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How to crate train a puppy with tips from a veterinary behaviourist

Written by Dr Sophie White
27th Apr 2023
8 mins read
Summary
Crate training isn't essential, but it can be incredibly useful for you and your pup. It can give you the ability to leave your puppy alone where they can be kept out of trouble. It can also prepare them for periods of confinement whether it's a care ride, kennels or the vets, or crate rest after surgery.
Veterinary behaviourist Dr Sophie White explains how to crate train a puppy, and answers some frequently asked questions about the topic.
There are so many things to teach a new puppy, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start, or pick out what skills are actually essential. Crate training isn't vital for your pup's development, but it has a lot of benefits for you and your pup. To help you decide whether crate training is right for you and your pup, veterinary behaviourist and founder of Veterinary Behaviour Support, Dr Sophie White, has given her top tips for crate training, and answered a ton of frequently asked questions about it.

What is crate training? Is it right for me and my pup?

Crate training is the process of teaching your puppy to be happy and relaxed whilst being closed into a crate or pen. 
Crate training is by no means essential, so don’t feel pressured. However, it can be a helpful skill. If your puppy is happy being confined in a safe space it can make keeping them out of trouble when alone easier, it can also help prepare them for future periods of rest and recovery or staying in kennels or at the vets. 

What age should you start crate training puppies?

Puppies usually come home between 8-12 weeks old. At this age, it’s totally normal for them to want and need to be close to their caregiver. If you want to start crate training at this age you need to be very careful not to cause the puppy distress by leaving them alone, especially in a new and confined space. It may be easier to start using the crate next to your bed or working on it for short periods during the day. 

Setting up the crate

A crate or pen needs to be a safe and cozy place for your puppy. Ensure there are no sharp edges or rough surfaces. Whether or not the pen needs a roof will depend on the size of your pup, but if trained carefully they shouldn’t be too interested in jumping out.

How to pick puppy training crates

When picking a puppy crate, remember it should be big enough for your puppy to stand up, turn around and lay stretched out easily. There also needs to be space for a water bowl, a bed, and a toilet area where you can pop their puppy pads or paper in case of accidents. Remember they will grow quickly, so bigger is better. 

Where should you put the crate when crate training

As mentioned above, if starting crate training from when your puppy first arrives, I would suggest doing this in the same room as you sleep. This means you can be close to your pup to help them settle and sleep. 
If you’re starting crate training when your pup’s a bit older and they’re already comfortable being away from you, then I’d pick a quiet area away from windows and doors to reduce disturbances at night. 

Should I cover the crate when crate training?

You can cover the crate when training, but it’s not a necessity. You can cover the crate on all sides, or just on 3 sides, to reduce noise and visual disturbances. This is very much a personal preference for each pup though, so try it and see if covered or uncovered helps your pup relax best. 

How long can a puppy stay in a crate for?

Being crated other than when sleeping, can be boring for a puppy. It's important they have ample time outside of their crate to exercise, play, and engage with their family and surroundings. Once they have learnt to be happily left home alone, then they may be left up to 4 hours so long as they are able to wait that long to toilet, which will depend on their age. 

How to crate train your puppy

The most important thing is that you work at your puppy’s pace, and make sure the crate training experience is positive for them (and you). 
Some pups may be more naturally inclined to accept crating than others. If you find your puppy is really struggling, I would suggest waiting a few weeks and trying again. If by 5-6 months old you are still struggling to make progress, then seek extra guidance from a professional.
The first thing you need to do is set up your crate. Make it cosy, leave nice things in there, and let your pup get used to it being there for a few days. After that, you can begin crate training your puppy, and there are two methods you can use. 

