Is It Too Late To Crate Train My Dog?

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crate train dogs

Crates and crate training can be a hot topic of conversation when pet parents get together, and not always in a good way. It’s a topic that sometimes causes controversy on our facebook fan page, and one I have not written about for quite a while.  But a friend asked me recently if it was too late to crate train her three year old dog, and I think the answer is one that might help quite a few families.

Fortunately, it is never too late to crate train a dog. Dogs that have had a bad experience with being crated in the past may take longer to train, but with patience you can teach any dog that a crate is a great place to relax.

That’s the short answer. The longer answer is that it’s important to go about crate training an older dog in the right way, especially if that dog has a history of crate training issues. Otherwise you can definitely make things worse. So I’ll explain how we use games to train older dogs to go into a crate and rest there quietly.

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Crate training does not mean the same thing to everyone. Some people are looking for a way to teach a dog to sleep in a crate at night. Others want to leave their dog in a crate while they work. And many puppy parents use a crate to help with potty training and to give their puppy a refuge away from toddlers, teenagers or other dogs!

All these are valid aims providing the dog’s welfare is being properly considered. I talk about crate training puppies, and about the potential for misuse of crate and look at the uses of crate in my main crate training article So I won’t go over that here. Except to say that no dog should be left in a crate for longer than is appropriate for their age and health. You can find out more about crate times in that link too.

What I mean by crate training for the purposes of this article is teaching a dog that a crate is a happy place to be.  And, teaching the dog to go into the crate on cue (when you give a command), and stay there quietly – until released.

I’ll give you some tips on achieving this below, the whole process is a lot of fun, and crate training games are actually a great way to spend time with your dog.

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Who Needs Crate Training For Older Dogs?

There are two main groups of people that may attempt to crate train older dogs.

  1. Those adopting / rescuing an older dog
  2. Those who abandoned crate training their puppy first time around

If you are adopting an older dog then you might not know what their history with a crate is like. They might be perfectly happy to rest in a crate for a while. Or they might not.

One way to find out is simply to leave a crate in a family room, with welcoming blankets and chew toys inside and the door wide open.

If your rescue dog includes the crate in their explorations of your home, that’s a great sign. If they give the crate a wide berth, that’s a sign that they have some kind of history with being crated.

If you abandoned crate training first time around because your puppy got terribly distressed in the crate, then you’ll already know what that history is. Either way, the training process is essentially the same, though we can make a few tweaks to help the dog that is scared to go anywhere near the crate.

In short, you can do this, whatever your dog’s origins and history. And there are clear benefit to crate training a dog at any stage of their lives.

The Benefits Of Crate Training After Puppyhood

Unfortunately, most dogs will spend time in a veterinary hospital or clinic at some point in their lives. This will mean being crated. And it is much easier for a dog that is used to being caged occasionally to cope with.

Crating can save lives when it comes to destructive older dogs. Rescue dogs that have a tendency to munch their way through chair legs are much more likely to find a forever family if they can be left in a crate from time to time. The same applies to dog’s that have toileting issues.

Then there is car travel. How many times have you seen a dog racing from side to side in the back of a car, distracting the driver and vulnerable to injury in an accident? I know I have. This is simple to resolve with crate training.

Overall, being relaxed about being in a crate is one less thing for a dog (and you)  to be stressed about.

Training: Secrets To Success

There are two secrets to success with crate training any older dog.

  1. Put aside all ideas of using the crate as confinement during the training process.
  2. Make the whole thing a game.

Here’s why you need to put aside all thoughts of using the crate to confine your dog.

Canine Therapy In Action

The successful way to teach a dog to go into a crate of their own free will is essentially a form of behavior modification.  You’ll become your own canine therapist for a while!

Behavior modification relies on changing the way a dog feels about an experience. It’s a process, not an on/off situation. It can take weeks, though you’ll usually see some progress quite quickly.

The point is, that if you intersperse these therapy sessions with periods of enforced crate confinement, you’ll be fighting against yourself and undoing all the progress you make.

Crate training an older dog isn’t quite so straightforward as crate training a puppy so you’ll need to be patient and persistent. But you will get there if you follow the process through.

Training Through Games

The second secret to success is to make the whole thing a game. More and more dogs are being trained through games these days.  The aim of the game is always for the dog to win food or some other reward. And any reward you chose for a game needs to be one that the dog finds really exciting and worth working for.

Your role is to teach the dog how to win the game and earn their rewards, by making great choices.

