There are some people who feel like crates for dogs are inhumane. They mentally equate it to jail; putting your puppy in a crate, trapping them, and limiting their range of movement and freedom seems antithetical to a happy doggo.
The reality is that while the use of crates can be inhumane, it's all in how you use them. Properly training a puppy to make use of a crate is a huge step towards having a well-behaved and obedient pup. You just need to do it right and avoid the pitfalls that make a crate more of a punishment than a home.
One of the biggest factors in how well you can use a crate,how well your doggo can get used to it, and how humane it is comes down to having a crate of the right size. Far too often, people buy a crate that fits a given range of dog, but don't account for comfort, or don't account for their puppy growing larger as they get older. Sometimes, people even buy crates to fit in a particular place in a room rather than a crate sized for their dog.
How do you make sure your dog crate is the right size for your pooch?
They should be able to fit in and out through the door easily without having to contort, crouch, or otherwise squeeze into it.
They should be able to stand up easily inside the crate; it should not restrict their ability to stand comfortably.
They should be able to turn around easily inside the crate.
They should be able to sit comfortably in the crate with at least two inches of clearance over their heads so they aren't forced to duck awkwardly.
When they lie down, including lying on their side, they should have plenty of room to sprawl out.
Basically, the crate should never restrict or compress them. This is easy for small dogs, but larger breeds – and particularly the giant breeds – are going to be a lot more difficult to find a properly sized crate for them.
At the same time, the crate can't be too big. If it's so big that they can wander around it almost as freely as if they were loose in the room, it leaves them room for things like potty accidents. If your pup can find a corner to go in, then curl up comfortably in the opposite corner and not feel too enclosed with their leavings, it isn't a disincentive to using that corner to go, and that's unpleasant for everyone involved.
You can find general ideas of what size of crate you should get, based on the measurements and breed of your pupper, on resource guides like this one from PetMD. Some of the odder sizes for dog crates are probably going to be harder to find locally, and you may need to order them.
What about a growing pooch?Puppies go from tiny potatoes to full-size dogs in a relatively short amount of time, but to properly size a crate for them at each stage of their growth means buying a new crate every other month! The solution here is a removable divider, which many dog crate brands offer as an accessory. You buy a crate sized for your dog's full expected size and divide it down to be smaller while they're still young. If your crate doesn't have dividers that fit, you can stuff part of the crate with bedding and pillows to effectively make the crate smaller.
Some dogs prefer enclosed crates, while others want to be able to see and breathe freely. Most dog crates are a simple coated wire that is strong and durable enough to be secure but safe for a dog that paws and chews at the wires. If they need to be enclosed, a crate cover is a great option. Fully enclosed doghouse-style crates are harder to clean and manage and don't generally collapse for storage or travel as well.
Crate Training and Canine Psychology
A lot of people feel like a dog crate is a prison for dogs and should only be used as a punishment or containment for unruly dogs. If that's the situation you've reached, you've failed with crate training, and there's no easier way to phrase it.
A crate, with proper training, is a safe haven. It's a comfortable bed and a place to lounge, a place to sleep, and a place to hang out when company is over. Some dogs are excitable and can't help but jump up, but if they're well-trained and can go lay down in their crate, you can keep them there while company is over and the initial excitement dies down.
The crate is not a punishment. The crate is not containment. The crate is a safe haven, a comfort zone, and even a place to go to calm down anxiety. A well-trained dog will use a crate much the same way you might use your bedroom or bathroom when you need to de-stress from an over-stimulating situation.
A huge part of your goal with crate training, whether you're focusing on a new puppy or trying to crate-break an older dog, is to build a positive association with the crate. If you're at all familiar with otherforms of dogtraining, you know the number one thing to do to build this association is to use treats. I'll go into more on how to do that in a moment.
You'll also need to associate the crate with relaxation and even sleep. The crate is where their bed is and where they sleep at night. It's where they relax during the day. Don't try to put them in the crate when they're excited and playing because they'll just want to come back out and keep playing, that sort of thing. It's all about the mindset.
How long will crate training take?It depends. Generally, you should be prepared for around six months of consistent effort before you can confidently say your dog is trained to their crate. Young puppies can learn a little faster, especially if they haven't had time to build up bad habits, and you're working on other forms of training as well. Conversely, older dogs or dogs with a learned aversion to crates from past abuse will take much longer.
