Should you crate your dog?

When crating is beneficial, when it's harmful and how to crate train your puppy if you choose to use this tool!

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June 5, 2024

Should you crate your dog?

In recent years, this topic has become more contentious. I use crates as part of my training methodology with great success, and I regularly hear from dog owners who can see how much their dog loves their crate. However PETA is against it and it’s even been illegalised in a couple of countries (outside of specific scenarios such as for medical procedures or travel).

As with so many things in life, whether or not the use of a crate is humane and appropriate is dependent on a variety of factors.

In this article we’ll explore when I believe a crate is a useful tool, and when it should be avoided, along with how the crate should be introduced and used. 

What does the crate represent

In my opinion, the crate mimics the wolf den for young puppies, helping to establish a place of safety and security. If you choose to use it as your puppy grows into an adult dog, it slowly evolves to be a sleep site.

When a crate is established early enough and correctly, it will likely be a place that your dog chooses to retreat to for safety and comfort. Dogs, like many animals, will often feel safer and calmer in a small, darkened space.

If your dog does love their crate, it also becomes a portable safe space that you can use to help your dog relax and settle in different environments (e.g. in the car, at the vet, on holiday).

Though a crate is fundamentally different to a real “den” in that it has a door which can be closed, I find it’s still a space that helps a dog to relax and settle.

Our old Tommy taking over the new puppy's crate!
Monty choosing to go in and curl up with a teddy.

When crates are beneficial

Crates can be very beneficial for:

  • House training
  • Teaching dogs to be relaxed in containment, in case it is ever required for travel or medical treatment
  • Teaching puppies how to handle being separated from you
  • Giving dogs a quiet space to relax
  • Helping overstimulated puppies and dogs to settle down
  • Making car travel safe and comfortable 
  • Creating a sense of safety (e.g for a dog scared of thunder or fireworks)

However, these benefits are completely contingent on the dog being calm and comfortable inside their crate, which largely depends on when and how the crate was introduced and how it is used on a day to day basis. 

When crates are essential

Sometimes crate containment will be required, for example if your dog needs a medical procedure that relies on crating for treatment and potentially recovery. Crates are also used for air travel, at many kennel facilities, and they are useful for keeping your dog safe for car travel also.

This is one of the main reasons I like to introduce a puppy to a crate nice and early, is it means they’ll be relaxed with crate containment if it is ever needed in their life. If a dog has had no previous experience with the crate, these already potentially distressing situations would become extremely distressing. Whereas if the dog was introduced to the crate early and sees it as a safe space, it will be a source of comfort to them. 

When crates are harmful 

It’s not appropriate to crate a dog that is highly distressed in the crate, and a crate shouldn’t be seen as a ‘quick fix’ for destructive behaviours or dogs with separation distress. Though a crate can be a useful tool to use as part of the training process, it’s essential to treat the underlying issues at play rather than just relying on a crate to keep the dog out of trouble. In fact, crating an anxious dog for long periods could exacerbate the issue. 

I also don’t support dogs being kept in crates for long periods during the day, as it is restrictive and doesn’t offer enough stimulation. I suggest 3-4 hours at a maximum, with a decent period of exercise, play and training both before and after the crate time (how much is needed will be dependent on your dog’s age, breed and energy levels). 

My preferred set up when an owner is out for a full day, is for the dog to have access to a safely fenced backyard as well as an indoor area via a dog door - dogs love being able to access a main social space in the home, and this can help prevent separation distress too. If destructive behaviours are a concern, owners can set up a restricted indoor area for the dog to access e.g. by having a crate pushed up against the dog door so the dog can come inside to their crate only, or by using baby gates to allow access to only one portion of the house. 

Alternatively, owners can look into doggy daycare or a dog walker to give their dog some stimulation during the day when they are out. 

How to set up your crate

To make the crate as comfortable and appealing as possible for your pup, include:

  • A comfortable bed
  • A favourite toy
  • An item with a comforting scent such as a blanket from the whelping den, or an old worn t-shirt of yours
  • A water bowl (you can get ones that hang off the side of the crate so won’t spill)
  • A tasty item to chew on such as a stuffed Kong toy 
  • Use a light sheet to cover the crate and help your pup settle for longer stretches

The crate should be at least 30% longer and 20% higher than your pup so they can comfortably stand up, turn around and stretch out.  It’s important that it’s snug and secure, and can’t be pulled apart or dragged around. 

Place your crate in a central social area of the home, your pup will be happier here than if they are isolated.

How to introduce a crate to your pup

We want the crate to be a positive place! 

  • Start by luring your puppy into the crate with a high value treat (such as chicken or cheese). Click or say ‘yes’ the instant they step inside the crate to get the treat, to mark that as a desirable behaviour. 
  • Continue to throw treats into the crate for your pup to find. Lure your pup in and out to build your pup’s confidence with going in and out. 
  • When they’re going in happily, push the door shut then immediately open it again. Continue opening and shutting the door, not actually closing the pup in to begin with but just helping them get used to that door becoming a barrier. Continue to click and reward your pup for calm, quiet behaviour, always throwing the treats into the crate so that the crate is the source of the good stuff. 
  • When this is going well, then close the door for a little longer and click and reward through the door. Gradually extend how long you hold that door closed for. 
  • Finish the session on a good note by letting your pup out, then throwing in one more treat for them to get without closing the door behind them.
  • Throughout this process, stay beside the crate.

