Crate training is widely accepted by the dog training community as the gold standard for house-training. It is typically recommended that the dog should not be crated for more hours than their age in months. Although a helpful starting point, it is important to note that this is a somewhat arbitrary calculation that may not work for every dog for several reasons. Using any type of confinement to restrict your dog’s access also brings with it a responsibility to do so ethically and with the dog’s well-being in mind. This post will clarify some guidelines that I have found useful.
Why do we need it?
Dogs are social creatures. We love them for this. They enjoy our company as we do theirs. This allows them to excel in providing companionship and working for humans in the variety of jobs they commonly do. However, given the demands of civilized human life, it is not only impractical but also impossible to spend all day with your dog. A certain level of independence is needed. To truly allow the dog comfort and freedom during this time of momentary (and typically daily) separation, dogs should be given the luxury of enjoying our homes in the same way that we do (granted there may be some restrictions – the coffee maker is off-limits). If it’s done correctly, crate training allows your dog to learn healthy boundaries and self-soothe in your absence. Proper crate training also prevents them from discovering the intrinsic joy of chewing on your couch while you are away. It encourages them to discriminate between ‘backyard grass’ and ‘expensive rug’ when nature calls. It also allows them to be a bigger part of your life when you travel as they now have a ‘safe’ home in a new environment, perhaps one with different rules than the one they’re used to.
Isn’t it cruel to keep my dog in a cage?
It may be. Perhaps the better question to ask if one wishes not to be cruel is when should my dog be in their crate and for how long? I personally believe that dogs should have access to their crate throughout their lives, should they choose to use it. Most dogs that have been appropriately exposed to it willingly seek it out for naps during the day and it becomes their haven at night. Before the dog matures to this point, it is important to gradually build them up to spending more time in it. For some dogs, they may only be able to handle half an hour during the day. Other dogs will readily spend the entire night locked up in their crate with no complaints. Regardless, it is important to work towards developing a positive association with the crate so your dog chooses their crate more frequently. See my video tutorial on how to do this.
Certain conditions must be met before a dog is placed in their crate. The dog should have emptied their bladder and bowels and given appropriate exercise and mental stimulation. Following this rule strictly will allow you to discern whether your dog is 1) whining for attention, or if they are 2) communicating a more dire need that requires your immediate attention. Clarity on this issue can make the difference between teaching your dog to whine and bark out of boredom or appropriately teaching them to be calm in your absence and engage independently with a nap or a chew toy. Except for special circumstances, until a dog is at least a year old, they should not be crated for more than 5 hours at a time. For younger puppies, 3 hours may be the limit.
The crate is a tool
The goal of crate training is not to routinely revoke your dog’s freedom while you are at work. A pattern that resembles this in the absence of sufficient mental and physical enrichment may quickly begin to border on cruelty. The crate best serves its purpose when used a tool to teach your dog how to behave in your absence. This needs to be coupled with giving them increasing access over time with the help of a playpen (or other indoor fence). A dog that is fully house-trained can be given the freedom to roam without the worry of accidents or mishaps occurring in your absence. Timing and effective use of a crate will help you get there, but this is a process that needs to be managed differently with different dogs. Too much too soon will lead to mistakes. Build on your dog’s successes gradually and make adjustments as necessary.
Here is a brief list to summarize some essential DOs and DON’Ts of crate training:
- Do take the time to teach your dog how to love their crate
- Do ensure that your dog has taken care of “business” before they are crated for an extended period of time
- Do ensure that your dog has had adequate exercise so they don’t develop bad habits out of boredom
- Do build on length of time spent in crate gradually. There is no penalty for taking it slow.
- Do teach your dog that their ‘crate time’ varies. Sometimes it is ten minutes and other times it may be an hour. Befriend unpredictability.
- Do spend time with your dog while they are in the crate. Crate time is not always alone time.
- Do provide your dog with appropriate activities (chew toys, puzzles) to help them settle in their crate. A distracted or busy dog will learn to settle more quickly than one given nothing to do when crated.
- Do encourage your dog to sleep at night in their crate as early as possible. Younger puppies may need to be taken out in the middle of the night, but should be placed back in their crate promptly afterwards.
- Do place your dog’s crate close to you (at first) so you can keep a watchful eye and respond if necessary.
- Do use an appropriately sized crate when house-training puppies. If it is too large, your dog will have no incentive to control their urge to empty their bladder and may soil their crate.
- Don’t crate the dog for an extended period of time unless they have had adequate exercise and mental stimulation first.
- Don’t force your dog into the crate if they resist. Teach them to love it first instead.
- Don’t leave your dog in the crate for longer than they are able to “hold it” comfortably. This may be a moving target but it is better to be safe than sorry and start with shorter periods of time.
- Don’t depend on the crate excessively to keep them ‘out of trouble’. Take the time to teach your dog other appropriate behaviors and help them learn house rules. Keep moving towards using it less frequently once the dog is fully house-trained and has had no accidents for at least 2-3 months.