The crate is a favorite tool among most dog trainers, but I am still met with occasional resistance to using the crate from some owners I work with. The main concern is usually, “Isn’t using the crate cruel? It is like a cage—I don’t want my dog to feel that he is trapped.” Or another sentiment is, “I tried the crate once and my dog hated it. He wouldn’t stop barking so I had to let him out. He doesn’t like to be alone, so the crate isn’t good for us.” The first concern is a common misconception and the second actually illustrates why we should properly train our dogs to love their crate.
Concern #1: Is the crate cruel?
Crates are not cruel when used properly. In fact, crates are a fantastic management tool with many benefits (which we will cover below). Crates, however, can become cruel when used irresponsibly and without proper training first. Simply shoving your dog into a crate and leaving him for 8+ hours a day without water or potty breaks is an example of how to misuse the crate. However, if you first train your dog to love his crate and only leave him in there for shorter periods of time with breaks in between, then the crate is a wonderful thing!
When training any dog to love the crate, I always make it his choice to enter the crate (though I may initially tempt him with treats placed in the back of the crate). He gets heavily rewarded for going in to eat the treats and for choosing remain in the crate. If he chooses to walk out of the crate right away, that is allowed. He gets to work at a pace he feels comfortable with. I never push any dog into the crate, even if he is hesitant to enter in the beginning. That is a sure fire way to lose his trust and create negative feelings towards the crate.
After properly training your dog to love the crate and learn to be comfortable alone in his crate for a period of time, the crate should become your dog’s safe space. My dog’s crate lives in my bedroom with the door always open for him. Whenever my dog is overwhelmed if we have a lot of guests over or scared because of thunder or fireworks, he simply removes himself from the situation and goes to his crate where he feels safe and comfortable. A crate should become your dog’s own bedroom; a place where he can go to when he needs a break or just wants to feel safe.
Concern #2: I have tried the crate in the past and my dog hated it. My dog just doesn’t do well when left alone.
This is a common story I hear a lot. Most people have heard that crates are a great thing to use, especially if you have a puppy or young dog. So they go out and buy a crate, bring it home, put their puppy inside (maybe with a treat, maybe not) and turn to leave the room or house. Their puppy or dog begins barking and whining. They may ignore this for a minute (or many minutes) or say “no” in an effort to quiet the dog, but the barking/whining gets more frantic. Understandably it is distressing to hear your dog cry out in fear or panic, so they end up letting the dog out of the crate. They may try a few more times to get the dog used to the crate, but this response becomes worse and worse and eventually the crate is relegated to the basement or garage never to be used again.
This is a classic mistake when first introducing your dog to the crate, and it may make it more difficult in the future for your dog to get used to and even enjoy the crate. The first mistake was in not working with your dog to get used to the crate slowly. The dog was simply put in the crate and expected to remain in there quietly until let out. The second mistake was letting the dog out of the crate while he was barking and whining.
It is this second part that is the most common mistake people make, and most challenging behavior to unteach. It is vital in crate training to only let your dog out of the crate when he is quiet and calm. This teaches him that being quiet and calm is what gets him out of the crate. If you let your dog out while they are whining, barking, pawing at the door, etc. this teaches him that those behaviors are what get him out of the crate, and thus these problem behaviors will occur more and more in the future.
It is very likely that at some point your dog will try barking or whining to get let out. He may even try for a very long time before letting up. The key in the beginning is to wait for at least 3-5 seconds of silence before entering the room and letting your dog out of the crate. Over time you can wait for longer and longer periods of silence before letting him out (3 seconds, 4 seconds, 5 seconds, 7 seconds, 8 seconds, 10 seconds, etc.) until your dog no longer barks in the crate, but waits patiently for his time to be released. Be patient! If you give in even once, you dog will persist longer and louder in his barking/whining.
Many dogs struggle with being in the crate alone because they have never learned to be in a room or house without someone there with them. This is a quick road to separation anxiety and is a good reason why many trainers recommend using the crate. Properly using the crate allows your dog to learn to be alone and to be okay with that. Even if you work from home and can be around your dog 24/7, it does not mean you should be. Down the road something is going to come up where your dog needs to be left alone and if they are not comfortable with that you can be causing them a lot more stress than they need to experience.
It is vital for every dog to learn how to appropriately occupy themselves and be comfortable being left alone at least for short periods of time. It teaches them to be more confident and secure on their own, which is important for their mental health. I recommend using the crate to help with this. After doing initial training to get your dog used to the crate for a few minutes at a time with you in the room, begin to leave the room for a brief period (2-5 seconds) and come back in and treat him in the crate (if he remained quiet). Continue periods of leaving the room and coming back to treat if your dog is quiet.
Once your dog can be quiet for a period of time with you out of the room, begin to add to the amount of time he spends in his crate (15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, etc.) I recommend if you are going to have him spend longer than 5 minutes in the crate to leave him with a stuffed Kong or yummy chew to occupy himself with. See my blog with suggestions on How to Stuff a Kong for ideas. If you are going to be gone for any length of time I also recommend leaving water for your dog. If your dog spills their water bowl, try the gerbil type watering device.
Why should I crate my dog?
Here is a quick summary of all the things that training your dog to love his crate can help with:
- Helps with potty training puppies and untrained adult dogs
- Prevents your dog from learning to chew/destroy your things when you are unable to supervise
- Teaches your dog to chew on his toys/bones and creates good habits
- Teaches your dog to be comfortable being alone as well as how to settle when needed
- Helps prevent your dog from developing separation anxiety/teaches them to be comfortable when left alone
- Helps your dog be more comfortable if you have to board him or send him to the vet for surgery
- Helps with management during training
- If you are having a dinner party but no time to teach your dog polite greeting manners, putting him in the crate with a yummy Kong prevents him from practicing bad behaviors like jumping on guests or bolting out the door
- Many dog sports require that your dog is crate trained in order to participate
- Gives your dog a safe space to go to when they are overwhelmed or scared
- Gives you a break from your dog if you need one
Final Tip: Never use the crate as punishment. You can put your dog in the crate if you need a break from his antics, cannot supervise him and know he will get into trouble if left unattended, or need to clean up a mess he just made, however do so happily and provide your dog with a treat for going in the crate willingly. Never yell at your dog, grab him, and then shove him in his crate—this will make the crate a bad and scary place to be. That is not what association we want him to have with the crate.