Crate training is certainly a topic that people have strong feelings about. In fact, there aren’t many questions that are likely to cause more arguments in the dog world than, “Should I crate train my dog?”.
We’re going to help sort through the noise so you can make an informed decision for yourself.
What is Dog Crate Training?
Crate training is a method of training your dog that serves multiple purposes. It’s most often used to housetrain a puppy (because they usually won’t soil where they sleep) or to teach an adopted dog the rules of its new home.
People also use crating to keep a dog (and the home) safe while he’s learning not to chew or otherwise be destructive.
Ideally, dogs will spend less time in their crates as they become more trustworthy. Some people don’t use them at all after the initial training, but some continue to use them occasionally, only at night, or for traveling.
Many dogs like their crates and continue to use them voluntarily, often with the door kept open. Others (notably rescued dogs and those with severe separation anxiety) have special issues that may make crating a poor choice for them.
To Crate or Not to Crate a Dog: What Do the Experts Say?
Many dog experts agree that crate training is the best way to housebreak a dog. Many also advocate using a crate as a training tool, as discussed above.
Beyond these uses, opinions vary on whether crate training is humane or not. A primary objection is that many people keep their dogs in their crates for hours at a time. Some crate their dogs for a full day each workday.
Sadly, this does happen. But few dog experts would consider this an appropriate way to use a crate.
Pros: “The Crate is Great!”
There are some important benefits of crate training dogs:
- Crating makes potty training easier.
- A crate is a safe place for dogs to retreat to when the house is noisy or they’re feeling stressed.
- A crate is the safest way for a dog to travel.
- When families vacation with a dog, a crate is a familiar area where the dog can spend the night.
- Crating will confine a dog if it ever needs to recover from illness or injury.
- A crate can be a useful tool in the management of separation anxiety (but only with careful training; see below).
Many (if not most) dog experts feel that crate training is a humane, effective tool for training and managing a dog. However, like most tools, there is general agreement that there is a right way and a wrong way to use it.
The American Kennel Club (AKC), the Humane Society, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) are all among this group that approves of crate training in some form. But they all caution that dogs should not be kept in cages for prolonged periods.
EXPERT TIP: Modern Dog Magazine suggests that crating a dog can be a positive part of raising a dog, but they warn that “too much time spent in a crate can have disastrous consequences.”
Again, there is a right way to use crate training for dogs, and these organizations are all careful to express that.
Cons: “The Crate is Cruel!”
There are serious drawbacks to dog crating when not done properly. Here are some major ones:
- Prolonged isolation can cause severe frustration and emotional distress in dogs. They are pack animals, and being alone is not natural to them.
- Prolonged crating can cause physical distress, especially if the cage is too small for the dog.
- Dogs that are crated for hours every day may suffer from boredom from lack of exercise and mental stimulation. Dogs are active animals that need exercise and stimulation. The lack of them can cause serious behavior problems.
These can include excessive barking, whining, or howling and obsessive-compulsive behaviors like excessive licking and tail chasing. They can also lead to depression and even aggression.
- If you use a crate as punishment, your dog will be unhappy anytime he has to be there. If you crate him for hours at a time in a place he associates with bad feelings, he may suffer a compromised quality of life.
For these reasons, many animal advocates feel that crating dogs is a cruel practice. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is one example. Sadly, when dog crating isn't used correctly, they are probably right.
However, most of the practices that PETA describes as cruel and objectionable are not at all what dog experts recommend.
The key phrase in the quote above is “for extended periods of time.” There is widespread agreement in the dog world that crating your dog is safe and humane if used correctly.
So, what does that mean, “if used correctly?”
Begin by Creating a Positive Association
When done properly, crate training uses positive reinforcement. This makes it the fastest and most effective way to train a dog.
Crate training, therefore, reduces the stress of training for both you and your dog.
But dog crating is a technique that needs to be used carefully. Crates should be used as training tools, not holding cells.
The most important part of the process is to condition your dog so he considers his crate a happy place where only good things happen. Never use it for punishment!
To create positive associations for your dog with his crate, the first step is to locate his crate in a place where family members spend time. You don’t want him to associate being in his crate as social isolation. That will feel like punishment.
The next step is to make it comfortable. Place a soft bed or blanket on the floor of the crate. Put a favorite toy in the crate and maybe something that smells like your dog's favorite family member.
If your dog is a chewer, be sure anything you leave in the crate is safe for him to chew.
