How to Crate Train Your Dog for a Stress-Free Experience

Whether you’re heading out on a road trip or hitting the open skies with your pooch, a little preparation can go a long way. Especially if your dog is going to need to spend any length of time in a travel crate.

Ensuring sure your dog is familiar with and comfortable in his crate can help make what might be a scary situation a little easier.

Travel crate training isn’t difficult for a dog that’s already crate trained. For these dogs, you might only need to get him used to what it’s like to travel in his crate. (Skip to “Take the Crate on the Road” below if this is the case.)

If this is the first time your dog will be spending time in a crate, you’ll need to give him plenty of time get used to it.

The key to crate training, said Steven Appelbaum, President of Animal Behavior College, “is for the dog to be comfortable in the crate, that the crate is the correct size and that the crate is used correctly. Not for punishment or a place of banishment.”

Choose the Right Crate

A crate is not a cage. It should be roomy enough for your dog to stand and easily turn around. A crate that’s too small isn’t only uncomfortable. It’s also stressful.

To find the right-sized crate, measure your dog from the top of his head (or tip of his ears if they’re erect) to the floor when he’s standing. Then measure from the tip of his nose to the base of his tail. Then, add four inches to both measurements. Use the adjusted measurement when shopping for his travel crate.

If you’re purchasing a crate while your dog is a puppy and you anticipate future travel crate needs, consider a larger option (you can base the larger size on your dog’s anticipated adult size) with divider panels that can “grow” with your dog.

You’ll also need to consider airline compliance requirements if you’re traveling by plane. Most airlines require crates to be made of fiberglass, metal, or rigid plastic. Some also accept crates made from solid wood or plywood. You cannot use a collapsible crate on a plane, and the floor must be solid and leakproof. There are also rules related to the crate door and locking mechanism. And, of course, all crates must have adequate ventilation.

If you’ll be traveling by car, make sure there’s space in the back of your car for the crate. If there’s no room for the right-sized crate, you’ll need to consider other travel accessories like a car harness.

Give Your Dog Plenty of Time to Adjust

An adult dog that’s never spent time in a crate may need a longer time to get used to it than a puppy. That means starting crate training well beyond when she’ll need to be in it. If you’re flying with your dog across country in mid-June, don’t wait until June 1 to start crate training.

There’s no such thing as too soon. In fact, the longer your dog has to get used to – and even like – her crate, the easier it’ll be for everyone.

Don't Rush

When you bring your new crate home, don’t force your dog inside right away. Start by putting his favorite bed, toys or treats inside the crate to encourage him to go in on his own.

If your new crate doesn’t come already assembled, you can also choose to get your dog used to just the bottom piece of the crate first. If they have a favorite spot to lie down, put the bottom there. Once they’re used to that, you can gradually add the sides, top and door.

Some people find that feeding their dog’s meals in the crate also helps create positive associations with the crate. If you do this, start by putting his food bowl at the entrance of the crate. Over the next few days, move the bowl further and further into the crate.

Because dogs have an instinctual affinity for den-like spaces, it shouldn’t take long for him to grow accustomed to the crate. He may even start choosing the crate as his preferred naptime spot.

Close the Door

Once your dog is going in and out of the crate on her own, it’s time to get her accustomed to it with the door closed.

Start by keeping the door closed for five minutes at a time. If she has no issue with that, increase it to 10 or 15 minutes. Over the next few days or weeks (depending on your dog), up this to a couple of hours at a time.

Depending on how long your dog will need to be crated during travel, you may need to leave her in the crate overnight to get her used to longer stretches. If you’ll be taking a long flight, your goal is to get your dog used to spending nights in the crate without feeling anxiety.

Do all of this while you’re at home. You can start by sitting in the same room as her, then progressing by moving into another room.

The next step is to leave the house while your dog is crated. Start by putting her in the crate when you go out for short errands. Work your way up to longer periods of time away.

Take the Crate on the Road

When you think your dog’s ready, try loading the crate up into the car and going for drives around town together. Make sure to drive at different speeds, take turns, and drive over speed bumps to get him used to different types of movement. Some people recommend taking your dog to the car wash so he’ll be exposed to new sights and sounds. And, learn that new sights and sounds don’t have to be scary or an indication that anything bad is about to happen.

You may need to train your dog to get into the crate once it’s in the car. This is much easier than crating your dog in the house and then carrying it to the car. However, if your dog will be flying, it can be helpful for him to experience being moved around while he’s inside the crate.

Never leave your dog crated in the car alone, even with the windows open.

Make It Positive

Throughout your dog’s crate training, no matter how long it takes, remember to use positive reinforcement techniques throughout. And, never use the crate for punishment.

In the early stages of training, praise him for sniffing the crate from the outside. Praise him for eating his food at the entrance of the crate. Praise him when he goes inside on his own. Give him treats to let him know when he does something right.

Positive reinforcement is the best way to take any anxiety out of the crate training process, and may even speed it up.