Here’s a simple example of using a game to get a dog jumping into their bed without any force, or cajoling, or persuasion.

Game: Bed Time Is Fun!

Sit next to your dog’s bed with a small pot of tiny treats. Cover the pot with your hand or a lid and don’t let the dog get at the treats.

Now throw a treat into the dog’s bed. Wait for the dog to eat the treat. If they stay on the bed give them a couple more treats then throw a treat well away from the bed so that they have to leave the bed to collect it.

If they leave the bed after the first treat, throw another treat onto the bed. Repeat a few times so that your dog is expecting the next treat to appear at any moment.

Now stop throwing treats on the bed. Just wait. Be patient. And be ready to say YES!

Nine times out of ten, the dog will now jump onto the bed of their own accord. After all, that’s where the treats have been appearing.

Keep Your Promise

As soon as the dog hits the bed say YES and give them a treat.  The word yes is both a marker and a promise.

It marks the thing you want the dog to do.  And it promises the dog you will give them a treat within the next couple of seconds.

Don’t break that promise.

Force is NO fun

Just as before, feed a couple of times on the bed then throw a treat away from the bed, to give the dog a chance to jump back on the bed again.

Don’t try to make the dog stay on the bed. Force ruins the fun. This is just about jumping onto the bed for the fun of it. And it’s about the dog learning to earn treats by figuring out what you want them to do.

What if the dog doesn’t want to play?

If the dog loses interest when you wait for them to jump on the bed, try again later when the dog is more hungry. And use better treats!

There is always a point in the day when the dog will play in order to win food, if that food is valuable enough.

So how does this relate to crate training? Let’s find out

Crate Games Are Fun

Our crate game is an extension of the game you played on the dog’s bed. There are some differences, throwing a treat into the back of the crate is a little more fiddly.  But you can do it.

Remember, force ruins the fun. Do NOT shut the crate door on the dog. This is not about being incarcerated. It’s about teaching the dog that a crate is a fun place to be and that working with you, as a team, to get treats, is the best.

Sit right next to the crate to start with.  You may have to throw treats into the crate several times a day, before pausing the treats results in the dog entering the crate of their own free will.

Don’t forget the promise. The second the dog enters the crate without you throwing a treat in their first, say YES! And follow up that promise with a treat.

Adapting the Games For The Anxious Dog

There are a couple of ways to get the games going with a dog that is really nervous of going anywhere near the crate.

The first and potentially most expensive, is to buy a completely different kind of crate.  So if your dog is scared of the standard wire crate, you could buy, or borrow, one of the solid plastic airline type crates. And vice versa. The solid ones tend to rattle less and some dogs prefer them.

switching from a wire crate to a solid crate may help an anxious dog

Another option is to use an interim step with a crate liner or mat.  This serves as a surface to feed the dog on. You start with that surface well away from the crate itself and then move the surface nearer and nearer to the crate as the dog gains in confidence.

Eventually you’ll have the mat half in and half out of the crate, and finally all the way inside.

I prefer the second approach as it overcomes the dog’s fear rather than just avoiding it.

When To Stop Treating In The Crate

When the dog is jumping into the crate in anticipation of treats, you can phase out the treats inside the crate and throw all the treats away from the crate so that the dog has to leave the crate to get their reward and return to the crate to hear your promise.

Advancing Your Game

The next three important stages of the games are:

  • Introduce a cue
  • Start closing the door
  • Adding duration

The Cue

Introduce the cue when the dog is reliably jumping in the crate when you sit down next to it, and when you have stopped feeding any rewards inside the crate.

Just say your cue ‘crate!’ or ‘kennel’ or whatever word you choose, as you sit next to the crate. Over time, you’ll be able to give the cue in different contexts and the dog will know that it means jump into the crate.

The Door

Teach the dog to accept the closed door in very gradual stages. Start by closing the door momentarily and opening it again. The door should be shut for less than a second.

Build up to ten seconds over several days. This is the crucial part.

Adding Duration

Once you have that ten seconds its a simple matter to grow that duration. Think in terms of adding maybe ten percent per session.

But get that foundation of confidence in your dog first.

You can also add some extra fun by teaching a dog to run towards and jump into a crate that’s some distance away.

Start by giving your cue from just a couple of feet away from the crate and build up. To really have fun you can take the crate outside and teach the dog to run the length of your yard.

There are other ways to use this kind of training too.  Think about teaching your dog to run to the car and get into their travel crate. The only limit to the games you can play is the safety of the environment and your imagination.

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa’s online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website

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