5 Tips for Crate Training an Older Dog

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Adopting a new dog is an exciting time – but it also can mean lots of new training to work on. With a big dog, it can be really important to get started on crate training right away.

Untrained adult dogs can easily hurt themselves chewing on things, ruin your carpet with accidents, and much more. While a crate isn’t really a substitute for training, it is a great way to keep your dog and house safe from each other in the early stages of owning an older dog.

Let’s dive in with a few important tips on crate training an older dog.

crate training an adult dog

A Better Way to Crate Training an Older Dog

Unfortunately, most crate training advice surrounds around the basic tenet of, “Put him in there and ignore him when he panics. Eventually, he’ll give up.”

Of course, there’s some kernel of truth in this advice – eventually, your newly adopted dog will probably give up. And as you get to know each other, you’ll learn when your dog is barking for attention versus barking for distress.

But it can be really damaging to your dog’s relationship with the crate if he associates the crate with being terrified (and with you ignoring him).

This is especially true with older dogs, rescue dogs, and shelter dogs – they’re not quite as resilient as young puppies.

There is a better way to crate train your dog: Teach your dog that if he whines or fusses, you’ll take him outside for a two-minute potty break, and that’s it.

This teaches your dog that you won’t ignore him – but also that crying in the crate only gets him a two-minute, on-leash potty break. So there’s no point if he wants something else.

When you return your dog to the crate, give him something else to do (I like stuffed Kongs, bully sticks, and pig’s ears, but you can also just give him a cardboard box with kibble inside to shred).

If he cries again, take him outside again. Yes – you are responding to your dog for crying, in a way. But you are responding consistently, and showing him that crying gets him a potty break, nothing else.

Crying does not get cuddles, the privilege of sleeping on the couch, or playtime. Being quiet gets those things!

This avoids teaching your dog to cry for hours and hours on end (because you’re responding right away). It also teaches your dog that he can tell you when he needs to “go.” This is important: my own dog was trained using the “cry it out” method, and now he will not warn me if he’s about to have an accident!

Sure, many dogs are trained with the “cry it out” crate training method, and they’re “ok.” But there’s a better way!

Related: How to Stop a Puppy From Crying in His Crate at Night

how to crate train an older dog

A Trainer’s Guide to Crate Training an Adult Dog

There are two main mistakes that I see people making when crate training their older dogs: they go too quickly and they’re inconsistent.

Crate training takes time. You shouldn’t simply put your dog in an escape-proof crate and wait for learned helplessness to take over. You also shouldn’t try every method on the internet for a few hours or days, then give up and try the next one. Pick one, stick to it, and do it well.

The consistency is important because if you try “cry it out” one day and then let your dog out the next, you’re teaching your dog that crying works sometimes while also teaching him that he might need to cry for hours to get what he wants. Oops!

Here’s how I crate train my foster dogs (who are always adults) and how I help my clients crate train their dogs:

#1 – Make a Good First Impression

When you first introduce your dog to the crate, make it an awesome experience! Hide goodies inside the crate, even when your dog isn’t looking. Never force your dog into the crate.  If you can’t get him in right away, that’s ok. Don’t pressure your dog – just show him that if he checks out the crate, he’s likely to find some goodies in there. Be sure that the crate is nice and roomy and that you’ve got a comfy bed waiting.

#2 – Use Exercise Pens and Baby Gates in the Meantime

If you work full time, you’ll likely need to leave your dog unattended before your dog is ready to spend eight hours in the crate. You might also want to use a confinement system while you’re showering or sleeping, and it’s not smart to use the crate for this right away. Instead, use dog gates or dog pens to confine your dog to a dog-proof part of the house.

Hint: Whenever I can, I actually use dog pens and dog gates instead of crates. It’s so much comfier for the dog!

#3 – Start Small

Every mealtime, head over to the crate. I personally like to use Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol as part of my crate-training. Start by luring the dog into the crate with a bit of kibble. Then follow the 15-day protocol (with the door open at first) to teach your dog that the crate is a great place to rest while stuff is happening around him. In the meantime, avoid leaving your dog in the crate for longer than he can handle by using exercise pens or baby gates.

#4 – Build Up Slowly 

As your dog gets comfy in the crate, start leaving him in there while you cook, intermittently tossing him kibble as a reward for being calm and quiet. Leave him in the crate while you shower or while you get the mail. Another mistake people make is that they only leave the dog alone when they’re at work (for eight or more hours), and otherwise, the dog is glued to them.

No wonder the dog struggles with being alone! Build up your dog’s “alone time confidence” slowly and steadily. Most dogs start to “get it” after about ten minutes of alone time, and you can start jumping from ten-minute absences to 30 minutes (then 45, then 90, then 2 hours, then 3, then 4) quite easily.

Hint: Don’t forget to leave your dog with something tasty to chew on when you leave! Frozen Kongs are my favorite.

#5 – Expect Setbacks 

It’s ok if your dog struggles a bit as you go forward. I use a Furbo to monitor my dogs when I’m working on alone-time training. It’s got a “bark alert” feature that texts me if a foster dog is barking – this lets me know if my dog can’t actually handle being alone for three hours after all!

crate train adult dog

Final Thoughts

The hardest part about crate training an adult dog is picking an approach and sticking to it. Letting your dog outside when he barks may seem counterintuitive, but trust the process – trust me. It works. You just have be consistent! Best of all, it means you don’t have to try to ignore a crying pup.

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