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Whether you’re bringing home your first puppy or fostering a shelter dog, the first few days in their new home are crucial for creating healthy habits, positive associations, and routines for other dog training activities. 

Arguably, the most important step in your new dog’s training is exposing him or her to the dog crate. Knowing how to crate train and why it’s important will help you bond with your pet and give them a safe place to take care of as their own.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article on how to crate train your dog.

Crate Training Takeaways

  • Identifying your goal for crate training
  • What to consider when choosing a dog crate
  • How to crate train in three easy steps
  • Troubleshooting crate training

Learning how to crate train your new pet can help keep you and your dog safe, happy, and healthy for years to come. Are you ready? Let’s dig in.

How to Crate Train Based on What Matters Most

Many dog owners pursue crate training to potty train their pets. But house training isn’t the only benefit (or even the most important!) of using a dog crate. 

Dogs have a natural tendency to look for small spaces when seeking safety. And they also like taking care of their own territories. 

A dog crate allows you to give your furry friend their own den-like sanctuary to enjoy, a safe place to go when there’s no supervision, and a secure means of transport during travel. 

Before bringing your dog home, consider the amount of time he or she might spend in the dog crate and your primary purpose for crate training. 

Maybe you work from home and will solely use the crate training process to house train your dog. Perhaps you plan to travel with your pet and need him or her to feel safe and secure during transport. Maybe you have a house full of people, and the crate will be a quiet and safe place for your pet to rest and calm down.

Whatever your reason for learning how to crate train your pet, it’s essential to recognize your goal with this dog training exercise. Defining your goal will help you create consistency and clarity for your pet during training sessions. 

Choose a Crate

Before bringing your new puppy home, you should already have the dog crate picked out and set up. Preparing the crate for your pet’s first day at home ahead of time helps your household get used to living life around it and gives you a chance to make the crate cozy and enjoyable. 

But with so many dog crates on the market, how do you which one will work for your dog?

First, remember that a crate should be big enough for your puppy to stand up,  turn around and stretch out in, but not so big that he or she doesn’t feel safe. 

Some pet parents think the bigger the dog crate, the happier the dog inside it will be. But if a dog crate is too big, your puppy may use one side as a safe place for sleeping and relaxing and the other as a place to potty. 

In addition to the size of the crate, you also need to determine whether a wire crate or plastic crate will best meet your needs for your dog. 

Wire crates are made of metal and come with a plastic tray that slides into the bottom of it to protect the area around it. A door on one side of the crate will feature one or more sliding latches for safety and confinement. These crates are usually collapsible for easy transport, but they tend to run on the heavier side. Inside a wire crate, your dog can see and hear everything around it, which may or may not affect how safe your dog feels inside. 

Alternatively, plastic dog crates offer a greater sense of den-like safety since there’s more material to obstruct your dog’s view while inside. Plastic crates are typically lighter and travel well. They are easy to rinse out and clean, but they can hang onto odors over time.

No matter what type of crate you choose, remember to line the crate with a comfortable, chew-proof dog bed and blanket. You can also get a divider to reduce the space inside to make your dog feel more at home as he or she grows into the crate. 

Introduce the Crate

Once the dog crate is assembled, introduce your dog to their new space. Ensure the crate door is open and won’t hit or scare your dog if he or she gets close to it.

Your dog’s natural curiosity will prompt them to sniff the crate inside and out. Encourage this exploration and use playful and kind verbal cues to prompt them to enter the crate. 

You want your dog to feel comfortable stepping in and out of the crate, so don’t force them to enter. You can use small treats tossed inside the create to reward the exploration. This will help with positive associations with the crate and reinforce that the crate is not a source of punishment. 

Getting Familiar with the Crate

The next step is where many dog owners get frustrated with how to crate train their dogs. Instead of rushing right to confinement, we recommend starting crate training with a few meals in or near the dog crate.

If your puppy showed interest in the crate when you first introduced it, try placing their food bowl at the back of the crate so they can stand comfortably while eating. If your dog doesn’t go into the crate, try moving the dish closer to the front to reduce their anxiety levels and move the dish back with each feeding. 

Your goal with this process is to close the door while they are eating their meal. The first time you close the door while they’re eating, make sure to open it as soon as they’re done with their meal. With each feeding, you want to extend the amount of time your dog is confined to build up their tolerance. 

Once your dog is comfortably eating his or her meals inside the crate with the door closed, you can practice with longer stretches of confinement. Start with five additional minutes of crate time after they finish eating, and work your way up from there.

Setting Your Dog Up for Crate Training Success

Crate training a puppy doesn’t happen overnight. When your dog is comfortable with food-related crate time, begin exposing him or her to the crate for house training and confinement.

Since your dog associates the crate with positive experiences (like eating and rewards), you can encourage them to enter the crate with a treat or toy. Close the door. Wait a minute or two, and as long as your dog remains quiet and calm, open the door. 

Practice this mild confinement exercise multiple times daily, adding more time to the confinement period as you go. Remaining in the room with the crate will make your dog more likely to tolerate the confinement, so try to stay in sight. Once you’ve hit an hour of confined time, try stepping out of the room for a minute and coming back. 

This helps your dog get comfortable with being in their crate when you’re not at home or for long periods of time. 

Troubleshooting: Do’s and Don’ts of Crate Training

Anyone who knows how to crate train a dog knows there’s no such thing as perfection. Every dog is a beginner and moves at their own pace. But one thing is true no matter your dog's breed, age, or life experiences – don’t use the crate as a form of punishment. 

Your dog should always feel comfortable and safe in their crate. If you use the crate as a punishment, your dog will feel confused and may exhibit anxious behaviors while inside. 

Also, don’t open the crate while your dog is barking or whining. Remember that dogs learn by association.  Opening the crate while your pet is being noisy reinforces the barking or whining and tells the dog that he or she can get out if they make enough noise.

However, do be mindful of how long your dog can stand confinement. You always want to let him or her out in plenty of time to run outside and do their business. For a puppy, a good rule of thumb is to use the crate no more than the number of hours that equal the dog’s age in months plus one. 

For instance, a four-month-old puppy should not be in the crate for more than five hours at a time. You can often go a bit longer at night but keep in mind that puppies need to go the bathroom more often than adult dogs.

Learning how to crate-train a dog is an important part of being a pet parent, but it’s not the only part. Your dog will bring you immense joy and happiness (along with struggles and strife!) throughout his or her time with your family. Now that you know how to crate train your new pet, you’re probably wondering what’s next.

At Ruffly Speaking, we know how important it is to have a community of pet parents to lean on as well as access to experience pet professionals who you can trust to help you give your dog the best life possible. You’re invited to join our exclusive membership community, where we give you access to expert dog training tips and resources, recommend products you can trust, and host a community of like-minded pet parents to encourage you on the ruffest days. Learn more about the work we do here and discover how you can get involved.

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Robin Bennett is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, speaker, and expert on dogs. She founded one of the largest dog training companies in Virginia and for the last 30 years has been using her expertise in "reading dogs" to teach families how to train their pets as well as helping others in the pet care industry keep dogs safe.

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