a couple of hours without a potty break. The first few nights, it’s wise to plan to get up every few hours to let the pup out. Always bring him to his same potty spot outside, put him down, and praise him and give him a treat if he eliminates.

If that works well with no accidents, or if he does not need to pee during some of the breaks outside, give him longer stretches at night. Some pups can do six or eight hours pretty early in their lives. Others will need breaks every few hours for the first few weeks. Comet did not develop bladder control until about fourteen weeks of age, and it was a simple matter of his physical development. If left too long in the crate, he would pee under himself, so we had to be in the habit of letting him out several times a night. At fourteen weeks, the switch flipped, and that little muscle developed enough that he could hold it all night.

Once a dog doesn’t need the crate for safety and housebreaking reasons, there’s no need to continue crating as a general practice, but it’s a wonderful lifelong skill. For example, my adult dogs no longer need the crate at home, but they take turns in a soft crate so we can do multiple classes in a row at the training center. Without that skill, we wouldn’t be able to do as many classes together or go to a dog event where they’re competing and have to take turns in the ring. I also might use the crate to separate them during mealtimes so we can track food more carefully, or when another dog visits and we need to keep them separated when we leave the house.

The crate has the potential for abuse if a dog is crated too often or for too long at a stretch, but crate training is both the fastest way I know to housebreak a dog and and a wonderful asset for those who want to take their dogs more places and engage in the widest possible variety of activities.


  1. Love this post! Too bad I'm stumbling on it now and now two months ago when I first got Lucy:) I should see if you have any old posts on recall stuff.

  2. I'm glad you liked it! I think you could apply a similar protocol to an older puppy. I'd just move more slowly with the conditioning aspect by having frequent sessions and only making them more challenging piece by tiny piece, and I'd try to avoid confining the dog alone in the crate while I was working on the conditioning. I think you can successfully condition older dogs, (particularly ones that aren't all that old); you just want to move a little slower.

    As far as recall, I have an article planned on that. I think think this Sunday's will be foundation training for puppies, but I might do a recall article after that.