Playpen and crate training a puppy
Crates and playpens can be cosy spaces for your pooch. Here’s how to use them and ensure your pup is comfortable.
If a puppy has recently joined your family, then you are probably wondering if and when to use a crate or playpen.
To help, here’s everything you need to know about how to train your puppy to use a crate and playpen, so they're comfortable with both, as well as the uses for each.
How to use your crate or playpen
It’s incredibly important to train your dog to feel comfortable with crates and playpens before you start using them regularly. So, here's a step-by-step guide to introducing a crate or playpen.
Step one: prepare the crate or pen
A crate can be a cosy space where your pup can relax, spend time alone and feel safe. But to ensure it’s a positive place for them, you need to make sure they feel comfortable with it first.
Set their crate up in a calm, quiet place where they’re unlikely to be disturbed while relaxing inside. Ensure the crate is sturdy, set up correctly, and unlikely to collapse accidentally, before using it with your puppy.
It should also be large enough for your pup to stand up, turn around, lie down, sit down, wag their tail and stretch out fully. As your puppy grows, you may need to buy a larger crate.
Make the crate cosy and comfortable with your dog’s bed, blanket and a non-spill water bowl inside, as well as any toys or treats.
You can cover the top and sides with a blanket to exclude draughts and reduce sounds from outside. Fix the door securely open so there’s no risk of your dog accidentally being shut inside while they’re learning about it.
Playpens enable you to restrict your puppy to a certain area while giving them the space that the crate alone can’t provide. You could set up a playpen around your puppy’s crate to give them a larger space to roam in, or you could set it up in a different room entirely.
Make sure the pen is tall enough and secured. It should be large enough to include a comfortable resting space where your puppy can stretch out, as well as their water, food and toys. There should be enough space for your pup to move around the pen and that they can stay at least a metre away from food/water bowls.
Remember to make sure that in both playpens and crates, your dog has access to fresh water.
Step two: Introduce the crate or pen in a positive way
To start training, you’ll need small pieces of your dog’s favourite tasty treats. Make sure the doors to the crate or playpen are fixed open to allow your dog to explore going inside comfortably.
First, simply allow your pup to become used to the crate or playpen being there. Let them sniff it or even venture inside, in their own time.
Make sure you have some treats ready so if they do go inside, you can reward them for making good choices. You could also leave some around the crate or pen for them to find to build up a positive experience.
During the introduction and early stages of training, your dog needs to know they can come out of the crate or pen quickly and easily. This will ensure they feel safe at all times. It will also give them confidence and help to create the positive feeling we want them to associate with being inside the crate or pen.
Remember: Introducing your puppy to new things should always be done slowly, in their own time.
Step three: How to encourage your dog to go inside a crate or playpen
Fetch some treats
Prepare some of your dog’s favourite treats. Position yourself next to the crate or pen so you can easily drop treats into it.
Start dropping the treats
Start by dropping a few treats onto their bed through the top of the crate, or into the playpen. Your dog should already be comfortable entering, so should happily move inside for the treats.
Once they’re inside, continue to drop treats inside. When …
Encourage your dog through
If your dog is struggling and appears reluctant to go inside the crate or pen, then make it easier for them by placing the treat in the doorway to begin with. Repeat this stage a number of times to build up their confidence, before dropping the treat just a little further …
If your dog moves out at any point, stop dropping treats and wait. Don’t call them or try to lure them back in, just wait until they return. Once they return, begin to drop treats again.
Help them settle
You can now begin to teach them to settle in the crate or pen.
Step four: reward them for settling inside
When your dog chooses to go to their crate or pen, don’t make too much of a fuss - you don’t want to disturb them.
But gently praise them so you capture this lovely moment and add to their good feeling. You can also drop a treat in from time to time when you notice them calmly lounging.
You can offer your dog a long-lasting chew or food-releasing toy, or even feed them their usual meal inside the crate or pen. Not only will this continue to build their positive associations with both, but it will encourage them to spend longer inside.
Step five: close the door
Once your dog is happily spending time inside the crate or pen with the door secured open, you can start teaching them that the door closes. We want them to feel confident about this so take things steadily.
If at any stage your dog shows any sign of worry, such as whining or scrabbling to get out, then go back to a stage where they feel comfortable. Spend time repeating this stage to build their confidence before gently trying to move on again.
To begin with, start to close the door slightly when they are inside. Don’t secure it yet though, so they can still exit if they need to. Repeat this a few times.
Providing your dog is comfortable with this, you can start to secure the door. Do this for a moment, before opening it again so they can come out if they choose to.
