Crate, x-pen, barrier… how to train it properly?

Some people believe that using a crate or a pen with a dog is to be avoided at all cost. As it turns out, they are fantastic and safe tools for both puppies and adult dogs when you take the time to properly train them.

Why crate train?

For a puppy:

A well trained crate can prevent many, many disasters while you house-train your new companion, not to mention what an amazing management tool crates and pens can be.

For a dog with behavioral issues:

Crates and pens are excellent tools for dogs with self control, reactivity or resource guarding issues. They allow you to restrict access to problem areas or items as well as give your dog a safe, calm place to be.

For all dogs:

Rare are the dogs that will go their entire lives without ever needing to be in a crate. Whether it’s when they go to a pension while you travel, at a daycare or at the vet when they get sick, there’s usually some point where it’ll be necessary for your dog to be in a crate or pen. Might as well teach them to enjoy it ahead of time!

How to crate train?

As with anything that involves potential discomfort, we want to proceed gradually and at the dog’s pace. What that implies is that you want to reduce to a minimum (ideally none) the times your dog ends up in a crate for longer than it is ready to.

What should I do in the meantime?

Use other means of restraining space, accepting that your dog may not enjoy them, while you quickly teach a good one. Use your bathroom, a leash, or any other gating system.

First part: going in and out

Before anything else, we need to make sure that your furball is completely okay with stepping into and out of the crate or pen. This step is divided as such (details below):

A. Throwing food halfway in the crate

B. Throwing food at the end of the crate

C. Pretending to throw food and rewarding after the dog goes in

D. Creating a gesture

E. Adding a verbal command (optional)During each and every one of those steps, your dog is completely free to leave the crate at all times. Never close the gate or block the entry.

A: Throwing food halfway in

The goal here is to ensure that the dog is okay going through the open gate, it is not necessary to fully enter to get the treats. Repeat until your puppy goes to get the food with confidence every time.

B: Throwing food all the way in

We’re now going to increase the difficulty. As with the first point, repeat until your dog goes all the way into the pen to get food.

C: Pretending to throw food

Here, we want our furry buddy to start understanding that there doesn’t need to be food in there for it to be a good idea to enter. Pretend to throw food and, once the dog’s gone in to look for it, say “Yes!” and reward your dog with said food. Repeat until your dog does not hesitate. (Video under step D)

D: Create a gesture

The goal here is to go from a very obvious and “in your face” movement (hand pretending to throw food inside) to something that is clearly a physical command (pointing towards the crate, from afar)To obtain that, we’re going to slowly modify the movement we do each time we repeat, so that the dog still figures out what we want each time. Once you’ve got the gesture you want, you want, repeat until your dog responds correctly every time.

E: (Optional) Adding a verbal command:

If you want to add a verbal cue to going inside the crate or pen, now’s when you do it (not before!)

To do so, do things in this specific order: Say “Crate”, wait two (2) seconds, then do the gesture your dog learned in step 4 – reward when it’s done. Repeat until your dog goes in the crate without you needing to move your hand, every time.

Second part: closing the door

This short step is crucial: teaching the dog that the door being closed, and them being “stuck”, is okay.

Ask your dog to go inside the pen or crate, then partially close the door before reopening it. Once it’s open, reward your dog and let it leave if it wants to.

Close the door more and more as you repeat, until it is fully close and locked.

Third part: staying in the closed crate

The last thing to do, before we can talk about being alone, is to teach your puppy to be okay with staying in the closed crate for longer and longer periods of time. We aren’t talking about leaving for groceries here, but just being in the crate while you’re still around.

Here are the rules as your increase the time your dog stays in there:

  • While the goal is to gradually increase the total amount of time spent in the crate, we want to often let the dog out “early”, so that it’s not always harder and harder for your pup
  • After each period, we give the dog the choice of leaving to move around a bit or staying in the pen, either response is perfectly okay.
  • If the dog cries, barks or tries to get out of the crate:
    • If it’s just a few cries, demands for getting out or attention, wait for your puppy to be calm for 5-10 seconds before letting them out.
    • If the dog seems in a panic, take it out immediately.
    • If you are in doubt, take your dog out immediately. If this situation happens 1 or 2 more times, you can record it and ask us on our Facebook group: click here.
    • In either case, make the next few durations shorter, that was too much!

Bonus: tips to speed up the process

The advice below won’t crate-train your puppy by itself, but it will help your dog make more positive associations with the place!

  • Give your dog its meals, bones and new toys inside the pen or crate!
  • When your puppy isn’t in the area, leave some treats or chewables in the crate for them to “find” next time they pass by.
  • Leave the crate or pen open and, if your dog ventures into it by itself, go praise and reward the furball!

When can I leave the dog alone?

Being comfortable with the loss of freedom that a crate or pen brings isn’t the same thing as being okay alone. We have a separate article about that: click here!

By Stephane Fiset, Dog trainer