Confining your dog to a crate can have its benefits, but crate training is not ideal for all dogs. In the past, it was thought that dogs preferred crates because of their “den-like” atmosphere; however, observations of free-ranging dogs showed their preferences varied from open fields to smaller, enclosed areas that were sometimes well-lit. Only pregnant females sought out dens as a space to safely give birth and protect their young afterward.

Confinement spaces should never be used for punishment. A puppy’s confinement space is their safe place. If used for punishment, confinement anxiety may occur.

There are certain situations where crate training may be beneficial, such as travel, veterinary settings, recovering from surgery, and dog sporting events. When introduced in a slow, purposeful, and positive manner, confinement spaces can provide a convenient and safe in-home retreat for your dog when they are overwhelmed, fearful, anxious, or tired.

When choosing a crate, size and setup matter. Crates should be big enough for your puppy to move comfortably, stand up, turn around, and lie in a lateral position. Room for water and crate-safe food puzzle toys is recommended. Metal crates can be a great option since they have dividers to increase or decrease size. Your puppy may prefer a crate that is covered with a blanket or crate cover.

Image courtesy of Barbara Deg, RVT, CDBC, CPDT-KA, CSAT

Alternatively, an exercise pen (X-pen) or gated-off room gives puppies more space and can be a confinement area. A crate can also be placed inside an X-pen to give your puppy the option to enter the crate on their own terms. This setup prevents your puppy from being placed in a crate before they are ready. The enclosed space should include an elimination area, feeding station, and toys to provide for your puppy’s basic needs.

Few puppies are initially comfortable being crated, especially overnight. Dogs are social sleepers, and it can be very stressful for a puppy as they transition into their new home. Separation from littermates can cause undue stress for puppies and they can develop negative associations with their crate if they are expected to sleep in it immediately. If a crate is used, either place the crate near your bed, gate the adjoining bathroom, or let your puppy sleep in your bed if they can get on and off the bed safely. Having your puppy sleep in the bed may or may not be a long-term solution, but it can help decrease stress for both of you while transitioning. Whatever the sleeping arrangement, you should be prepared to get up throughout the night to allow your puppy to eliminate.

Confinement training takes time and patience. Offer food puzzle toys throughout the day in the area to help your puppy make positive associations and reinforce independence. The “Crate Fairy” exercise is another approach that teaches your puppy to associate their confinement space with good things. Place high-value treats in the confinement space throughout the day when your dog is not watching. When they choose to enter their crate, they will be surprised with delicious treats.

Confinement Training Steps:

Training sessions should be two to five minutes long, once or twice daily.

Phase 1: Getting comfortable.

  • Place treats close to and inside the space.
  • Once comfortable going in and out, wait for your puppy to enter, mark using a clicker or verbal marker such as “yes,” and toss a treat inside.
  • Once your puppy eats the treat, mark again and toss another treat out of the space.
  • Wait until your puppy re-enters, then mark and treat in the space.
  • Toss another treat outside the space so your puppy leaves, and repeat Phase 1 for three to five sessions.
Image courtesy of Barbara Deg, RVT, CDBC, CPDT-KA, CSAT

Phase 2: Closing the gate.

  • A gate or crate door is preferred for this step of the process.
  • When step 1 is repeatedly met with success, begin to close the gate/door.
  • Mark and feed a few treats through the gate, let your puppy out, and repeat.

Phase 3: Add the cue.

  • Over time, add the chosen cue, such as “crate,” as your puppy walks into the space.
  • Close the gate/door, mark, and treat your puppy for being in the space with the gate closed.
  • Slowly increase the amount of time in this space before marking and treating.

Phase 4: Increasing duration and distance

  • Food puzzle toys or a remote treat dispenser can help increase duration and distance while building calm and relaxed behaviors in the space.