Crate Games: What Are They and Why Should I Play Them With My Dog

If you’re like many dog owners, you probably feel at least slightly guilty when you have to crate your beloved pup while you head off to work or other important obligations you have in your busy lives. While it can be emotionally difficult for you to leave your pup confined to a small space for more time that you’d like, it can sometimes be even more difficult for your beloved pup, especially if they haven’t been “taught” how to appreciate their time spent in their kennel/crate.

If you have a dog that is crated for a few hours a day while you are away, it is so important that your dog actually enjoys their time inside this small space. While many dogs already appreciate their kennels as a “safe” environment, (just as we may see our own bedrooms or beds as a safe and comfortable place to rest), there are also many dogs who haven’t quite learned to appreciate this sacred space and may instead show resistance or a strong disliking towards their new “digs.” If your pup does not enjoy time in their kennel, has never been crated, or simply needs to be shown more ways to “enjoy” their time spent in their crate, then this article is for you!

Disclaimer: Please remember that while we are unconditional dog (and pet!) lovers here at Milwaukee Paws Pet Care, we are not professional trainers. We are writing here to provide tips and guidelines we feel are helpful for many; however, not all dogs are alike, and some dogs may need specified training sessions with a professional. We know the added stress that teaching a dog “new tricks” on your own may bring, so if you need extra assistance and don’t know where to turn, let us know. We’ve worked with some local, experienced dog behaviorists/trainers and can refer you to their services if needed.

Additionally, if you need assistance getting your beloved pet enough mental and physical stimulation in addition to cognitive enrichment activities outside of the crate, we would love to help. We are well-versed in providing cognitively stimulation and physical activities to the pets we serve, and we would love to hear from you how we can help serve your own beloved pet!

What are the Benefits of Crate Games (Training)?

Playing crate games with your pup will essentially teach him to enjoy his time spent in his crate when you have to be away. Most owners I know feel uncomfortable leaving their pets out to roam the entire home while they’re away at work or other important obligations, and teaching your pet to enjoy his time spent inside his crate is only going to help strengthen the relationship between both dog and owner. Some dogs may have separation anxiety and may not have good control over destructive behavior within the home, and if you can’t be there to supervise/train, then allowing your dog to go to his safe crate is a perfect solution to help prevent these destructive behaviors within the home while you are away. (If you think your dog may be suffering from anxiety, check out our recent blog Signs your Dog is Stressed, and learn a few ways you can help him). Additionally, if your dog only associates the crate with you leaving the home, he may find it to be a sad or lonely place to be. By practicing crate games and spending time enjoying the crate together, your pup should be able to associate their crate as their secure, calm space. If you have house guests or company over on a regular basis, your dog’s crate will become their “retreat” when they need to escape the added stresses of unfamiliar guests in their home.

Please keep in mind that while you are trying to encourage your dog to enjoy his time in his crate, you should never use the crate as any form of punishment. Forcing your dog into his crate is only going to create negative experiences for him, possibly causing your pup to have crate aversion, which could undo all of your hard work!


Picking the Right Crate

If your pup needs a crate or already has one, it’s a good idea to first make sure you are using the right crate for your pet. While some larger dogs may require a large crate, smaller dogs will be comfortable in smaller kennels. That seems obvious, right? But on a more critical note, it is very important for your dog to comfortably sit, stand up comfortably, turn around, and be able to lay down with the ability to fully extend their legs. While you may wish to just purchase a large kennel for your small dog or puppy from the beginning, that can also cause potential issues as crates that are “too large” can lead to your pup feeling “too” safe, and he may potty on one side of the kennel, and sleep on the other. (If you have a puppy, this means you may need to purchase an additional/larger kennel in the future as he grows). While size is a critical factor in determining the right crate for your pup, it’s also important to consider the material and placement of your pup’s crate.

You want to make your dog’s crate a safe and comfortable place for him to rest and relax. Part of the “fun” of making a crate space for your dog is to also ensure he feels he has a safe place he can go to in times of higher stress or whenever he feels he needs comfort and relaxation. Plastic crates are generally already going to provide a cozy, dark and comforting feel, while a wire crate may not help your dog feel quite as comforted. If you choose a wire crate for your dog, it may be helpful to cover the back portion of the crate with a blanket as a way to create a darker and cozier feel for your beloved pet. However, be sure your dog can’t pull or reach at the blanket and pull it into the crate as this could not only create potential safety hazards but would also defeat the benefits of covering the crate. (Dens are a natural habitat for dogs, so it’s no surprise that dogs enjoy having a dark, secure and special place to turn to when they need it).

While the type of crate you choose is important, so is the placement of the crate. You don’t want your pup to feel overstimulated while inside his crate, especially since it’s supposed to be his “safe” place in the home. However, you also don’t want your dog to feel isolated and lonely if the crate is in a secluded room that isn’t used often. Some behaviorists and dog owners suggest placing the crate next to your own bed. This can especially be helpful if your dog wakes up at night and needs some extra TLC as it allows you to reach down and provide comfort to your pet without getting up in the middle of the night. However, most owners and behaviorists suggest placing the crate in a quiet space near the main living areas of the home where the family spends a good amount of time. Choosing the best location for your dog will depend on his temperament and needs, so follow his cues. It’s important for your dog to be close to family, so if you place it in the bedroom and find your dog appears lonely or is showing signs of stress, it may mean he would be more comfortable being crated in a more common living area.

