og crates are one of these pet accessories that have a bad reputation for the wrong reasons. The problem spans from a common misunderstanding about dog behavior.
If you're appalled by the idea of confining your puppy to a cage, let me set the record straight. A crate takes advantage of a dog's instincts as a den animal, and caters to a need to find shelter and a sense of protection. In the wild, dogs don’t lie down in the middle of an open field to spend the night. They find a small hole or tree trunk where they feel safe.
The correct use of a crate satisfies a dog's basic need to feel safe, but there is also a wrong way to use a crate that defeats the purpose and makes it aversive for the dog. If you use a crate to “lock-up” a dog in order to have peace, or to be able to leave the house without worrying about damages, or worse, if you use the crate for punishment, you are guaranteed to set yourself up for failure. A crate is a tool, and like all tools, there is a good way of using it, and a bad way that does more damage than good.
The primary use of a crate is for house training puppies. Some people stop using the crate when a dog becomes clean, but I do think that a crate is useful with adult dogs in many circumstances, especially when traveling. An adult dog who is newly adopted from a shelter should be trained to use a crate, especially if he is shy or anxious.
What type of crate to buy?
The only two types I would recommend are the “airline” plastic crate and the wire crate. The choice depends on the dog breed and size, and the use you will have of the crate.
I tend to prefer plastic airline-type crates because they are more versatile, more durable, easier to clean, and easier to carry around for traveling. The other advantage is that plastic crates are more secure for large dogs, and contain hair and dirt better.
Wire crates are more ventilated, collapsible, and come with easy to use dividers. With metal crates however, I do not like the fact that dogs tend to chew on the wires and can hurt their teeth or gums, or can even get their jaw caught between the wires.
From the dog’s point of view, plastic crates offer a cozy containment that’s similar to a den. With a wire crate, you often have to use a blanket on top to make the dog feel more secure.
Crate size matters
An important point is the choice of the crate size. A crate should be a den, not a condo.
A dog must feel cozy and secure in a crate, and have just enough space to sit up and turn around. When house training, if the crate is too large a young puppy could be tempted to eliminate in the far corner of the crate, despite the fact that dogs don’t typically soil the place where they sleep (this actually depends on the living conditions the pup first experienced in the kennel or at the breeder).
You should get a size suitable for a puppy, and later buy an adult size crate. If price or space are problematic, work out what size your dog needs when he reaches the adult stage, and use the same crate for the puppy by reducing the inside space in half with a divider.
As a rule of thumb, measure your dog’s height and body length (or estimate his adult size), and add 4 inches to both dimensions to estimate the size of the crate you need.
Benefits of crate training
- Indispensable for house training puppies from 8-10 weeks onward.
- Helps deal with separation anxiety by giving the dog a secure place.
- Crates are the safest way to transport your dog and are compulsory for air travel.
- Helps with the prevention of obsessive or destructive behaviors.
- Calms nervous, convalescent or anxious dogs.
- Keeps the dog safe when you are gone for a few hours.
- Makes the dog more comfortable and relaxed when they need to go to the vet, the groomer, or to a boarding kennel.
Practical crate training tips
- Place the crate in a quiet, ventilated cool place, preferably in low light.
- With a wire crate, you may need to cover the crate with a blanket when the dog sleeps if you see that the dog gets agitated.
- Take the puppy out for potty breaks after each meal and after sleeping.
- If a puppy has an accident in the crate, don’t scold him, just clean and disinfect.
- Place a puppy’s crate next to your bed for the first week or two to reduce the anxiety of being alone. If he whines, don't pet him or take him out—unless you want to reinforce that behavior. Use a soothing and calming voice to make the dog feel safe.
- When you leave the house for short periods, give your dog a kong filled with frozen peanut butter to chew on inside the crate.
- Feed your dog inside the crate to reinforce the idea of a den.
- Use a soft rubber mat on the floor of the crate instead of a bed or a blanket. In spite of what you might think, dogs actually prefer harder surfaces for sleeping, and a mat is more hygienic and less likely to be chewed, torn apart, or soiled.
- Leave your dog drinking water in the crate if you’re gone more than 2 hours at a time.
Crate training mistakes to avoid
- Never use a crate as punishment, or constrain the dog by force into the crate.
- Don’t put the dog in a crate with his collar on.
- Treats should only be given as a reward for going into the crate, never for going out.
- Don’t put an over-excited dog in a crate; wait until he calms down.
- Don’t leave paper in the crate or any object that the dog could destroy and swallow.
- Don’t leave the house straight after putting the dog in the crate to avoid creating a negative association that can feed separation anxiety.
House training puppies with a crate
Puppies usually can’t hold their bladder for 6 hours until they are 16-20 weeks old. Some pups are clean at 12 weeks, others take 6 months.
When potty training, be patient, use lots of praise and reward, and never scold or punish the dog if an accident happens. Read our guide on house-training puppies for details.
Use the following guidelines for estimating how long you can leave a puppy in a crate before taking him out to eliminate—keeping in mind that each dog is different.
- 8-10 weeks: 1 hour
- 10-12 weeks: 2 - 3 hours
- 12-16 weeks: 4 hours
Crate training sessions
Keep crate training fun, short, and rewarding, and never force the dog to go into the crate.
During the training phase, leave the crate door open to let the puppy go in and out freely.
Use treats and toys to lure the puppy into the crate, optionally with the help of gentle leash pressure, with plenty of encouragement, praise and rewards.
Don't reward a puppy for coming out of the crate, just open the door and let the dog come out when he decides, or call him but without giving a reward.
Start crate training while you remain in the same room with the puppy.
Making frequent trips out of the room with quick returns and a treat through the bars will gradually condition the dog to your comings and goings.
For great training tips, watch Nate Schoemer's video demonstrating how to train a puppy to first use a crate with positive reinforcement and gentle leash pressure.