Crates, kennels, cages and probably a host of other references both admiring and disdaining have labelled the modern age’s answer to the doghouse. With the exception of some types of collars (notably choke and electric shock) no other piece of training equipment has been the source of more controversy. This is perhaps more the fault of how the crate is used than due to any inherent aspect of the crate itself.
Ultimately, a crate is to serve to replicate the sense of a den. Whether wild or not, dogs seem to have a preference for some rather interesting cozy places. Dogs will find their favorite place under a wide variety of items (typically with very low clearances) like porches, beds and tables.
Crates serve as a great tool for preventing the creation of bad habits and life threatening possibilities. A dog that is crated will not slip out the door, they will not consume garbage or chew on electrical cords during those few moments that you can’t supervise them. Nor will they destroy your $300 pair of Italian loafers or jump on your dry cleaning as you walk in the door. Clearly, this type of influence with your new dog, be they young or old, can go great lengths in maintaining domestic harmony while they learn the new routine and manners needed.
Additionally, a crated dog is one who’s energy level is being influenced. It is far easier to communicate to a dog that it’s nap time. This again offers the benefit of helping you introduce and reinforce the preferred routine.
To argue that you wouldn’t want to be in a crate so you wouldn’t put your dog in one, or that it seems like a prison, can have merit depending on how the crate is used. First, let’s consider that when you were a child and without the sense of routines, manners and good judgment, you were closely monitored, probably very closely monitored. You were diapered and a good parent would alert the moment you weren’t in eyeshot. You would have spent some amount of time in cribs, walkers, playpens, etc. Ultimately, many of us were crated during our formative years, for many of the same reasons mentioned here. Much as when we were children, the issue was less that these tools were employed and more how they were employed.
Using a crate begins with its introduction. Many pups are introduced to a crate for the first time when they leave their litter and are sent home, alone. This is a bit unfortunate. It’s a lot for a puppy to cope with and for that puppy who has already grown familiar to a crate, perhaps by climbing on and sleeping in while with his littermates, it serves to be something comforting during this period of stress. For a puppy that has never been around a crate before, it is just another trauma. Regardless, either pup can quickly learn to appreciate their crate as a haven of peace, security and safety.
Crates can also be used in such a way as to create problems or at least make them worse. Excessive crating (for long periods of time) is difficult for dogs to tolerate. Their very instinct compels them to choose a place other than their “bedroom” for eliminating. Leaving a dog in a crate for a long period of time will only increase their restlessness as their discomfort finds outlet. Dogs that will ultimately eliminate in the crate can be remarkably challenging to housetrain. It’s also been said that crates should not be used for punishment. This is accurate but requires some understanding of a consequence versus a punishment. By simply crating a dog to end an undesirable behavior (for example, a dog fight) you are able to communicate safety, security and the fact that its time to chill, in one fairly easy motion. To scream at the dog while you are doing this would only add to the tension and potential aggression and resentment.
So, how does a loving dog owner consider introducing a crate. Ideally, you have a week or so where you can allow the dog in the room around the crate to consider it with the door open. You feed the dog in the crate (again with the door open) and have inviting things in the crate, like a bed. Should the dog go into the crate unbidden, you can provide them with a chew toy and close the door. They may show initial restlessness like a bit of whining but this should pass (5-20 minutes depending on the character of your individual) and they will begin to entertain themselves or nap. At this point, you can let them out. Early on, the most challenging and perhaps necessary aspect of the crate training is to let them out when they are quiet. A barking dog will quickly learn that his noise results in the crate door opening. This is not an ideal precedent for a long and happy life with your dog! Crating with the door closed should be kept to a minimum at this point of 5-30 minutes at a time. When the dog is let out of the crate, they should be escorted to a proper potty place and essentially ignored until they get that job out of the way. Praise then follows. Should our canine friend forget why they are out there, they will go back into the crate after the exercise session. House privileges need to be reserved for dogs that aren’t getting ready to “go”.
Within the previous paragraph is the philosophy behind crate training and its contributions to housetraining. As the dog becomes more familiar with the crate, times can be increased. Ideally, at least as a routine, dogs should not be left crated for much more than 4 hours (and this would be an adult). While the need may not be desperate, after 4 hours, virtually all dogs feel the need to potty and stretch. The exception to this is overnight as many dogs and people can sleep the night through comfortably but with a fairly immediate need in the morning. Many dogs live very happy lives crated in the morning until someone comes to exercise them around lunchtime and then crated after that play/potty session until their people are home in the evening and a more energetic few hours filled with visits and play before bed time. Certainly many dogs are in schedules that are more demanding, even to the point of 10 hours crated while their owners are at work five days a week. This level of crating is very challenging over the long term and some if not many, will end up with anxiety as a result and become difficult to crate, destructive when they are out, hyperactive and generally neurotic as they have few options in dealing with this level of stress. To suggest that these dogs would be better left loose in the house is equally irresponsible as they are so stressed as to now lack (assuming they ever had them) the skills to deal with good behavior while loose. For a dog that is either inexperienced or now expressing the result of a poor crating schedule, the best choice in most cases is to introduce the dog to a more ideal schedule and regular breaks (ideally starting at more often than every 4 hours).