Tiny collar, new bed, new toys, NEW CRATE! Bringing a new puppy home is an exciting time! Aside from being full of cuteness and snuggles, it is also a time for learning and change – both for the puppy and for their new family. Our veterinarians consider the dog crate as one of the essential things you need for a puppy. We recommend obtaining a comfy crate and starting to crate-train right away!
While many people immediately think of a dog crate as a “prison” to your pup, in fact, it is just the opposite – a safe space where good things happen. Just like we feel secure in our homes and bedrooms, dogs naturally enjoy sleeping in den-like small, enclosed spaces. Using positive reinforcement to harness their natural instincts, dogs are easily trained to recognize a crate as a cozy and safe place.
Puppy training using the crate also fosters independence, self-confidence and gives your dog a place of their own away from the chaos of the household. Future travel by car and airplane is much less anxiety-provoking if dogs are crate trained beforehand, and the crate can also serve as a useful tool in house-training young puppies since they don’t like to soil where they sleep! Crate training and house-training go hand in hand, so refer to some helpful tips on how to potty train a puppy to combine these two techniques to achieve puppy training success.
Picking a Crate for Your Puppy
Browsing crates at the pet store can be overwhelming! Crates come in many sizes and materials, but above all, you want to be sure the crate is safe, durable and comfortable. But what size crate should you purchase?
The theory behind the success of the crate as a puppy training tool is that dogs find comfort and safety in small, familiar spaces. They also like to keep their cozy sleeping area clean and will not soil where they sleep. When the puppy is small, it is ideal to block excess space with a box so that they are not tempted to potty in one end and retreat to the other. Where purchasing or borrowing multiple-sized crates is not always practical, a good guideline might be to anticipate the puppy’s adult size and imagine them inside the crate laying down, standing up, and turning around easily.
Keeping your puppy’s adult size and needs in mind will likely result in a crate that will be a good long-term fit. When your puppy is little, just enclose the extra floor space with a plastic or cardboard box, depending on their ability and desire to chew different materials! Alternatively, some crates have built-in adjustable dividers that can be moved to accommodate your large-breed puppy as they grow.
Manufacturers offer crates in several different materials and designs, and each option has different pros and cons:
Plastic, or “flight kennel”
- Medium weight
- Easy to clean and move
- Provides more of a darker den-like atmosphere with less visual stimulation for your puppy
- Can be used on a plane flight
- Easy to move
- Folds flat
- Clear visibility inside the crate
- Least secure and easiest to escape
Fabric/soft sided or collapsible
- Lightweight, but not secure for strong and active dogs
- Fabric can get wet and hold moisture
- More difficult to clean
- Better used for temporary car travel
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Heavy and durable
- Not easily moved or used for transport
Crate alternatives (exercise playpens or limiting space in a room)
- Large and not as amenable for potty training
- Not as secure
- More space to move around
- Suitable for puppies that need to be restricted for longer than they can hold their bladder (since you can put potty pads or a grass substrate inside)
- Can put a small sleeping crate inside the pen, but does not achieve the same result as crate training
Now that you have selected your puppy crate, what do you put inside of it? To create a cozy and inviting interior for your puppy, there are several options. You can place a firm crate mat, small bed or just a towel or blanket on the floor of the crate.
AskVet Tip: Some puppies are chewers, and it is wise to limit the opportunity for your puppy to tear up and destroy their bedding! Pieces of bedding might be swallowed, creating a medical emergency, so the durability of the bedding material and your puppy’s chewing habits might dictate what can be used inside the crate. Less might be more when just starting out with a new pup!
How to Crate Train Your Puppy
You and your new puppy are now ready to take on the process of crate training!
It is SO important that, to your puppy, the crate is a positive and comfortable place and never a punishment. Consistent positive reinforcement is key; puppies are rewarded with treats, toys and attention for being calm inside their crate. Negative behavior like barking and whining are not rewarded … until they are followed by calm behavior! Limit the time in the crate based on the dog’s age, bladder control and total crated hours daily.
