A Trainer's Truth About Crates

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A Trainer's Truth About Crates

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Q: I keep hearing about how crates are so great, but… I wouldn’t want to sit around in a cage, so why would I want to put my dog in one?

A: Prison or cozy retreat? It all depends on perspective and on how you use the crate. Dogs have a natural denning instinct, normally preferring safe, enclosed quarters for their naps. In the wild, a den is a secure place to get some shut-eye without becoming someone else's meal.
If a dog is properly introduced to a crate as a young pup he will view it as a safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the house (and away from any pesky children!)—a place for peace and quiet and serious snoozing. When wild dogs aren’t looking for food, trying to mate, or taking care of young, they are resting up to save energy for those key, life-sustaining activities. Most domestic dog owners are surprised to learn that wild dogs spend up to 16 hours a day sleeping! Rest periods in snug quarters are a natural part of caring for our dogs’ needs.
But… dogs have many other needs that crates interfere with. Dogs are social animals; they require interaction with other dogs or people. They also need exercise, mental stimulation, and appropriate “potty” opportunities. So, while some time spent in a crate is usually a positive element of dog rearing, too much time spent in a crate can have disastrous consequences.

Choosing a crate
Crates come in a variety of sizes and materials. The two most common models are plastic, such as those required for airplane transport, and collapsible metal wire crates. Provided they are of adequate size (see below), either model will serve equally well as dual-purpose den and training tool. The bottom can be covered with a blanket or thick towel for warmth and comfort. Fleece-covered foam dog beds make for an even cozier cave, but can only be used with non-destructive types; “piranha” puppies will make a mess out of them!
Plastic crates are often preferable for small breeds since they are compact enough to use in the car, and can be opened (most models split into a top and bottom half) and used as snug, high-sided doggie beds once the little one is fully housetrained. Collapsible metal crates are often more practical for large breeds since they can more easily be sectioned off into appropriately-sized spaces during housetraining, and are easier to store. (But if you ever plan to travel by air with your dog, you will need an approved, hard-sided plastic crate regardless.) Any small safe space, such as a beanbag chair tucked away in a corner with a low ceiling or a comfy duvet bunched up between your desk and the wall, can function as a cozy den for the fully housetrained dog with no behavioural “issues” necessitating confinement when unsupervised.

The crate as housetraining tool
Crates are virtually essential for any dog that isn’t yet housetrained. When of appropriate size, it serves as a comfortable, den-like bedroom, something almost all dogs naturally want to keep free of urine and feces. Any crate you use, for whatever purposes, must always be large enough for the puppy or dog to stand up without having to hunch, to lie on his side with legs outstretched, and turn around with ease. But a crate used for housetraining should be no bigger than this, or the dog will have space enough for both a bedroom and a bathroom.
If the crate is of the right size, the dog is pretty well guaranteed to want to take a pee (and maybe a poop as well) when he comes out; so a swift trip outdoors will give him the opportunity to practise doing his business in the right place. In turn, this gives you the opportunity to congratulate him with a walk, game or treat—the perfect housetraining scenario. Used properly, a crate can theoretically lead to a puppy’s never having an “accident” in the house!

The crate as chewtoy habit facilitator
Chewtoy (not shoetoy) fixations are good. And the crate is a fabulous tool for turning any dog into a chewtoy addict. A food-stuffed chewtoy such as a Kong, or a Nylabone with some drilled holes filled with wet dog food, low-fat cream cheese or any other wholesome filling, or a filled kibble dispenser will keep a pup busy for hours. If he isn’t ready for a nap when you put him in, he will be after working away on a well-stuffed chewtoy for a while. Chewtoys keep dogs physically and mentally stimulated and are a wonderful substitute for hunting. Remember: those wild dogs sleep up to16 hours a day because they are working really hard during the other 8 hours! Give your dog lots of chewtoy hunting projects—a tired dog is a happy dog. (But be sure to decrease regular mealtime calories accordingly.)

The crate and the time-out
Yes, you can use a crate for time-outs without causing “crate-hate.” Do you like your bedroom? Sure you do—even if you don’t want to be there on a Friday night. Your dog can like his crate too, even if he doesn’t want to be there while scheming to scam some chicken off the dining room table. Crates are okay for time-outs, because it isn’t the crate that is punishing… it is the loss of freedom in the middle of fun times that is punishing (see my Summer 2004 article for more on rewards and punishment). The same reasoning extends to children: they can be sent to their room as a consequence for misbehaviour without learning to fear or hate their room. Your dog will only become afraid of his crate if bad things happen while he is in there—so never scold him while he is inside. Time-outs don't need to be long; 30 seconds to 3 minutes is plenty. And don’t forget to give your Cool Hand Luke a clean slate once he’s done his time… no grudge-holding allowed!

