To Crate or Not To Crate?

If you own a dog, sooner or later, you’re going to confront the question of crate training. Some people swear by it. Others are dubious. But what is crate training? When and why might it be beneficial? What are the downsides? And, most importantly, if you choose to crate, how do you do it right?

What is ‘Crating’?

Crate training means teaching your dog to spend time in a carrier, crate, cage, or box. That sounds awful! It certainly can be, if you don’t do it right, or for the right reasons.

But, under certain circumstances, crate training can be a useful tool. Some of those circumstances include housetraining, or, more broadly, while your dog is learning the house rules.

A lot of dogs like a den to feel safe. A den can come in many shapes and sizes!

Crate training uses your dog’s natural instinct as a den animal. Done correctly, your dog’s crate will become a safe space, a place of comfort, and somewhere they will go voluntarily when they want a bit of quiet.

Doing It Wrong

As with many training methods, the problems that arise from crate training are mostly due to owner error — that is, doing it wrong. And the results can be serious.

How serious? Try anxiety, destructiveness, aggression, fear, and even self-harm. No one wants that.

But what does it mean to do crate training wrong?

Crating for too long

One of the worst errors an owner can make is to assume that crating means popping your dog into a box and letting them come out when it’s convenient for you.

You can’t leave a dog in a box all day, or worse, for several days. Dogs are emotionally complex creatures that need exercise and attention. They’re pack animals and need to be part of the family. They’re not a toy to be taken out when you feel like it and put away the rest of the time.

A suitcase is a great place to play — as a crate? Not so much!

The Dogington Press recommends eight hours in a crate as an absolute upper limit. But really, they say, four hours is a much better maximum. And the Humane Society recommends against crating puppies for more than three hours, as they can’t hold their bladders for that long. You should also take into consideration any physical or medical conditions your dog might have, which could be made worse by limiting their movement.

Making it a permanent solution

Crate training is ideal when your dog is learning the house rules, such as “do your business outside,” or “don’t chew the furniture while I’m at the supermarket.” It’s a safe, temporary place to make sure your dog will stay out of trouble for short periods when you’re not there to reinforce the rules.

Your dog wants to be part of the family, and where the action is!

That said, it’s not a way to relieve yourself of the responsibility of training your dog. You should be setting expectations for your dog, and showing them how to meet those expectations, rather than using a crate as a crutch.

Once your dog has learned the house rules, the crate should transition from being a place of confinement to a safe place that they go into and out of voluntarily, and when they feel like it.

Using crating as a punishment

Don’t do this.

If you use confinement as a punishment, your dog will come to fear the crate, and to associate it with your anger. This will make it an ineffective training tool, but worse, it may create anxiety and aggression in your dog that didn’t exist before.

Not training for it

It’s not just a matter of shutting your dog in a box. Imagine how you would feel if someone thrust you into a closet, without warning, for hours at a time. With a small dog like a Jack Russell, it can be tempting to use our superior size and strength to put them where we want them. But that’s a mistake.

Dogs are intelligent and sensitive. They can understand our expectations if we make those expectations clear. And if we introduce the crate in a sensitive, loving, positive manner, it can become a place of safety and comfort for your dog.

Don’t crate more than one dog in the same crate. But if they want to get in together with the door open, that’s fine!

How Do You Crate Train Your Dog?

So, now that you know how to do it wrong, how do you do it right?

The Humane Society recommends the following steps. They caution that the process may take a few days, or a few weeks. In all cases, though, don’t try to go too quickly, and don’t push your dog faster than they are ready to go.

First, make sure you have the right sized crate. Your dog should be able to stand up and turn around easily.

Beloved toys will help make a crate a happy and attractive place for your dog.

The introduction

Next, take some time to get your dog used to the crate and being inside it. Leave the crate open, and let them explore. Entice them inside with treats or toys. Let them be inside with the door open. Speak to them in a happy, playful voice when they approach the crate.

Mealtimes

Once your dog is used to walking in and out of the crate, feed them their meals inside it. This will increase their positive associations with the space. Once they can eat their meal inside the crate without fear, shut the door while they’re eating, but open it when they finish.

Gradually begin to leave the door shut for longer after each meal. Do this until they can stay in the crate for ten minutes. If they being to whine, you may be increasing the time too quickly.

Extending the crating period

Always provide for your dog’s comfort.

Once your dog can eat in the crate without fear or anxiety, experiment with longer crate times while you’re at home.

First, call them over to the crate, and give them a treat. Then, use a command, like “crate,” or “go home.” When they enter the crate, give them a treat and praise, and close the door.

Stay with them for a few minutes, then leave the room. Come back after a few minutes and sit with your crated dog. This will teach them that you will come back.

When your dog can stay quietly in the crate for half an hour without you there, then they’re ready for longer crating periods. If you’re planning to crate your dog for longer than half an hour at a time, make sure they have some toys and comfort items.

For more detailed instructions, check out the Humane Society’s excellent article on crate training.

Is It For You?

Crate training isn’t for everyone. If you’re home most of the time, you might not need it at all.

However, if you’re looking for a temporary training tool while your dog gets used to the house rules, crating can be very useful.

Just do it right, and do it with love.

Featured image: CC0 via Public Domain Pictures