To reduce crate time, hire a dog walker or consider daycare as an option for long days. Anxiety, depression and behavior issues can develop when a dog is crated all day and night through lack of human interaction, mental stimulation and exercise. If done correctly, your puppy will grow to love their crate as their own special place where they can rest, nap and feel secure!
- To start out, during the day, place the empty puppy crate in a central location where the household family members spend a lot of time. In the evening, when your puppy is ready to stay overnight inside the crate (see below), placing the crate in closer proximity to the bedroom will facilitate hearing young puppies whining to potty. With progress, the crate can be left in one central location 24 hours a day.
- When first introducing your puppy to the crate, take the crate door off or secure it, so it does not move suddenly and create fear if the puppy bumps it. Allow your puppy to explore the new crate at their leisure and get used to seeing it as a normal fixture in the environment. Placing treats near the crate will establish it as a positive object through the eyes of your puppy!
- Start cheerfully giving your young puppy daily meals just outside the crate opening for a few days.
- Once your young puppy is comfortable with eating just outside the crate, move the food bowl just INSIDE the crate opening. Serve all of your puppy’s meals here. As your puppy becomes more and more comfortable, the bowl can be placed further inside the crate, all the way until it reaches the back wall and your puppy’s body is completely inside. The speed at which comfort is established will depend on the puppy. Some will be trained to go all the way in for their meals in a matter of a few feedings, and others will take days to a week. Patience, consistency and positivity are key!
- Once your new puppy is eating their meals fully inside the crate, close the door while they eat. When they are done and notice the door is closed, relaxed and calm behavior can be rewarded with additional treats. Opening the crate door and having them remain sitting or lying down calmly can also be rewarded. Running out, whining, pawing at the door and barking are not rewarded — it is essential that your puppy only be rewarded when they are relaxed and calm inside the crate.
- Adding a command: Start to train your puppy to enter the crate using a desired command like “crate,” “house” or “kennel.” While you are placing the food inside the crate, throwing in a treat or loved toy or pointing to the crate with a treat in your hand, say the same command word. With repetition, your puppy will associate that word with the action of entering the crate and being rewarded. When they do enter, praise them and give a treat, toy or their food as a reward, and then close the door.
- Once your puppy is comfortable in the crate with the door closed, they are ready to spend more time inside. While they are resting or sitting quietly in the crate, busy yourself nearby for 5-10 minutes. At the end of the period, reward a nicely relaxed puppy with a treat and attention. Continue short periods like this, but expand your activity to other rooms of the house where you are out of your puppy’s sight. Increase the period of time you are away from your puppy, and repeat this several times a day — always coming back to reward a nice, calm puppy. Your puppy is learning that he is ok on his own without you and that you always come back! Once they can stay calm for 30 minutes with you out of sight, crating your puppy while you leave the house for short periods of time is appropriate.
- When short trips out of the house are successful, your puppy can graduate to spending a longer duration in their crate. Always be sure they have had a potty break prior to spending any length of time inside the crate. Vary your routine prior to leaving the house, as to not create anxiety due to anticipation of your absence. At this point, your puppy is also ready for overnights inside the crate.
Some Additional Helpful Tips for Crate Training
- As a rule of thumb, puppies can be crated and hold their bladders for the same number of hours as they are in months. For example, an 8-week-old puppy can be crated for up to 2 hours a day and through the night if they are sleeping. Also, be sure they did not drink a large amount of water and that they had a potty break prior to entering.
- Favorite toys and chews, Kong food toys, slathering peanut butter (Xylitol free) on the rear interior wall of the crate, and hiding treats around the floor of the crate always make time in the crate more desirable too.
- If your puppy seems to not be taking well to the crate, our AskVet Care Squad is happy to troubleshoot and help answer your questions and provide some suggestions.
Yay, My Puppy is Crate Trained!
Congratulations on devoting the patience and persistence needed for your pup to become comfortable in their crate! Your puppy now has a cozy space to call his own, will have less anxiety while traveling or being caged in other settings (like the vet clinic or at the groomer), and will be more confident and relaxed if he is separated from you. You may even find that when you are home, your puppy will chill out and nap in his crate on his own! Crate training makes a more balanced and happier puppy and improves their overall safety inside the home!
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Alexa Waltz, DVM
Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!