Teaching your dog how to love his crate is one of the best things that you can do for him. Crate training makes potty training easier, keeps your dog from chewing on something that he shouldn’t be while he’s learning the house rules, and can make traveling safer and less stressful. However, it can be really easy to accidentally misuse a crate and teach your dog to dislike or fear being inside of it. How can you make sure that doesn’t happen to you?
Let your dog explore the crate at his own pace.
Some dogs are totally comfortable with being in crate after a couple of days. For other dogs, it can take months before they are able to fully relax in their crate. Either way, it’s really important to make sure that you are training at your dog’s speed if you want to be able to use a crate with him. If you have a puppy or a dog that has no experience with a crate, you have the opportunity to make sure that every interaction that he has with the crate is a good one; being in or around the crate always means that there is something good in it for him. If you have a rescue dog or a dog that already has a negative experience with the crate, it is especially important to give him time to acclimatise. Rushing through the process and forcing your dog to accept the crate before he’s ready will only reinforce his bad feelings and make the process harder on everyone in the long run.
When you first get a new dog, introduce him to the crate right away. Put an appropriately sized crate in a larger confinement area, hide a yummy bone or some cool toys inside, and leave the door open. Allow him to investigate everything in his area at his own speed and he will definitely find some fun things in his new crate.
When you are ready to start a more formal crate training session, start by putting a few of your dog’s favorite treats inside the crate when he’s not around. When he is brought over to the crate, he will immediately find some yummy treats in his crate and will most likely want to go inside. As soon as he does, click and then drop another treat into the crate. After he has finished eating his treat, release him out of the crate for a break and to set him up for the next repetition.
If your dog is hesitant about going into the crate at all, then you can continue putting some treats just inside the doorway to encourage him to keep trying. If your dog is confidently rushing back into the crate after you release him out of it, you can begin to change the game a little bit. Instead of having free treats waiting for him in the crate, ask him to earn them by walking into the crate first. As soon as he steps into the crate, click and then drop some treats inside. When you first start this stage of training, you can click as soon as he puts one foot inside. As your dog gets more experience with the game, you can start asking for even more: only click and treat when he has two feet in the crate, then he has to put at least three feet inside, and then all four feet!
Adding a cue
Once your dog is consistently and happily going into his crate, it’s really helpful to put the behaviour on cue. Having this behaviour on cue makes it really clear to your dog what you want him to do and it can also give you a way to send your dog to his crate from a distance down the road. To start working on this stage, the first thing that you have to do is choose a word or phrase that you’d like to use as a cue. You can choose anything that you like, just make sure that you use the thing every time.
To begin adding the cue to this behaviour, say your cue as your dog begins to move into the crate. Click and toss a treat in to him when he gets all the way inside. Easy as that! You will need to repeat this step many times to make sure that your dog is connecting the word or phrase with the action of getting into his crate.
Closing the door and alone time
Once your dog is confidently going into his crate on cue, start working on closing the door behind him. Start your training session by asking your dog to go into his crate on cue. When he does, you can click and drop some treats in behind him. Gently close the door and feed him some more treats through the bars on the door. Release your dog out of the crate and praise him generously! Repeat this step several times, gradually increasing the amount of time that your dog stays in his crate by a few seconds before you release him. Remember to be generous with your praise and your treats whenever your dog is inside his crate. It’s also helpful to throw in some easy repetitions of just 2-3 seconds in with the longer reps, and don’t forget to give your dog frequent breaks away from the crate.
When your dog is used to being in his crate with the door closed and you nearby, you can start leaving him alone for short periods of time. When you’re ready to begin this stage of training, it’s a good idea to have a chew bone or a stuffed Kong on hand – these types of treats will last longer and keep your dog occupied while you leave. Instead of focusing on the fact that he is alone in his crate for the first time, he will be busy with his prize! You can send your dog into his crate, and then give him the bone. Close the door and go about your business in another room of the house while he works on the bone. After 5 minutes, you can come back and let him out. Keep practicing and gradually increase the length of time that you leave him alone in the crate. After a couple of days, you should be able to work up to leaving the house for short errands to the corner store.
Some dogs don’t mind the door closing or being left alone. Other dogs really do. Remember to watch your dog carefully and make sure that he is not getting overwhelmed. If your dog does get uncomfortable at any point, you can make the training easier for him by closing the door for a shorter period of time or by giving him a break. If your dog panics or doesn’t seem to be making progress with being in the crate, contact a certified dog trainer that specialises in positive reinforcement to help you find a solution.