Method 1 - If your puppy explores their crate already

If your puppy is choosing to rest in the crate, before starting a structured crate training program, I’d suggest you see how your puppy takes to simple, gradual, introduction of the crate a few times a day.
  1. When your pup is in the crate, approach calmly, push the door to, then immediately reopen it and go back to what you were doing (remaining in sight).
  2. Continue doing this until your pup is unphased by the motion of the door closing and pays little attention to it. Next, repeat this process, but close the latch on the crate as well, before immediately opening it again.
  3. Again, once your pup is unphased by this, start to leave it closed for 5 seconds or so before opening the door and going back to what you were doing (remaining in sight).
  4. Very slowly build up the duration the door is closed before you open it. Once you get to about 5 minutes, you can also start very briefly popping out of your pup’s eye line during the time they’re in their crate.
  5. If your puppy is still able to stay relaxed in their crate when you disappear from sight, you can then gradually increase the duration you are out of the room too.

Method 2 - If your puppy isn’t going in the crate yet

If your puppy is not choosing to relax in their crate, or they have struggled with method 1, here is a more structured approach to try. This involved desensitization and counterconditioning using food. 
  1. Encourage your pup to go into the crate (point, tap the bed, toss a treat in). As they step in, praise them, and give them a treat. 
  2. Keep the door open initially, if they stay in the crate, praise and treat them every few seconds to reward them for being in there.
  3. Gradually reduce the frequency of reward until they go in, get a treat, and then wait 5 seconds before being given a second treat and then encouraged out. The praise and treat should be at a point where your pup is still and quiet. 
  4. Repeat the above process with the addition of intermittently pushing the door half closed and treating for staying put. Once they are unphased by this, you can repeat but try fully closing the door and shutting it. Toss the treat through the bars whilst the door is closed, then open it.
  5. Gradually start to increase the time between closing and reopening the crate door. Start to leave it closed for 5 seconds or so before opening the door and going back to what you were doing (remaining in sight).
  6. Very slowly build up the duration the door is closed before you open it. Once you get to about 5 minutes, you can also start very briefly popping out of your puppy’s eye line during the time they are closed in their crate. 
  7. If your puppy is still able to stay relaxed in their crate when you disappear from sight, you can then gradually increase the duration you are out of the room too. 

Frequently asked questions about crate training puppies

What should I do if they are crying in their crate?

If your puppy is crying in their crate, try to wait for a pause and then let them out. If they’re really distressed, let them out immediately. Stay close by, or reduce the time they’re left in the crate next time you practice to avoid them being upset again. 
The crate should never be a negative experience. Puppies should not be left to ‘cry it out’ due to the risk of psychological harm. Puppies left to cry may learn that no one will help them when they need it, or that being in the crate is a distressing experience to be avoided. 
For more advice on what to do when your puppy is crying, check this guide.

Is crate training good or bad?

Crate training isn’t good or bad but you do need to decide if and when it suits you and your pup. If done correctly, it can be a helpful skill for your puppy to learn. However, if done inappropriately it can make separation and confinement-related distress worse.

Can crate training cause anxiety?

If done correctly, crate training should not cause your puppy any distress or anxiety. Neither should they be crated long enough for it to have a detrimental effect on their welfare. However, leaving puppies in crates for excessive periods of time, or leaving them to cry when distressed can be harmful.

Does crate training help with separation anxiety?

Crate training doesn't directly help separation anxiety. Being in a crate may physically prevent your puppy from being destructive when left alone, but that doesn’t mean it is making them feel any more confident about being on their own. When following a suitable training program to help your pup cope alone, then using a crate can be a helpful option. Alternatively, you could work on helping your pup to be happy behind a baby gate as an alternative to crating in this scenario. 

Can crate training cause diarrhoea?

Crate training or using a crate should not cause a puppy diarrhoea. If they have diarrhoea when crated, but not when left outside of their crate, this would suggest that being crated is causing them intense stress, resulting in an upset tummy. 

Can crate training cause aggression?

There is no reason why crating should cause an increased likelihood of your pup displaying aggressive behaviour. Some pups and teenage dogs go through a phase of not liking being “told what to do”, and avoidance of their crate is common. If they are forced to go in against their will, then aggression may occur. 
Also, some dogs tend to guard valuable resources. If your pup really likes their crate, or hasn’t learnt it is a safe space yet, they may not want to be disturbed when resting in it and aggression could occur. (But that could also be the case wherever they are resting, whether it is on their bed or on the sofa etc.)

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