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There’s No Crying in Crate Training

Actually, sometimes there is. But if you follow these tips, crate training your pup can go smoothly.

by Kate Sheofsky
July 30, 2021
Smiling Welsh Corgi Pembroke dog sitting inside an open crate
Justyna / Adobe Stock

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If you’re gearing up to bring home a new dog, chances are “buy a crate” is on your to-do list (right in between “choose a pet food” and “secure an Instagram handle with my dog’s name”). A lot of trainers and veterinarians recommend crates for potty training dogs for a variety of reasons. To get the inside track on why you should consider crate training — and how to do it — we checked in with board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valli Parthasarathy from Synergy Behavior Solutions.

Why Crate Training is Helpful

Crate training, like using pens and baby gates, is a form of confinement training. The ability to keep your dog confined to a small area can come in handy throughout their life. With puppies, crate training can help with housebreaking and managing access to objects they are tempted to chew (which is most things). But a crate’s usefulness extends beyond those early puppy years.

“Crate training can be important if your dog is recovering from injury or illness and needs to be kept calm and relatively inactive,” says Dr. Valli. “Being comfortable in a crate can also help reduce anxiety when your dog is at the veterinary clinic awaiting treatment.” Also, if you have your heart set on your pup becoming your favorite travel buddy, they’ll need to be acclimated to a crate for plane rides and hotel stays. There are even crash-tested crates and carriers that keep dogs safe on road trips. Confinement training aside, dogs like to have a safe, quiet place to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed and need time to themselves. Relatable? So very.

Step-by-Step Guide to Crate Training Your Pup

1. Get a crate (obvi)

There are many different options available. Look for one big enough to accommodate your fully-grown dog. When your puppy is small, you can block off part of the space. If they have too much room, they may decide that the far end of the crate is a good place to pee.

2. Make it comfy

Put a soft blanket or towel in the crate, and keep it in an area where you spend a lot of time (you can eventually relocate the crate once they feel comfortable).

3. Introduce your puppy to the crate

Show your dog the crate and let them explore it inside and out. Toss treats or toys inside to entice them to enter. Give them a few days to get used to the presence of the crate.

4. Create a positive association

Start feeding your pup their meals in the crate (because is there anything a dog loves more than dinnertime?) Begin by leaving the door open while they eat, then try closing it. At first, let them out as soon as they finish. Then try leaving them in there for a few extra minutes. Praise them and offer treats whenever they go into the crate on their own.

5. Increase time spent in the crate

Come up with a verbal or visual command that you’ll use to direct them to the crate. When your dog enters, give them the command so they associate it with the desired behavior. Close the door and stay near them for a few minutes. As your dog gets used to the crate, gradually leave them in it for longer periods while you’re at home. You want to be able to check on them so you know they’re comfortable being confined before leaving them alone.

6. Crate your dog when you’re gone

Once you’re sure your puppy is safe and calm in the crate, start leaving them in there for short periods while you’re out of the house, then slowly increase the length of time you’re gone.

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When to Start Crate Training a Puppy

According to Dr. Valli, crate training can start as soon as you bring your puppy home. In fact, there’s a chance the breeder or shelter that you got your pup from already began the process — so you may get lucky and have a head start. As mentioned, you’ll want to use a slow and steady approach when crate training. But even as you gradually increase your puppy’s time in the crate, understand that young dogs need frequent potty breaks. So they shouldn’t stay in their crate for too long, even if they feel generally comfortable.

Dr. Valli has a go-to formula for how many hours a puppy can go between potty breaks. “My rule of thumb is to take the puppy’s age in months and add one. So, a two-month-old puppy needs a potty break every three hours. But that doesn’t mean they should go right back in the crate after they potty. Puppies need plenty of time outside the crate to play, exercise, socialize, and learn to be good doggos.” Four hours should be the max that a puppy is crated, unless it’s overnight.

What to Do if Your Puppy is Crying in the Crate

It’s gut-wrenching to hear your pup whining in their crate. Even worse? Ignoring their cries and leaving them to suffer not-so-silently. But the thing is, there’s a good chance they’re not suffering. They may just want your attention, and the fact that it’s 3 a.m. on a Tuesday means less than nothing to them. So, try waiting it out for a few minutes. Many times, they’ll stop when they realize they aren’t going to get what they want.

If the whining persists and you suspect your puppy needs a bathroom break, let them out of the crate and take them outside. This should be a potty-only mission. No playing, no meandering, no sniffing — just a quick pee break before going right back into the crate. It’s important not to give in to their demands for attention every time they whine, or crate training will be a long, painful process. There is plenty of time for them to wrap you around their paw. Today is not that day.

How to Crate Train an Adult Dog

No secret sauce here. The approach for crate training adult dogs and puppies is similar, but you may need to take things even slower. “An older dog who has never been confined can become anxious or scared if suddenly closed in a crate,” says Dr. Valli. “So at first, remove the door or keep it propped open. Then, give your dog treats when they voluntarily go into the crate. Eventually, you can close the door and very slowly increase the time that you keep them inside. For adult dogs, I don’t recommend leaving them in a crate for more than four hours at a time [again, unless they’re sleeping at night].”

Some Things Just Weren't Meant to Be

Crate training can be very beneficial, but Dr. Valli cautions that it’s not the right choice for every dog. “I usually won’t recommend crates for confinement with a dog who has panicked in a crate in the past (such as biting the bars, breaking out, injuring themselves, throwing themselves against the crate walls) or a dog who has separation anxiety. Instead, there are other ways that these dogs may learn to tolerate confinement, including being in a larger pen or baby-gated in a room.” If you’re having trouble crate or potty training your pup, we recommend hiring a professional dog trainer to help.

Kate Sheofsky

Kate Sheofsky hails from San Francisco, where she developed a love of writing, Giants baseball, and houses she can’t afford. She currently lives in Portland, OR, and works as a freelance writer and content strategist. When not typing away on her laptop, she enjoys tooling around the city with her two rescue pups searching for tasty food and sunny patios.