Ask Doctor Dog: Is It Possible to Crate Train an Older Dog?
Crate training has long been touted as an effective training method for puppies. Vets and dog owners alike have recognized the benefits of crate training, including easier potty training and providing a safe, secure space just for your dog.
Is crate training just for puppies, though? One reader asked, and Doctor Dog answered.
The Question: Is Crate Training Older Dogs Mean?
Dear Doctor Dog,
I just adopted a dog that my vet estimated is around 6 years old. She's very sweet and calm, but she was never potty trained. We've already ruled out any medical reasons for having accidents, but training her is proving to be tougher than I anticipated. I work from home, but when I have to leave her home alone, accidents are a given.
A friend of mine recommended crate training, but it seems harsh for an older dog to adapt to. I don't know for sure what her past was like, but I don't want to make her feel anxious or alone.
What's your take? Is crate training an older dog helpful or harsh?
– Alexander Vinokurov from Bellevue, Washington
Doctor Dog's Answer: Crate Training Isn't Just for Puppies
It warms my heart to know that there are owners like yourself who care enough about their dog's experience to ask questions like this one. Crate training is beneficial for dogs of all ages, with a few minor exceptions. As long as your dog is in good health and isn't dealing with incontinence or severe separation anxiety, there's no reason not to give it a try.
Since dogs prefer not to soil the area they sleep in, crate training can help older dogs get the idea, even when it's a new concept. Dogs are also den animals. Having a safe space to retreat to when they're feeling overwhelmed by kids, guests or other pets can make them feel less anxious. Getting used to a crate also makes travel and visits to the vet much less stressful for everyone involved.
A crate should never be used for punishment. When done right, your dog's crate can become their happy place, and a way to reinforce positive behaviors while you're away. It might take more time and patience to crate train a dog beyond their puppy stage, but it can be just as beneficial to adult dogs. I happen to love my crate, so give it a try. Your dog might love it too.
Best of luck,
— Doctor Dog
More Infurmation About Crate Training Later in Life
To give crate training a try, invest in an appropriately sized crate. It should be just big enough for your dog to stand up, turn around and lie down. If there's too much extra space, it won't feel as secure and will leave more room for accidents. If your dog likes to sleep on a soft surface, add a mat or bed to the crate. From there, follow the following steps:
1. Pick a location for the crate. It should be somewhere relatively out of the way, but central enough that it doesn't feel isolated.
2. Put small treats and toys inside the crate, but lock the door. Leave the crate like that for a day or two, adding new treats to get your dog's curiosity peaked.
3. Open the crate and let your dog explore and try out the treats. When they walk out, add more treats inside and close the door again. Repeat this process until your dog automatically walks into the crate every time you open the door. This creates a positive association so the crate becomes a happy place. To take this a step further, you can begin feeding your dog meals inside the crate.
4. While your dog is inside the crate, practice moving the door back and forth. Each time, reassure them with a small treat. Continue practicing this step, allowing them to exit the crate whenever they want, until they're relaxed about moving the door.
5. Go for it. Shut the door. Initially, just close it half way, then put in a treat. If they remain calm, close it a little more. If your dog seems nervous, take it slower. Always let them leave when they want to, and leave the crate closed with treats inside at the end of every training session.
6. Lock the door. After they're comfortable with the door closed, lock it and immediately reward them with treats. Try leaving it locked for a minute, then opening it and showering them with praise. Try this for a few days until your dog is content to stay in the crate even after you've opened the door.
7. From there, try leaving a toy filled with peanut butter and practice stepping away from the crate for a brief moment. When you return, reward them with more treats. If they still seem calm, gradually work up to longer stays in the crate.
Remember, follow your dog's lead. If they seem anxious at any point, slow down and take a step back. The key to crate training success is to make the crate a positive experience. Avoid leaving them in a crate for too long, especially right off the bat. Even after they're comfortable staying in the crate for extended periods of time, you should never leave a dog in a crate for more than four hours at a time. Make sure to offer potty breaks often, especially if house training is still a work in progress.
For more crate training tips, watch the video below.
Have a Question for Doctor Dog?
Leave any questions for me, and look for my responses in my Dear Doctor Dog advice column on Always Pets. Have questions about cats, bunnies, hamsters or any other critters? Shoot. I may be a dog myself, but I'm here to help all your animal companions, whether they have four legs or fins.
Important reminder: Doctor Dog is happy to provide general pet care guidance, but she cannot provide formal medical recommendations or diagnoses for your pet. Your pet's veterinarian should always be your primary resource for serious questions regarding your pet's health.