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fPuppy with lickable mat behind wooden baby gate

Photo courtesy Jessica Benoit RVT, VTS (Behavior), KPA CTP, CPDT-KA, FFCP

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 show their preferences would vary from open fields to smaller, enclosed areas that were sometimes well-lit. Only pregnant females would seek 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 that is overwhelmed, fearful, anxious, or tired.

When choosing a crate, size, and set-up 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.

Drawing of a dog in an x-pen with toys and carrier

Photo courtesy Jessica Benoit RVT, VTS (Behavior), KPA CTP, CPDT-KA, FFCP

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 can prevent situations where your puppy is placed in a crate before they are ready. This 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 if immediately expected to sleep in a crate, a negative association may occur. 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 to teach your puppy to associate their confinement space with good things. Place high-value treats in this space throughout the day when they are 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 for three to five sessions. 
  • 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 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.