Don't leave your dog in their crate for too long. For young puppies, that might mean no more than 3-4 hours at a time; for older dogs, it means no more than six or eight. When your dog is old enough, you might not need to close them in at all, but when they're still being trained, closing the door is an important part of ensuring compliance. But, if you leave them closed up too long, they might get anxious or need to go potty, and that causes problems.
Don't forget to train your humans, too. When you've properly trained your dog to treat the crate as a safe space they can go to be calm and cozy, it's important that it's treated that way by the people in your home as well. No one – other adults, kids, or otherwise – should try to engage the dog when they're in their crate. Make sure everyone respects the training!
Building a Dog Crate Training Routine
Now, let's get down to the details. What does the actual training process look like?
Start with introductions.
The first step is to introduce your dog to the crate. This is a new large object you've put in your home, and while a young puppy might not see anything odd about yet another new experience in their life, an older dog might be skeptical.
Generally, you want to put the crate somewhere you and your family spend a lot of time so it's a comfortable and familiar place for them. Put something soft, like a blanket or a dog bed, in the crate, and keep the door off; you aren't going to be closing them in there one way or the other, and you don't want them to accidentally do it to themselves.
Let your dog explore the crate at their leisure, sniffing it and looking it over. Some dogs will take to it immediately and find it a good place to sleep; others will avoid it. For the avoidant dogs, bring them to it and encourage them with happy talk and praise.
For further encouragement, use small treats your pup likes. Start by dropping a couple near the crate, and once they're used to it, put some near and just inside the entrance. If they refuse to go in, keep at it; once they do, you can put treats further in. Eventually, your pup should be more comfortable going all the way in the crate for their treats.
Keep this up until your dog is comfortable going inside the crate (with the door secured open or removed entirely). This might take a few minutes or a few days, depending on how avoidant your fur baby is.
During this process, you can add voice cues you want for in and out of the crate. Something as simple as a "crate" for stepping in can be good enough. Just pick a distinct phrase you will use for this purpose and unlikely for others.
Mealtime in the crate.
Once your pooch is more willing to at least step inside the crate, if not get all the way in, you can up the ante by feeding them their meals in the crate. If they won't go all the way in, put their food bowl just far enough inside that they can reach it at about their limit of comfort. If they're willing to go all-in, put it in the back of the crate for them. They'll be more comfortable getting inside and distracted by food.
Your goal here is that once they're comfortable eating inside the crate, you start closing the door behind them. Start by just closing it for a minute while they eat, opening it once they're done eating. For each meal, keep it closed for a little bit longer. Your goal is to reach about ten minutes after they're done eating with the door closed.
Keep an eye on their behavior. If they're anxious, fearful, or whine to get out, you may be trying to go too long, too soon. You want them to be comfortable, not anxious about being trapped.
Extend the timer.
Now, your goal is to extend the timer for them being in the crate and come up with times when you can put them in the crate without a meal as the main driver.
For example, you might give them the cue to enter and encourage them to step inside, give them a treat, and close the door. Then, just sit there with them, being a comforting presence but trying not to rile them up for 5-10 minutes.
Over time, you'll add other steps, like stepping outside of the room for 5-10 minutes while they're in the crate. Your goal is to teach them that the crate is a safe space; they'll be let out, but you won't always be there to comfort them while they're in it. This is how you can train them to be in their crate while you're asleep at night or when you're at work during the day. Expand this to errands and other reasons why you need to leave them unsupervised.
Nighttime is the hardest part. Combined with potty training for a new puppy, you'll probably need to get up and let them out periodically. Once they're old enough for full bowel control, though, a full overnight can be achieved.
Specific Schedules for Crate Training
It's difficult to pin down a specific schedule because dogs of different ages, breeds, and attitudes will all respond to crates and training differently. You can find schedules online – this one from Care is a good example – but keep in mind that your dog very likely won't adhere to it.
They learn at their own pace, and your job isn't to enforce a specific schedule; it's to respond to their attitudes and behaviors appropriately. When done right, you'll have a well-trained dog that is comfortable with their crate! It just might take a little time, that's all.
Have you ever established a crate training routine for your dog? If so, what was your experience like? Did your canine companion take to it well, or was it a bit of a challenge? Let me know in the comments section! I love hearing about all your stories and experiences!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more