What does your dog get into -- excuse us, we mean, up to -- when you’re not home? As you may already know, the joys of dog ownership can sometimes involve coming home to gnawed-on shoes, mysteriously empty food wrappers, and shredded carpeting.
Enter: Crate training. Keeping your dog in a size-appropriate kennel for an hour or two at a time while you’re out running errands is a simple way to cut down on the stress of leaving Fido home alone. When done correctly, crate training takes a cue from your dog’s natural desire for a “den,” giving your pup a space of their own while giving you peace of mind. Here’s how to do it right.
Choose the Right Kennel
When choosing a kennel for your pet, the most vital factor to consider is your dog’s size. According to the American Kennel Club, a kennel should have ample space for your dog to stand up, turn around, and stretch out if they’re lying down.
To help you determine the right size kennel, grab the measuring tape and assess your dog’s height (from the top of his head to the floor) and length (from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail). Next, add 3-4 inches to both measurements to get an idea of the right size crate for your pup. If you’re purchasing a crate for a puppy, consider getting a kennel that comes with a removable divider so that it can “grow” when your dog needs more space. Wire dog crates, soft dog crates, and plastic dog crates are all popular options.
Build Positive Associations With the Crate
Before you try to leave your dog in the crate for any length of time, you need to teach them to see the kennel as a comfortable and calming place to go. Place an engaging toy, a cozy blanket, and some treats in the crate and leave the door open. Let your dog go in and out as they please so that they have a chance to make themselves at home.
Praise your dog when they go inside the crate, and introduce a command word (such as “Kennel!” or “Home!”) to see if your dog will pick up on your cue and start to enter the crate voluntarily. Remember that you’re seeking to establish a space that’s safe and inviting for your dog, not simply get them to go inside a cage.
As you build a positive connection between your dog and their kennel, make sure that you’re building trust between the two of you, as well. Your dog will associate crating with anxiety and abandonment if you don’t build up the rapport of trust between the two of you before you leave for a prolonged period. Try giving your dog their meals and snacks in their kennel throughout the day and stay within earshot whenever your dog is in the kennel as you get started with crate training.
When you are ready to leave home with your dog in the crate for the first time, make sure that it’s not a prolonged outing. Remove anything that could get caught on the kennel when you aren’t around, like your dog’s name tag and collar, before leaving them alone in the crate. Grab a grocery item or two nearby, drop off a package at the post office, or simply take a walk around the block. Check in on your dog after fifteen to twenty minutes, and make sure to shower verbal praise and physical affection on them as you let them out of their crate.
Gradually, you can work up to leaving your dog in the crate alone for longer increments. Fully crate-trained adult dogs can be crated safely for up to eight hours at a time if necessary. Any longer than that and your dog may start to feel anxious and uncomfortable.
Know When It’s Appropriate to Crate Your Dog
Before you start the crate-training process, you’ll need to make an honest assessment of where your dog is at -- developmentally as well as psychologically.
According to the Humane Society, a puppy that’s less than six months old can only stay in their crate for a maximum of three to four hours. Puppies have smaller bladders, which means that they need to get the chance to relieve themselves outside more frequently. And you certainly don’t want to start your puppy off associating the crate with that “bladder is about to burst” feeling.
If you’re crate training an older dog, especially a dog that you’ve rescued, there may be negative associations with crating that take extra time to overcome. If you're looking for additional insight on how to make your dog more comfortable with the idea of a kennel, ask your veterinarian or pet adoption agency.
You should also never use the crate as a punishment for your dog’s behavior. The minute you’re using the crate in a negative way, it stops being your dog’s “safe space” and becomes a cage.
Keep the Crate Cozy, Day and Night
You can also use your dog’s kennel as their sleeping space at night. Your preference for how you crate your dog during the evening may be different than it is during the daytime. You may choose to leave the crate unlocked so your dog can “do the rounds” and check on family members if they get nervous during the evening -- or you may choose to close the kennel door. If your dog has been crated all day long, be certain that they get some time to stretch their legs and exercise for 4-6 hours before settling back in the crate during the evening.
Make sure there’s something cuddly (bonus points if it smells like you) inside the crate at bedtime. Place the kennel somewhere that your dog can see you at first, so that they don’t feel anxious or isolated. You’ll also need to be within earshot so that you can hear your dog letting you know if they need to get out of the crate to go outside. Giving your buddy a before-bed snack is fine, but keeping water in your dog’s cage at night will likely mean an earlier-morning wake-up call for you.
It’s normal for crate training to take a few months, but your dog will gradually be able to recognize the kennel as their own special corner of your home sweet home.