The use of an appropriately-selected crate is one of the most effective ways to prevent many issues that arise in pet dogs. From house training to destructive behaviors, travel, separation anxiety, counter surfing and managing multi-dog, multi-pet, and even households with children, the crate is both an amazing training tool and crucial to many types of management. A lot of behaviors that ultimately lead to dog owners rehoming their dogs could be solved in a fairly straightforward manner by employing the use of a crate.
Many dog owners reel at the idea of putting their dog in a crate because they, as a human, wouldn’t want to be caged, so why should their dog? The reason is just that: a dog is a dog, and has different needs than we do, as humans. Even when not crated, many dogs will seek out secluded or covered areas in which to rest, such as under a coffee table or in a tangle of chairs. Dogs are den animals, and the crate naturally becomes their safe space.
When is the Best Time to Start Using a Dog Crate?
If you are bringing home a puppy, the best thing you can do is to begin using a crate straight away. Most reputable breeders will start crate training before puppy even goes home, so if you have gone that route you should be able to start up without missing a beat.
Puppies especially benefit from crate training as they are adorable but clumsy things that don’t understand all the everyday dangers of the world. They’re often underfoot, investigating and exploring, chewing on things, interacting with (and often pestering) children and other animals, and of course peeing and pooping whenever the urge strikes. Understandably, dog owners are not always capable of perfectly supervising a puppy at every waking moment; the crate is your puppy’s saving grace.
If you’re bringing home an older dog, you may get more resistance if the dog has already developed issues with separation anxiety or is just brand new to the crate in general. In these situations, there are a few ways to move forward, depending largely on the tools you have at your disposal and the dog in front of you.
In either case, most dogs are capable of being crate trained using the protocols detailed below, even if the dog starts out with a very negative attitude towards confinement.
In both situations, using a crate is best done as soon as possible, as you can breathe easy knowing your dog is safe when left alone. Your dog can not get into what we call “dangerous nonsense,” like chewing or eating hazardous items. Your furniture and personal items can’t be dirtied or destroyed. And with the proper crate training protocols, your dog will be calm, safe, and their general training will be unmarred by opportunities to push boundaries while you are away.
Selecting a Crate
Selecting the right crate for your dog is crucial for successful house training and for your dog’s comfort and wellbeing. Material, size, and type all matter when it comes to choosing the right crate for you and your dog.
A dog’s crate should be large enough for the dog to lay down in any position they choose; many dog owners make the mistake of sizing the crate so that their dog can fit in a standard DOWN position, but leaving their dog unable to stretch out in other ways. However, a too-large crate can also be detrimental, as you want a dog to actually settle down rather than play or pace inside the crate and wind themselves up. The right size is also important for house training, as a too-large crate enables a dog to go do their business on one side of the crate while resting on the other, preventing them from learning over time to “hold it.”
Material is also important and will depend on your needs. If you need a crate that is easy to clean, a standard wire crate with a removable pan makes cleaning messes quick and easy. If you are concerned about separation anxiety, escape artists, or destructive behavior, going with a heavy-duty crate like an Impact Crate, K9 Kennel Boss, or Gunner can contain an escape-prone dog and keep them safe in the process. Plastic crates can also be used on a daily basis, but they are more difficult to clean than a standard wire crate, so they are the preferred crate for travel for many dogs.
I usually advise clients to avoid fabric and “pop-up” dog crates, as they are easy targets for escape or even just being damaged by a bored chewer.
Standard wire crates are typically the go-to for young puppies, as they often come with dividers and can grow with your puppy as you move the divider.
Heavy-duty crates are usually online-only purchases, but most standard pet crates are available new in pet stores and even some big box department stores. Most of these standard crates are very affordable, while a heavy-duty option may run a few hundred dollars or more. However, in both situations, even a heavy-duty crate is going to cost les than fixing damage to the home or replacing ruined furniture. If you’re really on a budget, though, you can scour your local sale listings or thrift shops to find a discounted crate as long as you clean it well before use.
For a complete guide on selecting the correct crate for your dog, including all different sizes, types, and materials, check out my article, How to Pick the Right Crate for Your Dog.
Where Should You Put the Dog Crate?
There is some flexibility as to where you should place your dog’s crate. In my home, they go in a designated dog room, and while I do recommend having your dogs in a separate room from where you sleep, you do not need to have an extreme setup like mine.
Generally, it’s advised to pick a spot away from potential hazards like heaters, and in a space that stays a fairly comfortable temperature throughout the night. Popular spots for many of my clients are in the living room, laundry room, or guest bedroom.
