A kennel (or crate) is a wonderful way to manage your new puppy or dog until he is ready to be trusted in your home. The crate is not a prison; it is a place of rest and safety for your dog. Think of it like a playpen for a toddler. It keeps them safe, and allows you to take your eyes off of them and do other things. Like a toddler, a puppy should not live in his kennel. It is a tool used when you are unable to watch him, especially during house training and teething. A puppy should not be left in the kennel for longer than he is able to hold his bladder.
The rule of thumb is no more than his age in months plus one. This means an eight week old puppy should not be left in his crate for more than three hours without a bathroom break. During the night, some puppies can go a little longer than that, but don’t take for granted that your puppy is one of them. Until you learn his schedule, give him the opportunity to eliminate if he needs to.
Failing to allow this can cause your puppy to begin soiling his crate, and it can be very difficult to break that habit once it is started.
Selecting the right kennel
The kennel you select for your dog is also very important. If you are using it to house train, it should be large enough that your puppy can walk in, turn around, and lay down comfortably. It should not be so large that he can use one side for sleeping and one side for soiling.
There are several available dog crates to choose from. You will need to select the one that works best for you and for your puppy.
- Wire kennel: A wire kennel is a great tool if your kennel is going to be used primarily at home. These crates are collapsible for easy storage once your dog is housetrained. If you opt for a wire crate you can find one that has a removable divider that you can move to accommodate him as he grows. They come with a removable plastic tray in the bottom that slides out for easy cleaning.
These crates are wonderful if your dog really wants to be with you all the time because your puppy can easily see everything around him. They also have the best ventilation of all of the kennel types. The larger ones can be fairly heavy, so if you are constantly on the go with your dog, this might not be the kennel for you.
- Plastic Airline crate: These kennels are wonderful if you want to travel with your dog. The smaller ones have handles on the top, and can easily be moved from your home to your vehicle. They are also a must if you are ever going to fly with your pet. They are also one of the safest ways to travel in the car with your pet. Short of a kennel designed and tested to withstand the force of an automobile accident, these are the safest alternative for your puppy when he is in your car.
These kennels limit visibility, so your dog will not be as aware of his environment. They also do not have quite the ventilation that a wire kennel has. These kennels are good for housetraining, especially if you have a boy that has learned to aim and pee through the bars of a wire crate.
- Plastic Collapsible crate: There are a few of these on the market, and they are a great alternative if you need something lightweight and portable. They typically break down into something about the size of a brief case. While not as sturdy as the airline crate, they can keep your puppy from roaming around in your car and causing problems.
- Soft Sided kennel: The soft sided kennel is a kennel made of sturdy fabric. This is the lightest weight alternative you can find, and is great for traveling with your puppy once he has been housetrained.
They are not good for dogs that soil in their crates because the urine will run right through the fabric at the bottom. They are also not good for dogs that are chewers or escape artists. Even a puppy that likes his kennel might be motivated to get out if a squirrel runs by. The fabric kennel is not designed to stop a dog that is truly determined to escape.
- High Impact travel kennel: These kennels are designed for traveling with your dog in your car. They are not meant to be moved in and out of your vehicle. If you are participating in dog sports, or travel often with your dog, this might be something to look into. They are cost prohibitive for some families, but in terms of protecting your pet in the case of an accident, they are the best you can get.
- Kennels that blend with your furniture: If you don’t like the look of any of the above kennels in your home, you may want to opt for a kennel designed to blend in with your furniture. There are a number of these on the market. Like the soft sided kennel this style is not the best for house training. It is made of solid wood, and if your puppy does have an accident in it, it will be difficult to get the smell out.
Placing the kennel in your home
Once you’ve selected a kennel for your puppy, you must choose a place in your home where you would like to keep it.
The best way to train your puppy to enjoy his kennel is to do it before you use the kennel so he will start out on good terms with it. Unfortunately this is not always possible. Do the best you can to not lock your dog in his new kennel any more than necessary until you’ve worked with him.
There are two ways to train your puppy to take to a kennel. One is by using food lures, and the other is with a device called a clicker. Each has its merits, so they are both covered here. The most important thing to remember is that you want the kennel to be a good place for the puppy, so you want to make sure that going in there is always paired with something he likes.
Whenever you are training a new behavior you need to find something that best motivates your dog. With most dogs, food is a convenient way to get a behavior. Be sure to use a treat that your dog likes. If he will not work for his kibble, try a soft dog treat. If he won’t work for that, try a piece of turkey or roast beef. Treats should be no larger than a pea. He only needs a taste.
Using a lure to kennel train your puppy
One of the best ways to kennel train your puppy is to use food luring. As with any training, you want to go step by step, and let your puppy make the decision to walk in his crate on his own. The cue (name of the action) should be added AFTER the behavior has been learned to keep you from having to repeat yourself. Begin by placing your puppy near the front of his crate and putting a treat just outside the entrance.
Let your puppy go and get the treat, and then allow him to retreat. Next, place the treat just inside the kennel. Let your puppy go and get the treat. Gradually place or toss the treat farther and farther inside the kennel, always allowing your puppy to come out if he chooses to.
Once he is going in consistently you can add the cue. I use “kennel up” but you may want to use something else. Choose something your entire family will remember to use. To add the cue to the behavior, say your cue, toss the treat into the kennel, and praise him when he succeeds. After you’ve practiced this several times your puppy will start going into his kennel whenever you ask him to.