For the initial training period, see that everything he thinks of as good happens only in his crate. Only give him chew toys when he is in the crate. You should even feed his meal in the crate at this stage.
When you aren't home, try leaving a radio or television playing at a low volume. The silence of an empty house can make a dog's sense of isolation worse.
If you don’t overdo it by leaving him in his crate during the day for hours at a time, it won’t take long for your dog to be happy to spend time there.
How to Crate Train a Dog – 8 Tips
Now that we’ve set the stage, these are the recommended steps to crate train dogs:
1. Introduce your dog to the crate.
Set the crate up and just leave it there with the door open. Let your dog get used to its presence. If he shows interest in it by sniffing it or even looking inside, reward him. Any interaction with the crate should earn a treat.
2. Encourage your dog into the crate.
Toss a favorite treat or toy in to tempt him to step into the crate. Reward him even if he steps one foot in. Don’t ever force him in. Over time, he should be happy to be lured in further and further, until his whole body is inside. Depending on your dog, this could take a few minutes or a few days.
3. Feed your dog in the crate.
When he is content to be entirely inside the crate, give him his meals inside. Don't close the door yet; just put his bowl right inside so he has to walk in to get it. Eventually, move it to the back of the crate.
4. Start closing the door.
When he’s happy to eat his meals in his crate, close the door for a second or two, then open it immediately and give your dog a treat if he has stayed calm. This will teach him that there's nothing to fear when the door is shut.
Gradually increase the amount of time that the door remains closed. Remember to treat each time he tolerates it well. If he reaches his limit at five minutes, back up to four and start again from there.
5. Leave the room.
The best time to start this step is after he has had a good walk and has eaten dinner. He'll be tired and have a full tummy, both of which will make him feel like a nap. If he is okay with your leaving the room for a minute or two, gradually increase the duration. Be sure to reward him each time he stays quiet.
6. Leave the house.
When he’s comfortable in the crate and no longer whines or cries when you leave the room, leave the house for 10 or 15 minutes. Leave him a high-value treat or chew toy (a filled Kong is perfect) and stay just outside where you can hear him and see how he does.
7. Gradually increase the time you leave him alone.
When he’s reliably quiet for 10 or 15 minutes, start extending the time that he’s alone. Again, if you find a breaking point where he can’t tolerate the duration, back up to the last successful time and start over.
8. Crate him at night.
When crate training dogs at night, it helps to put the crate in an area where he can see or hear family members. This is especially important when training a puppy so you will hear him when he needs to go out at night.
Try placing his crate in the hall near your room—or even in your room—until he can make it through the night. You can gradually move the crate to another location if you want to after he’s potty trained.
How to Crate Train a Puppy
For puppies, the steps will be the same as for crate training older dogs, with two crucial differences:
- A puppy can’t hold his bladder for very long, so he needs frequent potty breaks. A good rule of thumb is that a puppy should spend no more than an hour per month of life in the crate, plus one. This means a two-month-old puppy should be crated no more than three hours at a time, less for very small breeds.
- When puppies whine in the crate in the night, it can be hard to tell if they need to potty or if they just want out of the crate. Try saying his potty phrase, and if he gets excited, that may be the issue.
If you’re absolutely sure he doesn’t need to go out, ignore the whining. (We know it’s hard! But it’s the only way to stop it.)
Rescue dogs can be a special case when it comes to crate training. Some rescue dogs have been cruelly confined and may not take well to attempts to crate train them. You might want to consider an alternative way to contain a dog with issues like these.
On the other hand, the AKC suggests that some shelter dogs consider a crate a secure space of their own where no one will hurt them. This may be particularly true of severely abused and neglected dogs.
Though some people feel that crate training is useful for dogs with separation anxiety, others feel differently. Because a dog’s crate should be a happy place, you may not want to crate a dog who has severe separation anxiety.
That doesn’t mean that you cannot crate train him at all, though. What it does mean is that you need to treat the anxiety with desensitization and counterconditioning first.
This basically means that you should get your dog (or puppy) used to being in the crate very gradually. Use lots of positive reinforcement with treats and rewards. You may even need to start with just a minute or two and gradually extend the time as your dog relaxes.
Genuine separation anxiety causes a state of panic in your dog. It could cause him to struggle madly to get out of the crate, and he could easily injure himself or chip teeth. He could also suffer severe emotional distress.
If you believe your dog has separation anxiety, you should speak with your vet about treatment. In some cases, vets will prescribe medication for dogs with severe separation anxiety.
