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How do I crate train my dog successfully?

golden retriever dog happy in its crate from being trained well

Crate training is the secret to success in the dog world. So many of the common problems people have with their badly-behaved dog, from house-training issues to food-stealing complaints, can be solved by training your dog to live happily in their crate while you're out and about.

Why should I use a crate?

Using a crate utilizes your dog's natural instinct to protect their den. They're very unlikely to soil the crate as they don't want to be sitting in their mess until you get home. While they're in the crate, they won't access to any of your furniture to chew or being able to go foraging through the bin for tasty treats. If the crate training is done right, your dog will also view the crate as a safe space to escape from the craziness of the human household, and will go there to nap during the day.

Crate training can also come in handy when you have visitors over who aren't so fond of dogs, as your dog will have no issue with being put in their crate when the guest is round. Furthermore, dogs who are already crate trained will be far less stressed at the vets (or on a transport plane) than dogs who have never been in a crate in their lives. Since being at the vets is already a stressful time for most dogs, it's great to be able to ease some of that for your own dog.

How do I set up the crate?

Getting the right size crate is very important. If the crate is too big, it'll defeat the purpose of the den instinct as your dog will toilet in one end, and sleep at the other. If the crate is too small, then it's cruel for the dog as they won't be able to relax and sleep when they're locked in.

The ideal size crate should allow your dog to stand up comfortably, and to fully turn around in the crate while standing. Once you've got the size sorted, you should set the crate up in a busy area of the household such as the family room or living room. Your dog will then be able to see you and not feel left out while you're crate training them.

It'll be a long time before you can actually close the crate door and leave your dog in the crate so in the meantime make sure you have a dog-proof area or room set up for when you need to leave the house.

Also, if you have any children or other adults in the house, it's important to explain that the crate is the dog's space and that they should not be disturbed while they're in the crate.

How do I start crate training?

The first step to crate training is building a positive association with the crate. As soon as it's set up, start feeding your dog their meals in the crate. Leave the door open and either tie it or prop it so it won't close accidentally and scare your dog.

If your dog won't enter the crate to get their meal, you'll need to work on that. Drop treats close to the entrance and let your dog sniff them out in their own time. Each time leave the treats further and further in until your dog is willing to go all the way to the back of the crate. That's when you can then start feeding the meals in there but also keep up the positive association by dropping a few treats in whenever you walk past, so your dog can hop in and keep finding tasty surprises.

As long as you only feed the meals in the crate and keep hiding treats in there for your dog to find, your dog will start to associate being in the crate with getting food. If at any point you find your dog willingly getting into the crate to search for treats, make sure to rewards their efforts. You should soon reach a point where you walk into the living room to find your dog sitting in the crate waiting patiently for their treat.

How do I teach my dog to stay in the crate?

Now that getting in the crate is no longer an issue, it's time to start teaching your dog to stay in the crate. Have a large box of treats ready and be prepared for the next time they jump in to check if you've hidden any in there. Give them a treat. Wait a few seconds and if they haven't already leapt out, give another time. Keep repeating this for as long as your dog keeps their paws inside the crate. If at any point they step out, put the box of treats down and walk away, keeping your eye out for the next opportunity.

Once you have your dog waiting a few minutes between treats without leaving the crate, you can expand this by walking away from the crate, returning every so often to feed your dog a treat, before walking away again. Over time build this to involve leaving the room, being able to close the door, and walking upstairs, all without your dog leaving the crate.

What you're doing here is teaching your dog that the crate is a fun and happy place to be so that when you do shut the door, they're not going to care because why would they want to leave?

When can I start shutting the door to the crate?

Not until your dog will sit there for a good few minutes while you're in another room or upstairs, with the door closed.

Then you can start by repeating the entire exercise, right from feeding meals in the crate, but this time by shutting the door. For the first few times, shut the door while they're eating, and wait nearby to open it as soon as they're done. If your dog at any point starts pawing or whining at a closed door, then you've waited too long, and you need to rewind. Gradually increase the time between your dog finishing the meal and you opening the door to let them out, and intertwine this with the treats exercise as above, but also with the door closed.

Once you've reached the stage where your dog can be left with the crate door closed while you're outside the room, you're ready to leave the house.

When can I leave my dog in the crate while I'm gone?

As long as your dog is happy in the crate with the door closed, then it's fine to leave the house. Vary the times you're gone from the house, so you'll sometimes leave for only a few minutes and other times a couple of hours, but absolutely never leave your dog in the crate for more than four hours straight.

The other important thing to remember is the key principle of crate training is your dog will learn to hold their bladder while you're gone because they don't want to soil their den. Therefore, it's crucial that you never leave your dog for longer than they can physically hold their bladder, which will vary depending on your dog's age. If they're forced to toilet in their crate because you've left them too long, then you've ruined all the good things you've taught them during crate training.