Gradually build up the length of time your dog spends inside the crate or pen with the door closed. Remember you can offer them a tasty chew to enjoy when they’re inside, and you can drop in a treat and give them some praise when they’re relaxing.
At all other times when you’re not doing a training session, leave the door secured open so your dog can come and go as they please.
Step six: Step away from the crate or pen
When your dog is relaxing and enjoying themselves inside the crate or pen, start to engage in your own normal day-to-day activities. This way they learn that you can be active yourself while they stay in the crate or pen. Stay in the same room to begin with though.
Providing your dog is comfortable with this, you can build up to leaving the room.
Start by giving them their meal, long-lasting chew or food-releasing toy and closing the door. Then slowly move towards the door of the room to see how they react.
If they continue enjoying themselves, then you can pop out of the room briefly before returning and carrying on with your own activities. Continue to occasionally throw a treat into the crate or pen, or give them some praise.
Gradually build up the length of time you remain outside the room. Initially, always make sure your dog has something enjoyable to occupy themselves with inside their crate or pen. They will be learning that they don’t need to rely on you being there to have a lovely time.
Use the crate or pen as part of your normal routine by leaving tasty treats or enrichment in there for your puppy to keep finding. Your puppy will start to choose to go into the pen as good things happen in there.
Keep the crate or pen accessible for your puppy to use as a positive and safe resting spot.
Remember: during crate or pen training you may need to give your dog more treats than normal. So you may want to reduce how much of their normal food you are giving them.
When to use a crate or playpen
- The crate can provide a den area for your puppy that will become a positive and comfy space. If trained positively, they will learn that they can retreat to it if they feel uncomfortable or would like a quiet place to rest.
- It can be covered to make the space even more quiet. This is particularly helpful during fireworks when your pup may feel scared and need somewhere they feel safe.
- A crate can be useful throughout your dog's life. If you get your puppy comfortable with a crate positively at a young age, this will help them feel relaxed if they have to use one in the future. This might be in the car or for rest due to an injury.
- Once your dog enjoys using the crate as a safe, calm space, you can take it away with you. If you go on holiday to a dog-friendly hotel, for example, access to their crate may help to reduce any anxiety your pup may have in the new location.
A playpen can help manage your puppy around the home environment, limiting access to areas which haven't been puppy proofed. This might be where they stay at night so they can’t chew anything that could be dangerous, for example.
Playpens can be more appropriate than crates for use at night as they offer more space for movement. It can also be useful while your puppy is young and learning how to adjust to their new life with you.
If you have another dog or a cat that your new pup needs to be introduced to then a playpen is a great way to keep your puppy separate, enabling them to meet each other in a positive way and for them to be able to move away if necessary. Just make sure that the other animal is being managed too to ensure both are comfortable with the interaction, and they are being supervised.
If your puppy isn't housetrained, ensure any mess in the pen is cleaned away as soon as possible. Of course, it's also important to offer plenty of opportunities for them to leave the pen, especially to practise house training and enable them to go to the toilet outside.
A playpen is unlikely to be used as your dog gets older.
Remember, all dogs have different and individual needs, and they shouldn’t be left alone for longer than they can cope with. Even though a dog might really love their crate or pen, they shouldn’t spend too much time inside as they might become stiff and might also need the toilet. Please speak to your vet for advice on how long it’s appropriate to leave your dog alone for.
Always make sure your dog is having a good time in their crate or pen, whether enjoying their toys, chews or simply snoozing. The safer and more comfortable they feel inside, the happier they’ll be spending time in their crate when you need them to.
Need to know: It is essential that your puppy always enjoys being in the crate or pen. This is why you should never use it to punish them, as they may associate going into the crate with negative feelings. As a result, they might stop feeling secure in there and become reluctant to go in.
Using a crate and playpen together
It’s often not a case of choosing between a crate and a playpen but rather, using the two together.
As the crate and playpen have very different uses, they can be used together to complement each other while training a young puppy.
You may introduce a crate as a ‘safe space’ a puppy can use as a retreat to rest and include this in the setup of your playpen.
However, you only want to do this if the pen is large enough to house the crate and still have room for stretching and roaming. Or you may be able to attach the pen on either side of the crate opening, so the crate extends the playpen area.
Speak to a trainer or behaviourist to plan how you will use these and which way is best for your individual puppy and needs.
Puppies need a lot of training – getting them comfortable with the crate and the playpen is just the beginning. Find out how to get them used to spending time alone too, so they don’t worry when you leave them.
For more expert advice on training your pooch why not enroll in some dog training lessons? Our Dogs Trust Dog Schools give practical training to help you and your pooch understand each other better. Find your nearest Dogs Trust Dog School.