Because we are working with a puppy, training sessions must be kept short, so these first steps should be taken over the course of a few days (or even longer for some pups). Be sure your puppy is completely comfortable going into his kennel before you move on to the next step. Moving too quickly can traumatize your puppy, and keep them from successfully acclimating to being locked in the kennel.
Once your puppy is happily going into his crate, take a Kong™ or other toy that can be stuffed with treats. Stuff it with something he likes and give it to him inside the crate. Let him go in to get it. When he is occupied, close the door for just one second. Practice opening and closing the door for longer and longer durations as he enjoys his special treat.
Work up until your puppy will walk into his crate and you can close the door and leave him there for a short period. Extend this time out, and your pup will happily enter and stay in his kennel while you go about your day.
Using a clicker to kennel train your puppy
A clicker is a powerful tool for getting behaviors from your dog or puppy. You can buy a commercial clicker from a pet store or online. You can also use your tongue to make a clicking noise. The advantage to the clicker over a verbal signal is that it is very succinct, easy to time, and it stands out from all the babbling we humans do to each other and to our dogs.
One study showed that the clicker decreased the amount of time it took to train a behavior by one third. The clicker has also been shown to have a direct physiological effect on the limbic system, which reduces the dog’s stress during training.
To begin clicker training, you must first pair the clicker with the treat. We call this “charging up the clicker”. Do this by making a click, and then giving the puppy a treat. The click must become the precursor to the treat, and should come before the treat. With just a few repetitions, your puppy will begin having a similar reaction to the click as he does to the treat.
Next, place your puppy near the entrance of his crate. If he looks at his crate, click, and give him a treat. Do this three times before you increase the criteria necessary for him to receive the treat. Raise the criteria to your puppy taking one step towards the crate. Accept this three times before he must increase the criteria again.
If he moves faster, then it’s okay to click for a higher criteria, but don’t allow him to stay stuck on a behavior for too long or he won’t try anything new. After one step, then two steps, and then three, and then so on until he is walking into the crate. I usually increase the criteria to a sit, then I will want him to lie down in the crate. Lying down shows you that your puppy is relaxed and ready to stay where he is.
Just like with luring, we are going to add the cue to the behavior only after your puppy has learned it. Once your puppy is predictably going into the crate on his own and lying down, begin to say the cue you have chosen (i.e. “Kennel up!”) just prior to him going in. Say the cue, he does the behavior, click, and give him a treat. Your puppy will have figured out the entire process on his own, and will remember it better than if he had just followed a treat into the crate.
Once your puppy is entering the crate on cue, begin closing the crate door for just a second at first, and then increasing the time. Click and treat when he is calmly sitting inside his closed kennel. Place a treat stuffed toy into the crate to occupy him, and work on closing the door. Gradually close the door for longer and longer periods until your puppy is happy to sit and chew his toy.
What if my puppy won’t take treats?
Every now and again we come across a dog that seems to have no interest in food. There are a few ways to address this. First, if you are giving him free access to food, you may want to stop. He will not work for something that he can get for free. Who would? Another alternative is to use a toy to get your puppy to enjoy his kennel.
This is not always as easy, but training only works when we know what motivates your dog, and if it play is it, then that’s what we must use. Here’s a few ideas of how you might use play to motivate your puppy.
- Use clicker training, but instead of the treat, follow the click with a game of tug, or whatever his favorite game is.
- If your puppy likes to fetch, try tossing his favorite ball into the crate to get him to go.
- Place his favorite toys inside his crate to lure him into the crate.
Always be very gradual when getting him accustomed to closing the door of the kennel. This is when it becomes scary for some dogs.
A note about whining
Even puppies that are trained to a kennel will make noise if they want to be let out. If there is a chance your dog has to eliminate, go ahead and take him outside. If you are certain your dog does not need to eliminate and he is fussing to get out of the kennel you need to ignore him.
Wait until he is quiet and then remove him from the kennel. If you let your puppy out for whining, you will teach him to whine whenever he wants out of the kennel. Again, if there is a chance your puppy needs to eliminate, you must take him out immediately. Otherwise, ignore whining and reward your puppy with freedom only when he is quiet.
Kennels aren’t for everyone
Believe it or not, some dogs are claustrophobic, and a kennel will send them into a panic they cannot control. This is especially true for dogs with separation anxiety. If your dog is distressed to the point of hurting himself to get out of the kennel, or if your dog shows other signs of separation anxiety, try another alternative for containment. Add a baby gate in the hallway so he can move around, but cannot roam freely. Find a larger area to use like a bathroom or laundry room.
If you are housetraining your claustrophobic dog, you may need to train him to use a litter box or pee pad. If your dog is truly claustrophobic, he will not simply adjust to the crate over time. The symptoms will become worse and worse until he has either seriously injured himself or until you cannot even force him into his kennel. If your dog is having serious issues like this, your best bet would be to find a board certified veterinary behaviorist.
For the vast majority of puppies, kennel training is an essential part of learning the ropes in your new home. It protects him from chewing on dangerous items like electrical cords and from destroying your possessions. It also is a fantastic tool to use for house training because your puppy will not want to soil where he sleeps. Unless a dog has severe psychological issues, he will learn to love his crate, and will choose to go there when he is ready to have a little time to himself.