Crate Training

Step-by-step guide to a distress free, force‑free, crate trained dog or pup
By Emma Judson

Please sit and read this guide thoroughly before making a start, as it is important that every single step of this is carried out and nothing is skipped.

It is also important to understand, before you start, why it is vital to crate train your dog.

Crates are often seen as a place to lock a naughty dog, or a place where dogs are left shut away for long hours. It is true that they can be misused just like any other item of dog-related equipment.

However, once properly trained, your dog can find being crated reassuring, and a visual cue to relax and go to sleep.

Crates can be used to aid in toilet training, dealing with fear or reactivity, introducing new dogs, and in rehabilitation from illness or injury. Crates are commonly used when transporting dogs, at the groomers, and, of course, in a veterinary surgery or hospital.

Unless you can guarantee that your dog is never going to travel, be groomed, go to the vet’s, or require strict and confined rest – something you can only do if you can see the future – then your dog needs to know how to handle being crated!

Crate training will never involve your dog being shut in against his will. There will be no crying or whining or scrabbling or barking in an attempt to get out of the crate. If there are any of the above signs, you are not following the instructions correctly.

You will need:

  • One wire crate, appropriately sized for your dog, with a bed or blanket inside. If you have a large breed puppy who is currently tiny, a small crate (which is big enough for your dog right now) is OK for training purposes
  • One pot of very high-value treats. Try cheese, hot dog, or chicken – whatever your dog likes best
  • One food dispensing toy, such as a Kong

Step 1: Crate = Treats
  • Sit beside the open doorway of the crate
  • The door should be wide open – as far as it will go
  • Ideally, you should sit at the side of the crate where the door would latch shut
  • Have your pot of treats with you and, of course, your dog or puppy
  • Show your dog the treats if necessary, and then toss one treat into the crate
  • Your dog should follow the treat into the crate to eat it
  • A dog or pup who has never seen a crate before, or who has and is generally OK with the idea, will go straight in
  • A dog or pup who has already been terrified of a crate, or is generally nervous, may not go straight in. If this is the case, put the treat right by the door and start with rewarding them for just approaching the crate
  • It is really important to note that your dog or pup can come straight out of the crate once they have eaten the treat. It is entirely their choice
  • The rule is super simple. Going into the crate earns a treat. Not going into the crate, or coming out of the crate, doesn’t earn a treat
  • Even the daftest of dogs can work out the very simple maths here. In crate = goodies. Out of crate = 0 goodies
  • Play the ‘treats are in the crate’ game for a few minutes. If you only get a pup zooming in and out of the crate happily for treats, that is fine at this stage
  • If you get a pup or adult dog who goes into the crate, then hovers to see if more treats will happen without them having to come out and go in again, reward that! Put more treats in before your dog comes out again
  • Ideally, we want the dog to hang around inside the crate, hoping for more treats. If he does that, he has chosen to be in there of his own free will! So, reward that
  • Keep tossing in treats and praising your dog, but don’t be tempted to shut that door yet!

Step 2: Crate = More Treats

By the end of the first session or two, your dog is hopefully starting to think that hanging around in the crate might be an easy way to earn more treats.

If he isn’t, continue with step one.

For step two, sit slightly to the side of the crate and, when he goes in for his first treat, start popping a treat or two through the bars. This is why we are using a wire crate and not a fabric one!

Your dog is probably still going in the crate and remaining standing, so now I would put two or three treats further back into the crate and see if he lies down to eat them. If he does, reward that with a small handful through the bars, ideally delivered so that he doesn’t have to get up to reach them. Give lots of praise for this.

When he is going in and lying down and clearly expecting treats to be delivered, you can begin to pause for just a fraction of a second before doing so. This is the how you begin to build up the time he stays in the crate.

Again, remember to keep away from that crate door; forget it even exists
for the time being.

Step 3: Moving Around – You, Not Him

By now, your dog should be zooming into the crate and lying down. He probably won’t need to be bribed in there with a treat, but he will still need treats for going in and staying in there.

Vary the length of time he waits for his treat. So, lots of times he gets the treats almost straight away, and sometimes he waits for a few seconds or even up to one minute.

When you are at that level, you can begin to shift your position while he is inside the crate. This means you can shuffle further away or to the side to begin with, then shuffle back and reward him for having done nothing. The reality is, of course, that he has done a wonderful thing; he’s chosen to stay in the crate despite you moving.

Remember to move only a tiny bit and move in whichever direction or fashion is least likely to encourage him to move – hence shuffling rather than standing up at this stage. It’s also important to remember to keep the time you spend ‘away’ very brief, so you may even need to just lean your body away, then back, and then reward before shuffling away. Then you can slowly work on edging away.

Step 4: Find your Feet

You are ready for this stage if you can lean, shuffle, or edge away from your dog in the crate, in a variety of directions. This should be for a minimum of 30 seconds, and ideally a maximum of around two minutes, before you return and reward him.

