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The Behavioural Basics behind Successfully Crate Training a Puppy: A Pup’s Eye View

All medical claims reviewed by Dr Pippa Elliott. BVMS, MRCVS.

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crate training a white puppy

What makes the difference between a crate being a dog’s happy-place or puppy-prison?

When done well, crate training a puppy is of great benefit to both pet parent and fur-friend.
But approach things the wrong way and a crate becomes a place of punishment.

The answer lies in understanding how a dog thinks. A dog’s needs are simple: To feel safe, secure, and loved. When good things happen in the crate, it becomes a cosy nest and a dog’s go-to place for time out.

Why Crate Train?

Generations of dogs got by without crate training, so why bother now?

The short answer is that we understand dog psychology much better than in years gone by. For example, training methods have moved on from dominating dogs which makes for cowed canines, to reward-based methods that make for waggy tails.

Is Crate Training Cruel?

Think of a crate as a positive place, as a safe nest that the dog’s own space. What’s not to like about having your own cosy, comfy retreat to go when the world gets too hectic? However, things don’t always work out like this.

The dog has to want to spend time in the crate. Force the dog in or confine them for too long, and yes, inappropriate use of a crate is cruel. But this is easily avoided when you look at life with a dog’s eye view and they learn to associate the crate with nice things.

Why Crate Train?

From a dog’s perspective, a crate is their space and no-one else’s. This makes it a safe place the dog can withdraw to when life gets too busy. Much like having a den, this feeds into deep-seated instincts to feel secure if the world gets a little scary.

From a pet parent’s point of view, crate training a puppy means you are 100% certain they are safe when you’re out. There’s no worry about them chewing memory sticks or swallowing soft toys because they are curled up and comfy in their crate.

Crate training also gives you a head start in toilet training. Again, the dog’s basic instinct is not to soil their own sleeping area. In turn, this teaches puppy greater bladder control, so that when you do put them out on the toilet spot, they’re more likely to go.

Is Crate Training really Necessary?

Strictly speaking, crate training isn’t essential and it’s not for everyone.

However, it does offer an alternative to keeping a young puppy in the kitchen with the floor covered in newspaper. It’s a different way of doing things that can really work well.

Ultimately, you make the choice.

How to Crate Train a Puppy?

As a child, certain shops excited you more than others. For example, you’d be drawn to the sweet shop or toyshop, but less so about visiting the chemist. This is because sweets and toys shops are exciting, and it creates a positive memory of taste and enjoyment that makes you want more.

The same principle applies to crate training: Make the crate a place puppy wants to explore.

Try these tricks to make a crate irresistible to your puppy:

  • Make the crate super-comfy with a soft bed inside
  • Try partially covering the crate to make it secluded and den-like
  • Scatter treats in the crate and point them out to the pup
  • Hide treats in the crate for the puppy to find (Then they’ll pop back regularly to see if the treat-fairy has visited again)
  • Put a favourite toy in the crate
  • Feed puppy their meals in the crate
  • Praise the puppy whenever they go into the crate.

Once the puppy is regularly popping inside, each time they hop in add a verbal cue such as “Crate” or “Bedtime”. This is the start of your puppies good crate habits.

Now you can move onto the next steps.

This involves briefly shutting the door. A good time to start this is while your puppy is eating inside the crate. Close the door for a few seconds, praise puppy, then open the door.

Gradually increase the length of time the door is closed. Praise the pup in a happy voice when they are quiet inside because now there is both a reward with food as well as positive praise that can make your pups habit stick.

Puppy waiting to finish crate training

How long can you last puppy?

The aim is to extend the amount of time puppy is happy inside, without you there.

Puppy Crate Training Tips

Understand how a puppy’s mind works and you won’t go far wrong.

#1: Not Soil the Den: A puppy’s instinct is not to foul their nest. The size of the crate has a direct bearing on this. Too big a crate and puppy can use a corner as a toilet. The trick is to choose a crate that puppy can stand and lie down in comfortably, but not much larger than that.

#2: Attention is a Reward: Imagine puppy is in the crate and they cry. You immediately go over and let puppy out. The puppy thinking now goes something like this: I cry and Mum lets me out. Great! Crying gets me what I want. See where we heading with this… Golden rule: Don’t respond to whining or barking.

#3: Reward Quiet Behaviour: When a puppy is resting peacefully, there’s a natural tendency to leave them alone. After all, the expression is “Let sleeping dogs lie.” But actually, this logic is flawed. Dog’s love attention and praise is a powerful reward. A dog is more likely to repeat a behaviour if they get praised for it. In other words, do gently praise the pup when they’re resting nicely in the crate…they’ll be more likely to do this again.

Will Crate Training Help Separation Anxiety?

Some dogs become distressed when left alone. Will crate training help?

Yes and no.

In theory, providing a safe place should reassure a young dog that all is well despite their owner not being there. This can be especially useful for anxious dogs, for example, those that are fearful of fireworks. During a noisy display, having a crate to retreat to lets the dog lie-low as if in a cave, until the frightening thing goes away.

However, some puppies must never be confined to a crate. Some young dogs have such severe anxiety that they will hurt themselves trying to escape. These pups will break nails and damage teeth, as they attempt to claw and chew their way free. The best help for these dogs is a therapy with a certified animal behaviourist, to work on their underlying issue.

When Crate Training Isn’t Working

Some puppies just don’t settle in a crate. This is often down to us sending out the wrong message. The classic example is the puppy that’s let out when they bark…so they learn to bark louder and longer when they want out. This can be short-circuited early on by ignoring the dog, and only letting them out once quiet (hence, rewarding the good behaviour not the bad).

If you have any dog that’s distressed in a crate or refuses to settle, then don’t push the point. The idea is to have a happy pup, not a resentful one. If crate training plain isn’t right for your four-legger, then don’t press the point…at least you tried.

Instead, understand that successful crate training is all about making use of dog psychology and their natural need for a safe place to call their own. Get crate training right and this makes for waggy tails and happy pups.

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