Regardless of where you place the crate, you want your dog to feel he has a safe place to go to “escape” the stresses and demands of our day-to-day life that may agitate your pet. If you have family or guests over to your home, this may be especially more important for your pet’s well-being. If your dog’s crate is in a space where your guests also often populate, then your dog may begin to feel trapped which can often cause nervousness and anxiety. Ensuring your pet has a safe, stress-free environment to turn to will help reduce risks of having a fearful dog and will allow your beloved pet to have a “sanctuary” to go to when he feels he needs it.

Now that you know you have the right crate (and in the right space of your home), it’s time to play!

Crate Game Ideas 

Playing “games” with your dog in his kennel is essentially teaching him to enjoy his time inside of it; but while it may be a training session to you, to your dog it is simply just fun! If you continue to reward your dog with treats and excitement, you are bound to continue to see success in your beloved pet’s ability to follow through with these different “games,” while also encouraging your dog to enjoy his time in his crate without him even realizing it! Additionally, every time your dog accomplishes or completes a new “trick,” you’re helping him learn new skills and enriching his cognitive abilities, shaping him into a more well-behaved, confident and obedient pet!

A Few Ideas of Crate Games to Play With Your Dog:

1. Hide and Seek! It’s probably no surprise that this popular game works well both outside and inside of the crate! We’ve mentioned hide and seek in our blog Cognitive Enrichment and Physical Activities for Dogs in Winter where you can read about other stimulating games to play with your pet. And while hide and seek is a fun game for pets and owners to play throughout the entire home, it also works well when trying to crate train your dog! Whatever you can do to make your dog’s time spent in his crate as fun and rewarding as possible the better off you both will be! Teach your dog to stay in their crate while you find a hiding place! Then ask your dog to come find you. You may need to start out in very easy hiding spots before eventually making it more challenging for your pup to find you! This fun game will help your beloved pet practice recall while being praised and rewarded for finding you when called! (Be sure to have treats or other special rewards ready!)

2. Fetch! This simple game never disappoints! Simplify this fun game by throwing your pet’s favorite toy into his kennel to fetch! If you find he’s struggling or fearful to go inside the kennel to retrieve, you can try throwing the toy a bit closer to the door. As your dog gets better at this game, throw the toy/treat further into the kennel. Be sure to reward your dog with a treat or reward of some kind each time he brings the toy back to you.

3. “Find and Seek.”  While hiding and seeking out humans is always a fun challenge, seeking out food or treats might be even better! Especially for your pup! A way to play this game is to ask your dog to stay inside his crate, then simply FIND and seek out the treats you leave inside it for him! You can also play this with a Kong toy or other rewarding treat toy. Your dog will get excited about the object and will begin to search with his nose. If they find it, and stay inside the crate with their reward, you can praise him and leave him be. However, if your pup finds the reward and brings it back outside the crate to you, you can throw it back into the crate to help continue encouraging him to enjoy his time inside his crate.

4. Stay In! Teach your pup to stay inside his crate when you open the door. If they can do this successfully, give them a release cue to come out and reward them with a treat. You can start with a short amount of time and gradually increase the time before releasing them to see how obedient he can be!

5. Treat Surprise! When your dog isn’t watching you, throw some treats into his crate. The next time he enters his crate, he will be delighted to find his favorite treats inside waiting for him. This will continue to help encourage positive associations with time spent inside as this associates the crate with reward.

6. Treat Trail! If your dog is hesitant to even enter his crate, you can help encourage him by placing a trail of treats outside the door and a few more towards the door of the crate on the inside. If your dog goes in for them, you can throw a few more towards the back to encourage him to fully enter the crate. Leave the door open though so your dog can enter and exit on his own. Give him lots of love and praise if he successfully goes to the back of the crate to retrieve his treats!

7. Treat Toys! Give your dog his favorite treat-filled toy such as a Kong and have him sit in his crate as he enjoys the food toy. This will help keep him and his taste buds happy while also continuing to encourage positive associations with time spent inside the crate.

8. Meal Time. While having treats in the crate is a great idea, as your dog gets more accustomed to time in their crates, it is beneficial to feed your dog all of their meals in their crate, as well. This will keep your dog continuing to associate happy, positive experiences with his crate.

9. Cuddle Time. Once you have a tired-out pup who is ready to rest, spend some time sitting in front of the crate with him inside. You can pet your beloved dog and give him some time to rest as you pamper him with some love and affection.

While playing crate games, you may find it more convenient to place the dog’s crate in a more common area of the home, such as the living room, to be able to work on these games more easily throughout the day. Follow your dog’s cues. If you feel he is still more comfortable having the crate in a quieter area of the home, it is best to do so. These are guidelines, but you need to do what works best for your individual pup as each one may react differently to potential distractions around them.

Crate games and “training” can be quite complex, and while we have provided a few tips and ideas of how to help teach your beloved pet to enjoy his time inside his crate, we also know we are just scratching the surface of all the possible ways to encourage comfort and security for your pet while inside their crates. If you and your family need additional ideas or training techniques to help your dog successfully enjoy his crate, please reach out today and we can connect you to a skilled, professional behaviorist. 

Additionally, if you find yourself feeling guilty for the amount of time your dog spends in his crate when you can’t be there, Milwaukee Paws Pet Care is here to help! Our dedicated staff can be there when you can’t be to give your pup a much-needed break from his crate while also encouraging cognitive enrichment and physical activity both inside and outside the home to help ensure a more positive and healthy life for your pet!

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