Note: Dogs should not be left in a crate for more than 4 hours during the day, and for more than 8 hours at night. Young puppies will have to go potty more frequently and duration of time should vary accordingly. The general rule is that a puppy can "hold it" for the same # of hours as they are in months. Two months = two hours. Young puppies, just like adults, will be able to hold it for longer at night when their metabolism slows down - but this will vary from puppy to puppy. Consider hiring a dog walker or pet sitter to come visit mid-day while you are at work.
The average puppy , with no prior negative associations with crates can be moved through this training process in 3-7 days. If your puppy or adult dog has been forced into a crate without the necessary training he may exhibit fear and anxiety and this process may take 2 or 3 weeks - or longer - depending on the intensity of the fear and anxiety.
What You Will Need in Your Training Toolbox
1. High Value Reinforcement: we recommend using Happy Howie rolls or Red Barn rolls. Happy Howie rolls are preferred if you are able to locate a distributor, but Red Barns rolls are easier to order online.
2. A Crate: use crates with doors that swing open and closed, avoid crates that have sliding doors.
3. A Treat Pouch: recommend Pet Safe or Olly Dog treat pouches. A good treat pouch improves your timing by allowing for easy access to food. Avoid plastic bags! The crinkly sound will be extremely distracting to your puppy and weaken your training results.
Step 1: Step Right In
Sit down with your puppy in front of an open door crate. Throw a several pieces of food inside the crate and allow your puppy the opportunity to step in and search for the food. He does not have to put his entire body inside the crate. If he seems nervous (stretching out to grab the food, and/or running away from the crate) make it easier for him to get the treats by placing the food at the opening or outside the entrance.
Do not move forward if you are seeing any apprehension in body language or facial expressions (no stretching, or suspicious glances).
Step 2: The Turn Around
Throw a few pieces of food in the back end of the crate. Your puppy will likely step in with one or two paws and back out. She might even put her entire body in, before reversing out. Continue scattering food until your puppy makes the decision to step inside and turn around. Capture the turn around by immediately delivering food. Offer as many reinforcers as possible before she even thinks about walking back out.
Move on to Step 3 when your puppy is waiting inside the crate, eager to receive another treat. Do not move forward if you are seeing any apprehension in body movement or facial expressions (scrambling to get back out of the crate, uneasiness about walking inside).
Step 3: The Texas Two Step
Once your puppy is comfortably walking in and turning around in the crate you can move on to the “Texas Two Step.” Offer reinforcement when they step in and turn around, and withhold reinforcement when they step out. Empowering your puppy to choose between being inside and outside the crate will reduce anxiety and form a positive, relaxed association with these crate training exercises.
Reinforce your puppy for 15-20 seconds using a high reinforcement rate. Then entice your puppy to walk back out by drumming on the floor in front of the crate. Withhold on reinforcement when your puppy steps out to create contrast and build value for being inside.
If your puppy focuses on you, be still. Don’t move or talk to your puppy. You want to give her the opportunity to re-orient to the crate. Move on to Step 4 if your puppy starts to walk back into the crate even when you have not prompted the behavior. Do not move forward if your puppy is exhibiting any apprehension about walking inside or staying inside the crate. Go back to previous steps if necessary.
Step 4: Sit in Crate
Once your puppy begins to show a clear preference for being inside the crate, you can raise the criteria by luring her into a sit. Again, reinforce for the duration of time that your puppy remains in a sit inside the crate, and then ask her to step out by drumming on the floor. Repeat this a few times over until your puppy walks into the crate, turns around and settles right into a sit.
Step 5: Closing the Gate
If your puppy is comfortable and confident with all exercises up until this point, you can begin to raise the criteria further by closing the crate door. As soon as you close the gate give your puppy 4-6 rewards in rapid succession before opening the gate again. If you’re able to, give your puppy 2 or 3 more rewards if she doesn’t attempt to “bust out” as soon as the crate door is open. Repeat this process a few times overs. We want to make sure that she is just as relaxed with the gate closed, as she is with the gate closed.
Loss of appetite, pawing or biting at the gate, stress whining, frustrated barking and rushing the gate when you open it are all indications that you should drop your criteria and go back to a more basic exercise. Pushing your puppy past their comfort zone will only prolong the training process.
Step 6: Walking Away
The next step is to close the gate and walk away momentarily. The goal throughout this entire process is to keep the puppy below their stress threshold. The more gradual you are in building criteria, the better your results will be. Close the gate, reinforce, walk away 5 to 10 feet and then IMMEDIATELY walk back and reinforce your puppy. Repeat this a few times over before opening the gate. Again, reinforce your puppy if she remains calmly inside the gate when the gate opens.
Every puppy will progress at a different rate. The better you are at reading your puppy’s behavior and body language and adjusting criteria accordingly, the better your training will be.
Step 7: The Finishing Touches
To close the gap between these formal training sessions and practical; start by having the puppy in the crate while you grab a glass of water, take a snack from the refrigerator, or go to check the mail - intermittently reinforce the puppy for calm behavior as you gradually increase the duration of time she spends inside a closed door crate.
If she is comfortable with this you can begin reading a few chapters from a book in a nearby chair or watch a show on netflix while your puppy chews on a bully stick. It’s also extremely helpful to have your puppy sleep in a closed door crate near your bed at night, so that she associates it with a place of rest, relaxation and safety.
Article written by Alyssa Lapinel, CPDT-KA. Founder and head trainer of Legends Dog Training. Legends Dog Training is based in San Diego, California. Fill out an assessment form if you would like customized training advice for your dog.
Alyssa Rose, CPDT-KA
Certified by the Council for Professional Dog Trainers