If you have a studio apartment, roommates, or otherwise have to keep your dog close to you when you sleep, that is also okay. I have two of my personal dogs’ crates in my room, and that has served us fine. The main reason to keep your dog’s crate in a separate space is to keep them practiced in being alone so they do not develop separation anxiety, but if you are also practicing crating your dog during the day when you leave the home this should not develop into a severe issue.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the dog’s crate should still be their own distinct spot; their “room within a room,” so to speak. If there are children in the home, create a firm boundary with them regarding the crate. The crate is for the dog, not people. Small humans may find the crate exciting, especially if they can squish themselves inside it as a game. But this space should be designated for your dog, and respected as their space only.
How to Crate Train Your Dog
Crate training is best started immediately, as soon as your bring your dog or puppy home. Understandably, different dogs will have different starting points, so we have different approaches based on where your dog is starting off.
Crate Training Puppies
For puppies, especially those coming home from reputable breeders, crate training should be remarkably easy and can begin on day one. Bring your puppy to the crate for an hour or two at a time, ideally during puppy’s regular nap cycles.
You may leave something safe and quiet for puppy to chew on, but should remove any collars, harnesses, clothing, or other hazards each time they go into the crate to be left unsupervised. This is because many crates have parts that could potentially catch a collar or clothing and harm your puppy if you’re not there to immediately intervene. Collars and harnesses can go back on when your dog comes out of the crate.
If your puppy cries sometimes, don’t worry. Stay consistent and stick to your schedule. Remember that letting your puppy out of the crate while they are howling or barking is reinforcing the behavior, and you will get more of it in return. Even when it’s time for your puppy to come out of the crate, wait for them to settle if they are barking, and let them out when they have quieted down a bit.
Crate Training Adult Dogs and Difficult Cases
Many adult dogs will take to crate training with the same protocols detailed for young puppies. However, some adult dogs have had a chance to develop negative experiences with the crate and may need extra help.
For difficult dogs, we like to see if we can approach the situation slowly, with reward. We do this by having the crate out throughout the day, and having the dog practice being contained for a suitable duration for that dog, a few times through the day. Come by and drop rewards whenever the dog is crated, and extend duration as your dog develops the ability to be confined.
You can also practice having your dog in the crate with the door open, to get them more accustomed to being in the crate.
Tiring a dog out can help the training process for some dogs, as a tired dog may be less inclined to “throw a fit” and may get some relief from stress during the process. It’s not a guarantee, but for many dogs this can be beneficial.
Feed all meals in the crate to make the association more appealing, and consider providing something to chew or even a food-stuffed treat to help ease any stress for your dog during this transition. While going through this process, you may get away with crating the dog overnight when they’re sleepy; if you can, we recommend taking advantage! If you can’t, confine your dog at night to a safe room; but not the room where you sleep, as this can make issues of existing separation anxiety even worse.
We like to take this slow when possible, but we also know that possible does not mean the same thing for everyone. There are situations where you seriously just need your dog to be in the crate and not throw a fit. Multi-dog households may be one of these situations, apartments and eviction risks as well, and it can also be crucial for moving with your dog.
In situations where getting at least proper behavior in the crate is really dire, we’d recommend introducing the ecollar into your toolbox. While it may seem tempting to go straight into correcting the behavior, we really recommend a conditioning phase that I detail in my article, How to Condition an E-collar or Remote Collar. You can get to correcting the behavior in a little bit, but taking the time to condition the tool so your dog understands can help reduce the likelihood of your dog associating any uncomfortable sensations with the crate itself.
In this protocol, short stims on the ecollar are timed immediately as the dog begins to bark, and go away as the dog is quiet. You should ideally be out of eyesight of your dog so they do not associate the consequence to being watched; this should be an always behavior. Levels will vary based on the dog, but we find that a low correction level will work for most dogs if timed well. One thing to remember is that it is normal for a dog to bark after receiving a stim if they are already elevated; give your dog a chance after the first stim to gather themselves before considering another or changing the level.
I talk more about our guildelines for using corrections in dog training in my article, The Ten Commandments of Dog Training Corrections.
Even in situations where you incorporate corrections for unwanted behavior, keep in mind the dog’s mindset will still need work, even when the behavior itself stops. Don’t stop practicing your reward-based methods just because your dog has reduced or stopped barking in the crate. That is just a modification of the behavior. They will still need to adjust through counter-conditioning, and will rely on you for guidance through that process.
Continue with the rewards and daily practice, and your dog will improve in not just their behaviors but their mindset and comfort, as well.