The crate as management tool
The crates is also a terrific tool for the overall management of dogs. Trainers will often divide the plan for fixing a behaviour problem into two components, training and management. Training is where you actively work on correcting a problem—like teaching Lola to sit to greet guests at the door instead of jumping up or goosing them. Management is where you avoid the situation altogether—like crating her with a stuffed chewtoy when the doorbell rings so that she is physically unable to jump on the pizza delivery man—because you are not ready for a training session at that particular moment. With young puppies we use the crate to manage a whole raft of anticipated problems, such as destructive chewing, nipping at young children, and housesoiling, when unable to supervise them properly. While crated they may not be learning all of the good habits we want to teach them, but at least they aren’t reinforcing any bad ones.
How long is too long?
A good rule of thumb is that a dog can be crated overnight and for up to half the day, provided his social and physical needs are being met while not in the crate. Young puppies need more frequent naps and much more frequent opportunities to “do their business” than adults. A good estimate of how long a pup can wait before needing to relieve himself is as many hours as he is months old, plus one. So a three-month-old pup can manage for about four hours. Overnight he can usually hold a bit longer, usually about 1.5 times the daytime maximum—about six hours for a three-month-old. But don't forget that puppies need to be thoroughly socialized before they are five months old—so those hours awake and out of the crate are very precious for socialization!

How to introduce a dog to a crate
Puppies are introduced to crates quite easily by tossing food-stuffed chewtoys inside when they are hungry and letting them work away while someone familiar is nearby. Gradually they can be left on their own with the door closed, and many will readily go to their crate voluntarily for naps or in the hopes that a stuffed chewtoy will miraculously appear. Adult dogs without any crate experience can be trained to like a crate in the same manner, but it may take longer; and the guidance of a pet behaviour counsellor is sometimes required if the dog is anxious about entering. A great trick for dogs of all ages is to lock dinner inside the crate until poochie is throwing a major tantrum wanting to go inside… then you can open the door and let him in for a yummy meal. He probably won’t even notice when you close the door.
What if he is whining to come out?
The only whining that should successfully elicit crate door-opening services with a puppy is if puppy needs to pee. If you aren't sure, take puppy out of the crate very matter-of-factly and place him outside. (Carry the puppy instead of allowing him to meander at his own speed.) If he produces, it was legitimate. If he doesn't, he goes back in the crate for half an hour… he was just whining to come out, and needs to learn another way of asking (like sitting quietly). The other exception is if the puppy or dog has an anxiety problem such as fear of crates, separation anxiety, or fear of noise in the environment. If this is the case, seek the help of a professional trainer or behaviour counsellor. Otherwise, the rule of thumb for crate whiners or barkers is that they need to be quiet for at least three minutes straight before they get let out. Otherwise, they are learning that whining and barking works—and then who is training whom?

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Comments (20)

I feel this article fails to address "how long is too long" adequately. It states a rule of a pup's age in months plus one is the hours it can stay in the cage PROVIDED his social and physical needs are being met while not in the crate. This does not tell the novice dog owner what the needs are, how to tell if they are not met (dog is going stir crazy!), if this crating is OK for say 4 hours, is it then ok for 4 hrs, a quick break and then another 4 hours? I should think not. Crates should IMHO be used to train and guide the dogs. Once they are potty trained, the cage should have an open door pretty much all the time, with perhaps the exception of when the family is having dinner (if the dog is inclined to beg), or there is a reason to keep the dog safe and out of the way from something.
Thu, 11/01/2012 - 07:36
The article was referring to the length of time a puppy can go before needing to pee. "An hour longer then the puppy is month wise so a three month old puppy can only reasonably be expected to hold it 4 hours."

I agree many leave puppies or adults longer then is fair. When training I think Gating is far better, just having the pup gated in a safe puppy proofed area when not able to observe them.
Thu, 11/20/2014 - 22:29
The article was referring to the length of time a puppy can go before needing to pee. "An hour longer then the puppy is month wise so a three month old puppy can only reasonably be expected to hold it 4 hours."