They may also suggest a certified dog trainer or behaviorist to work with your dog with a behavior modification program.
For more information about behavior modification, please visit Why Is My Dog Licking His Paws Constantly?
When Not to Crate Your Dog
- Your crate is too big or too small.
- Your dog suffers from separation anxiety.
- Your dog has vomiting or diarrhea.
- You will be away for more than four to five hours for a puppy and more than eight hours for an adult.
- Your dog has soiling accidents in the crate.
- You haven’t exercised your dog before crating him.
- The temperature is too hot or too cold.
How to Select a Crate for Dog Training
There are a variety of styles of dog crates, but the most popular one is a collapsible crate with wire mesh walls.
These have an easy-to-clean tray in the bottom. Make sure you choose one with a heavy-duty plastic tray instead of a metal one. The metal trays may rust, and they are heavier, making it harder to move the crate.
Pick a crate that is an appropriate size for your dog. He should be able to stand up and turn around in it and lie down comfortably. Your Great Dane or Alaskan Malamute will need a much bigger crate than a Bichon Frise or Chihuahua.
But on the other hand, it shouldn’t be too big. Dogs usually won’t potty where they eat or sleep, but if his crate is too large, your dog could choose a corner to “do his business” in. The wire mesh cages often come with dividers that you can move to give puppies more space as they grow.
Your dog's crate should be comfortable, so give him plenty of soft bedding to lie on while he is inside.
Tips for Successful Crate Training
Don't ever use the crate as punishment by confining him when he has been naughty or you are angry. At all times, the crate should be a fun, happy place to be. Otherwise, you'll find that he will be reluctant to go inside, and he won't be relaxed when he’s in there.
Be sure your dog can “hold it.”
If you’re going to leave your dog for several hours, be sure he gets a chance to potty before and after crating.
Use special toys and treats.
Keep some much-loved toys and treats just for the times your pup is in the crate. This will make crate time even more fun for him. Food puzzle toys and Kongs are great for this.
Arrange for exercise.
If you need to leave your dog in his crate for prolonged periods, recruit or hire someone to exercise him midway through your absence. He will also need a walk when released from his crate at the end of the day.
Remove leash and collar.
Never put your dog in a crate with a leash on. It also makes sense to remove his collar. A dog can get these caught in the wire mesh and choke himself.
Use only safe toys and treats in his crate.
This is especially important for puppies, who can choke on small pieces he may chew off a toy or a chew. Never give rawhide chews or toys with squeakers when you can't supervise your dog. Dogs are very good at getting those squeakers out!
Kongs are the very best toys for crate training. They are practically indestructible, and if you fill them with sticky food like peanut butter, they can keep your dog busy for quite a while (and even longer when they are frozen).
You can find healthy recipes online designed for Kong stuffing.
Alternatives to Crate Training
If you have a dog that is not a good candidate for crate training, or if you simply don’t like the idea, there are a few alternatives you could try. These would be good choices for families where no one is home all day long.
- A puppy playpen. These are similar to crates but on a larger scale and with no floor. If you have an uncarpeted floor, you could set one up with a bed and potty pads a good distance from each other so your dog would use both. The downside, of course, is that you would have to train your dog to use the pads.
- Confine your dog in a small dog-proof room behind a baby gate, as above. Again, this gives your dog more freedom, but you will have to deal with pads when you need to leave him alone for an extended period.
- Consider a good doggy daycare for all or part of a week when no one can be home with your dog.
When considering dog crate training pros and cons, the most important thing to consider is how often and for how long you will need to crate your dog.
For homes where no one is home during the day, an alternative method of confining your dog would be preferable. You may want to consider a playpen or dog-proof room with a baby gate.
If you do choose to crate, you must train your dog to enjoy his crate as a secure place where only good things happen.
Many well-trained dogs love their crates. They serve as dens and are a safe place to go when they need a break from a busy household. Those who take a thoughtful and humane approach to crate training dogs can relax knowing that their best friends are safe, comfortable, and “at home.”
Helpful Dog Training Resource:
References and Further Reading
- Brown University, Colwill Lab. Crate training your dog.
- Humane Society of the United States. Crate training 101.
- Messer, Jennifer. Modern Dog Magazine. A trainer’s truth about crates.
- Stilwell, Victoria. Crate training.
- The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDA). Crate training.
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). What’s wrong with crating dogs and puppies?
- Texas A&M University Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The benefits of crate training.