The Truth about Crates

There are many questions and concerns about picking out a dog crate and when to use it. Luckily, moderndogmagazine.com has answered all of them for us:

Q: I keep hearing about how crates are so great, but… I wouldn’t want to sit around in a cage, so why would I want to put my dog in one?

A: Prison or cozy retreat? It all depends on perspective and on how you use the crate. Dogs have a natural denning instinct, normally preferring safe, enclosed quarters for their naps. In the wild, a den is a secure place to get some shut-eye without becoming someone else’s meal.

If a dog is properly introduced to a crate as a young pup he will view it as a safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the house (and away from any pesky children!)—a place for peace and quiet and serious snoozing. When wild dogs aren’t looking for food, trying to mate, or taking care of young, they are resting up to save energy for those key, life-sustaining activities. Most domestic dog owners are surprised to learn that wild dogs spend up to 16 hours a day sleeping! Rest periods in snug quarters are a natural part of caring for our dogs’ needs.

But… dogs have many other needs that crates interfere with. Dogs are social animals; they require interaction with other dogs or people. They also need exercise, mental stimulation, and appropriate “potty” opportunities. So, while some time spent in a crate is usually a positive element of dog rearing, too much time spent in a crate can have disastrous consequences.

Choosing a crate

Crates come in a variety of sizes and materials. The two most common models are plastic, such as those required for airplane transport, and collapsible metal wire crates. Provided they are of adequate size (see below), either model will serve equally well as dual-purpose den and training tool. The bottom can be covered with a blanket or thick towel for warmth and comfort. Fleece-covered foam dog beds make for an even cozier cave, but can only be used with non-destructive types; “piranha” puppies will make a mess out of them!

Plastic crates are often preferable for small breeds since they are compact enough to use in the car, and can be opened (most models split into a top and bottom half) and used as snug, high-sided doggie beds once the little one is fully housetrained. Collapsible metal crates are often more practical for large breeds since they can more easily be sectioned off into appropriately-sized spaces during housetraining, and are easier to store. (But if you ever plan to travel by air with your dog, you will need an approved, hard-sided plastic crate regardless.) Any small safe space, such as a beanbag chair tucked away in a corner with a low ceiling or a comfy duvet bunched up between your desk and the wall, can function as a cozy den for the fully housetrained dog with no behavioral “issues” necessitating confinement when unsupervised.

The crate as housetraining tool

Crates are virtually essential for any dog that isn’t yet housetrained. When of appropriate size, it serves as a comfortable, den-like bedroom, something almost all dogs naturally want to keep free of urine and feces. Any crate you use, for whatever purposes, must always be large enough for the puppy or dog to stand up without having to hunch, to lie on his side with legs outstretched, and turn around with ease. But a crate used for housetraining should be no bigger than this, or the dog will have space enough for both a bedroom and a bathroom.

If the crate is of the right size, the dog is pretty well guaranteed to want to take a pee (and maybe a poop as well) when he comes out; so a swift trip outdoors will give him the opportunity to practice doing his business in the right place. In turn, this gives you the opportunity to congratulate him with a walk, game or treat—the perfect housetraining scenario. Used properly, a crate can theoretically lead to a puppy’s never having an “accident” in the house!

How long is too long?

A good rule of thumb is that a dog can be crated overnight and for up to half the day, provided his social and physical needs are being met while not in the crate. Young puppies need more frequent naps and much more frequent opportunities to “do their business” than adults. A good estimate of how long a pup can wait before needing to relieve himself is as many hours as he is months old, plus one. So a three-month-old pup can manage for about four hours. Overnight he can usually hold a bit longer, usually about 1.5 times the daytime maximum—about six hours for a three-month-old. But don’t forget that puppies need to be thoroughly socialized before they are five months old—so those hours awake and out of the crate are very precious for socialization!

How to introduce a dog to a crate

Puppies are introduced to crates quite easily by tossing food-stuffed chewtoys inside when they are hungry and letting them work away while someone familiar is nearby. Gradually they can be left on their own with the door closed, and many will readily go to their crate voluntarily for naps or in the hopes that a stuffed chewtoy will miraculously appear. Adult dogs without any crate experience can be trained to like a crate in the same manner, but it may take longer; and the guidance of a pet behavior counsellor is sometimes required if the dog is anxious about entering. A great trick for dogs of all ages is to lock dinner inside the crate until poochie is throwing a major tantrum wanting to go inside… then you can open the door and let him in for a yummy meal. He probably won’t even notice when you close the door.