I agree many leave puppies or adults longer then is fair. When training I think Gating is far better, just having the pup gated in a safe puppy proofed area when not able to observe them.
Thu, 11/20/2014 - 22:31
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Fri, 02/08/2013 - 17:40
Now I have read over and over that all these techniques work, and in the past they have for all my puppies. However, my 6 month old pitbull puppy still hates his crate after all the different ways of trying to get him used to it. What should I do in this case?!?
Mon, 04/15/2013 - 18:56
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Sun, 04/21/2013 - 20:43
My 6 mos. old labradoodle is fine in her crate..my question is when do put the crate away. Can she sleep in our room at night? She is house trained
Fri, 05/03/2013 - 17:51
My rescue uses her crate for naptimes or when she hears the word "bath". She sleeps in the bedroom at night (crate stays in living room in between the couch and wall). We have crazy neighbors so we heard fireworks the 2nd-5th. Dill would not settle down and would pace with all the noise. We brought the kennel in and she slept soundly every night.
I would recommend just leaving the kennel out somewhere out of the way with the door open so they can use it when they want to. If you train them right the kennel becomes their place. Some place they go to be left alone or out of the way but still with the family.
Dill knows her kennel is her area. No one bothers her or pulls her out. They just leave her be. She gets her Kong in her kennel so she'll lay down in it when she sees me with the peanut butter jar.
Wed, 07/10/2013 - 11:47
hi - i have a 16 year old beloved female rescue mongrel. we have had her for 14 of her 16years. she is nearing her final days and is content for most of the time, unles she is pacing about in circles, usually for about 45 minutes and then settles. she also has moments of blank staring,head twitching, and her hearing has gone, her vision is almost gone, though she will respond to big hand waves on our walks. she still has a good appetite but needs to be reminded to eat and drink. i am more or less trapped at home now if my partner is using our car. i wondered whether it would be appropriate to introdue her to a crate so she might feel secure if i need to pop out. she will sleep happily in the car for a long while, but it seems different in the house she paces and looks for me the whole time. any ideas? i wonder if a crate will make her feel secure or remind her of her time in the rescue centre. thank you very much.
Fri, 08/02/2013 - 10:12
I have a new 6 month old Yorkie, who I was told is crate trained, but she hates it. I put her in at night and she howls and cries all night.
She doesn't seem to have the need for a cave that I keep seeing, she just wants to sit on my foot, any separation sets her off.
I have it sitting by my chair in the living room but she's never gone in by herself. And tossing treats in don't work, she's not interested in them (tried several brands).
Help! I need sleep!
Fri, 11/08/2013 - 09:40
Why crate a dog who doesnt want to be crated? Hire a trainer to help you learn to potty train her, then pet proof your house. Crates are made up by pet companies as a gimic to make you buy them. Dogs dont really need them.
Fri, 01/17/2014 - 21:23
Thank you Jennifer for a really thorough guide on crates and the role that they can play. I wanted to just add a comment about traveling with a crated pet and the importance of food and water being provided even during the travel period. I work for a company that makes kennel bowls that can collapse flat for storage against the side of the crate, then can pop open for snacks or water while in transit. Popwareforpets.com in case your readers are interested! Thanks.
Thu, 11/14/2013 - 13:07
Please dont take this article seriously. Anyone who tells you to crate your dog for half the day and then overnight is out of their mind and should not own a dog. That is cruel. Dont get a dog to leave it in a cage 3/4 of everyday. What is wrong with people? Its a dog with real psychological needs, train it and then let it freely roam your house.

This article is a disgrace.
Fri, 01/17/2014 - 21:19
My 8 month old cross shi tzu got neutered is so energetic her stiches broke inside . She has just been restiched today and vet insists she has to live 24hrs in crate for 12 days. She is crying bitterly i am going to sleep on sofa next to her. What can i do i am so worrief about her being in crate.will she think i am punishing her for something.
Wed, 02/12/2014 - 12:52
"A good rule of thumb is that a dog can be crated overnight and for up to half the day"

!!!

Holy cow that's barbaric. If you're doing that on a regular basis you shouldn't own a dog. How would you like to spend the night and half the day in a crate?!
Fri, 03/07/2014 - 20:35
Actually, I wouldn't like to spend even an hour in a crate.
Sat, 05/10/2014 - 10:36
In Australia, we only use crates for airline transport. No one 'crates' a dog here. It is completely unheard of and would be considered cruel. So if the place catches fire the dog just burns to death? With no hope of escape? That is completely horrible.
Tue, 11/04/2014 - 03:01
I have to say I was never a fan of the crate...until I began to crate train my dog due to his separation anxiety. At first, he hated it. He would begin to whine as soon as I shut the door. Now, he loves it, after many days. One day, I was working from home and noticed he wasn't anywhere in sight. A search of the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen was fruitless. For a moment, I thought he got out somehow, and freaked out. But as I passed his crate, I noticed he was snug and comfortable, sleeping like a baby. It was such a turnaround from how he handled the crate in the first few days!

Here are a few things I learned along the way: Exercise your dog before you place him/her in a crate. A tired dog will tolerate the crate. Don't just throw your dog in and go to work. He/she needs to become accustomed to the crate. I began to work with my dog on the weekends, putting him in his crate at increasing intervals. The first time would be five minutes. The second, ten, and so on. Walk away each time. Store treats inside, and tell the dog "good job" if he/she does not whine. If he/she whines, wait until h/she stops, then take him/her out. Crate training may take days, or even weeks. In my case, it took almost a month for him to enjoy his crate without whining. He used to view it as something that kept him confined, but now it is something comfortable and cozy that he can retreat to.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 13:54
I want to get a dog soon and I thing that two thing should happen if you are going to crate the dog and leave.

1. Make the dog's bed out of something that smells exactly like you.

2. Leave on some classical music as a trigger.

My second thought pertains to a car. Dogs LOVE cars so you roll with them! but sometimes you have to hop out. Classical music would totally put the dog in a state of mind. Just a thought.
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 05:33
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QV0PJKgFIUs
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 05:54

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