Watch your dog carefully now. Does he look relaxed and comfortable? Or does he look like he’s ready to spring up and out of the crate? You want relaxed and comfortable. If he is looking anxious and ready to spring up and out, go back a bit. Reduce the frequency, the distance, or the time you are away. Possibly all three. Increase the value of the reward, too, so that it’s more fun for him.

It is really important not to skip this stage or rush it, because now you are going to be standing up instead of sitting by the crate. Initially, you want to start out sitting and stand up while he is in there.

Wait until he is relaxed in the crate. Stand up slowly and drop in a few treats by bending over. Then squat or kneel back down. You can sit if it’s easy for you to jump up and down from sitting.

For this stage, you are just going to be working on kneeling/squatting near the cage, and then standing up and rewarding, and back down again. Do not step away from the crate at this point.

Mix it up with work from the earlier steps. So, sometimes sit and reward for him staying, sometimes sit and lean away, or sit and bum-shuffle away and back, and reward.

It is important that going in the crate does not become an accurate predictor or visual cue that tells your dog you will be leaving, because if your dog has an issue with being left, this will be a big problem. Mix up the work, so that sometimes the reward is for something your dog finds easy to cope with, and sometimes it’s for something he finds harder. Resist the trap of making his task harder and harder every single time because that leads to dogs predicting and becoming sour to the lesson you are teaching.

Step 5: Stepping Away

Now you should have a dog who really couldn’t give a damn if you are sat there, sat a foot away, bum-shuffling around, leaning in and out, standing up, or squatting down. All he knows is, he’s in the crate and he gets treats for stopping in there, and that’s good!

If your crate is located where it is available for your dog to go into at any time, you should find that he will choose to go in there, even outside of a training session. If that is the case, randomly reward him for that. Just walk by and drop a tasty morsel in to him. You could also offer him his meals or treat-filled Kongs in there now.

The next step is to ask him to go in the crate and then you stand up and step away. Just one step, and then step back and reward. Build that up over the course of several sessions until you can take several steps away, pause, return, and reward, and he doesn’t bat an eyelid.

Really resist the urge to shut him in there now. There’s a good chance you’d get away with it at this stage, but you could easily cause a problem if he panics. The last thing we want is him learning that he can’t get out. That would make him fear the crate.

Step 6: Going Away

You should not be starting this step until your dog or pup is belting into the crate, lying down, falling asleep in there, happy to eat meals or treats in there, offering you ‘I’m in my crate’ behaviours and is actually sometimes found in the crate when you have been out of the room.

So, for this session, start with your dog in the crate. Reward him, step away, step back, reward him, walk around the crate, reward him, and step outside the door (ideally an internal door) or otherwise pop out of sight for just a split second, then back without much in the way of fuss, and reward him.

Repeat this and mix it up again, as we did before, so that going in the crate does not necessarily mean you will be leaving the room or going out of sight.

Keep working on this stage until you can leave the room for a few minutes. You could leave and go to another floor of your house. Or you could leave the room and leave the house. All for just a few minutes. On your return, your dog should still be in the crate.

You may need to set up your crate in another room or use a phone or webcam to record him.

If possible, practise some of the earlier stages in other rooms of your home. This isn’t always possible because not every home has several rooms with space for a crate and for you to work around it. If you can, it will really help your dog generalise that the crate is cool, no matter where it is. When changing location, the golden rule is to step back down a level or two, so that the work is a little easier. This is to compensate for the new location, which makes things a little harder.

At this point, if you come back and your dog is not in the crate, I would say nothing. If you can’t resist, I’d go to the empty crate and act as if I’m going to put a treat in there, but then act silly – ‘Oh there is no dog here. Oh dear!’, and pocket the treat. This very much depends on your dog. Some of my dogs would be ‘OMG I should have been in there… doh!’, and some wouldn’t give a rat’s. But there are dogs who might be upset by this behaviour. If that’s the case, don’t do this.

Whatever sort of dog you have though, if you come in and the dog is not in the crate, then it’s likely you have gone too fast. You’ve probably tried to be out too long, or too far away. The important thing here is to make a note of that, go back a step or two, and spend a bit more time working on an earlier level. It is not the end of the world if this happens. No one died, so don’t get upset and certainly, do not get angry.

Step 7: Closing the Door

OMG, yes really!

So, now you should have a dog who loves his crate, wants to be in his crate, and stays in his crate, hoping for his reward, while you move around the home.

Now you will go allllll the way back down to step one, but you will push the crate door closed gently. You will be sat by the crate again as you were at the beginning, putting treats through the bars of the crate.

Here’s the really important part: the split second your dog approaches the door, reaches out to nudge it or paw it or push it – you fling that door open fast. You do that. You do not at any stage, ever, wait for your dog to try to get the door open themselves.

So, let’s say your dog approached the crate door and you flung it wide open for him. He has probably come out and looked at you like, ‘what?’

Say nothing, just give your dog a second or two and see if he offers ‘going in the crate’. If he does, reward him. If he doesn’t within a second or two, then toss a treat in the crate and start again.

What your dog is learning here is that he is never, ever trapped in the crate, even if it looks like he is. You are opening the door and releasing him before he feels trapped, but there is no reward for coming out.