When this is all going smoothly and your pup is going into the crate happily, you can begin to leave them on their own.

  • Go through the steps above for a minute, then give your pup a long lasting treat like a stuffed kong.
  • Move out of sight for a few seconds, then return and click and reward for calm, quiet behaviour.
  • Gradually increase how long you leave the room for. 
  • Always wait until your pup is quiet before you return, so that you don’t reinforce any barking or whining behaviour. 

From here, you can build up to longer and longer stretches. A bit of vocalisation is normal and expected, and it’s okay to ignore this. However if your pup is distressed in the crate, you’ll need to move through these steps very slowly to help them adjust. 

Some extra tips:

  • Give your pup access to the crate during the day so they can also go in voluntarily. 
  • Feed your pup meals in the crate to help make it a positive space.
  • Some pups will relax more if you play quiet music or TV. 
  • Always try and wait for a few moments of quiet before you return to your pup.

This same technique can be used to teach an older dog how to accept the crate, but the process will likely take longer if the dog hasn’t previously had any crate experience. 

Why is a crate useful for house training?

As the puppies approach 6 - 7 weeks old, their instinctual desire to not want to soil the den kicks in and they’ll naturally want to go outside or to the edge of the den and away from their sleeping space to toilet. This is called ‘nest site inhibition’. By teaching a puppy that the crate is their den or sleeping space, they will naturally avoid toileting here. This helps teach a puppy bladder control, and if we take the puppy straight to the grass when we release them from the crate, they will toilet here and learn that this is the appropriate toileting surface.

Why is a crate useful for separation training?

Some pups are more prone to separation distress than others. By using a crate, we give our pup periods of time when they can’t follow us from room to room around the house and therefore they learn how to cope with being separated from us now and again. This is a critical skill to learn, and if not taught in puppyhood, separation distress can easily develop and become a serious issue with dire effects for dog and owner alike. Using a crate means we can safely leave a puppy alone without worrying about them toileting inside or becoming destructive. 

How is a crate useful for helping a puppy to settle?

Young pups need a huge amount of sleep, around 16-20 hours a day! Some pups will do this naturally, crated or not, while others don’t know when to settle down and can end up becoming overtired and overstimulated - which leads to behaviours like excessive biting and nipping, destructive chewing etc. By using a crate, we give our puppy some enforced quiet time (which will often result in sleep time), allowing them to be properly rested and teaching them to settle down. Plus, a pup’s learning is consolidated during sleep, so it’s essential they get enough quiet rest time after doing training sessions to absorb what they learn. 

A crate is also useful if your puppy is getting excessively nippy, you can use it to help them settle down and learn that you won’t tolerate this behaviour. This is not a punishment, but instead showing awareness that your pup is probably overstimulated and needs some quiet time to calm down. Give your pup a nice chew toy, bone or stuffed Kong to give them an outlet for their biting and chewing while they settle.

What to do if your pup or dog is distressed in the crate

If your puppy seems distressed in the crate, consider if they do eventually settle down. If they whine and carry on for a little while but then eventually quieten down, then they’re likely okay and just trying to solicit your attention. You can ignore this type of vocalisation.

If your pup gets seriously distressed, won’t settle and seems to get stacked up, then you need to address this. If it’s at night time, consider moving your pup’s crate to beside your bed to help them settle and sleep through the night. If it’s during the day, you’ll need to use a graduated departure technique to help your pup get used to you coming and going. Join our Virtual Puppy School to learn these techniques. 

If your adult dog is distressed in the crate, becomes destructive, tries to escape or causes self-injury by scratching or biting to get out, they may have a phobia of containment or separation distress. In either case, you’ll need to treat the cause of the issue, and don’t be tempted to use the crate just to keep them out of trouble when they’re this seriously distressed. Check out our Virtual Dog School if you need support in solving these issues. 

Should you use a crate forever?

This is entirely a matter of personal choice. Some people choose to keep a crate long term for their dog to sleep in, while others use it for house training their puppy then phase it out and move to a normal dog bed. Personally I tend to use a crate for puppy training, then phase it out and move to a floor bed for my dog, only bringing the crate back when necessary for travel or when I’m staying in different locations and need my dog contained.

Either option is completely fine, so choose what suits you and your set up. 

Final verdict - to crate or not to crate?

I’m sure by reading this you already have a sense of what my answer will be. For me, I choose “to crate” when it comes to puppy training as it’s such a useful tool for house training, teaching your pup some healthy independence, and helping your pup settle down when they get a bit overstimulated. However, a crate should not be used when a dog is highly distressed, as a quick fix for behavioural problems, or for long stretches of time during the day.

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