In the long-term, your dog won’t care if the door is open or closed, because being in the crate has always been rewarding. Coming out has never been an issue and isn’t rewarding.

If a dog is ever trapped in a crate, two things happen. Firstly, they feel fear and they distrust the crate. Secondly, when they get out, coming out has then been extremely rewarding. The relief from feeling trapped in there is massively reinforcing.

By never allowing your dog to feel trapped, you also never allow him to feel that relief.

Gradually re-work your way through all the steps with the door pushed closed, but really importantly at this point, not latched shut.

You will need to stay near enough to the crate that you can flip the door open fast. Work steadily enough that you are sure your dog won’t try to get out before you are ready to release him.

Step 8: Locking the Door

So, to recap, by now you should have a dog who will stay in the crate with the door open or the door pushed closed, whether you are in the room or you have popped in and out or stepped out for a few minutes.

He should be really relaxed in there and want to remain in there for the rewards you will still be giving him. He should also be used to some period of waiting before those rewards happen.

He should never have tried to get out of the crate by pushing, nudging, or pawing at the door.

If your dog has done that, don’t panic. Go back a few stages and re-do the foundations again and go a little slower. If you are keeping a diary of your progress, you may be able to pinpoint where you rushed something or where something went a bit wrong.

So, to introduce the door being locked, go back a few steps, probably to stepping away and stepping in and out of the room. This time, after a few goes with the door pushed shut, lock it, wait a few seconds without moving, then unlock it, and continue the session.

I would not end a session immediately after opening the crate door. Instead, throughout the session, mix up closing and locking the door with leaving the door open. This means he is not predicting the door being unlocked and opened as either a release cue, or cue for his reward and end of session.

Step 9: Increasing the Time he can be Crated

By now, you should have a dog who is totally happy to go in his crate, have the door pushed shut, randomly earn rewards in there, have the door locked while you move around the room, step outside the room and even the house, for up to around four or five minutes.

Now you build duration for real, sometimes leaving him for slightly longer. Again, try not to do this as a neat linear progression. Do not leave him for five minutes on day one and 10 minutes on day two and 15 minutes on day three, as the chances are he’s going to predict that the crate now means being left and that’s not fun for him.

Instead, mix things up. Maybe he’s in there for five minutes on day one, but on day two you just potter around in the same room as the crate. Maybe on day three he’s in there for 10 minutes, but you are in and out of the house (unloading shopping perhaps), on day four you only do five minutes, but you are sitting reading a magazine and mostly ignoring him.

The point is, it’s gradual, but it’s no big deal for him. It’s not a predictor for something awful.

Because he has never felt trapped, because he’s never felt any reinforcing relief at being released from the crate, being in the crate is not a big deal. The fact that he can’t come out at this point is totally irrelevant to him because he does not want to come out in the first place.

Beyond Step Nine

If you have a crate and will use it regularly, it’s a good idea to keep rewarding your dog for being in there, even after he seems totally comfy about it. It’s also a good idea to pop him in there for a minute or two when you answer the door, or when a guest comes in, or to give him a tasty bone – just so that he feels it’s a wonderful place to be, and it doesn’t mean you are going out.

If you don’t have a crate set up all the time, do get your crate out from time to time and practise with it. That way, it is not a shock to him when a non-doggy visitor comes to stay and you need to use it, or when he has to go to the vets, or you are going to take him on holiday and need to use it there.

Never use your crate as a place to shut a dog as punishment. It must stay a safe and rewarding place and he must like being in there. It should go without saying that you should not abuse your dog’s good nature and shut him in there for more than four hours at a time. It will take you some time, probably months with a puppy, to work up to that length of time anyway.

Do not allow anyone to tease or torment your dog when he is in the crate. We want to avoid him feeling trapped and a sure-fire way to create problems is to allow someone or another animal, to tease your dog while crated.

This may seem a very long-winded way of crating your dog. It’s likely you are thinking, ‘But I could just shut him in there and he might cry but eventually he will get used to it’.

Some dogs will get over it, and some just suffer in distress quietly; their stress showing up in seemingly unrelated behaviours. Some dogs very obviously don’t get over it. They will wreck crates, or physically hurt themselves, or yell their heads off.

A lot of people appear to think a dog screaming and scrabbling to get out of a crate is a dog ‘acting out’ or a dog who ‘needs to get over himself’. That really couldn’t be further from the truth. Trapping an animal in a small space is incredibly stressful, if not outright terrifying. Even if your dog never associates that fear with you, it will have a knock-on effect on his ability to learn, settle and generally be a happy, relaxed dog.

I disagree that this is actually all that long-winded. If you are starting out with a puppy, you can get through the first five or six stages in under a week. The later stages would only take longer because a puppy physically can’t be left all that long. Frankly, if you don’t have a couple of weeks to train a puppy, should you really have taken one on?

It may well take a little longer with an adult dog, but we are talking about five-to-ten-minute sessions to start with, a couple of times a day. It isn’t anywhere near the huge undertaking it may seem while reading this through.