Using a crate to appease your dog's den-dwelling instincts

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • A crate works in harmony with your dog’s natural den-dwelling instincts
  • Introduced and used appropriately, your dog’s crate can become his private space and “bedroom” for a lifetime
  • Crates are beneficial for housetraining; they’re also a great way to help your dog learn to spend time alone without feeling anxious
  • Successful crate training starts with the “It’s all good” approach, meaning all things that happen in and around your dog’s crate are pleasant and positive
  • Dogs who’ve had a past bad experience with crating can be reintroduced to a crate with the right approach and lots of patience

I’m a big fan of crate training and recommend it to every dog guardian I know, especially those who need to housetrain a puppy. Whether your canine companion is a puppy or a senior, providing him with his very own cozy space has a number of great advantages for both of you.

A crate can help not only with housetraining, but also car or plane travel, and overnight stays with friends, family or at a pet-friendly hotel.

Why I love crates for dogs

Many people equate a crate with a jail cell, but if you understand a little about the nature of dogs, you know this isn’t true. If you have any doubts about this, I encourage you to talk with some dog-loving friends who’ve crate-trained their pets. Chances are they’ll tell you their dog seeks out her crate on her own for naps, at bedtime and whenever she just needs some alone time.

Pregnant wild dogs, including wolves and coyotes, seek out den-like environments to whelp (give birth to) their puppies. Many puppies’ first memories are probably of being with their moms in a quiet, cozy, little space. If a crate is introduced correctly, it can provide a secure, private “bedroom” for your dog for the rest of her life.

In fact, if you bring a new dog into your home and you don’t have a crate ready for her, chances are she’ll find a spot, such as under a table or chair or even behind the toilet in the bathroom, which answers her need for a secure, out-of-the-way “den” of her own.

If you leave her in her little spot, you’ll notice she won’t relieve herself there. That’s because dogs are programmed by nature not to soil their dens. In the wild, nursing wolves and coyotes teach their pups to relieve themselves outside the den. This keeps predators from investigating inside their little homes and keeps messes outside the sleeping area.

That’s exactly why crates are so useful for dogs who haven’t been housetrained. A dog with her own den doesn’t want to pee or poop in it, so by providing a crate for her, you’re working in harmony with her natural instinct to keep her resting space clean. As long as your dog is getting consistent and frequent trips outside to relieve herself in an appropriate environment, nature should prompt her to not soil her den space in between potty trips (unless there’s a medical problem).

Another health benefit of crate training is that dogs accustomed to spending time alone in their den are much less likely to develop separation anxiety or other phobias. Putting a puppy in her crate for a nap or some quiet time also helps her learn not to expect constant human attention, similar to the use of playpens for babies.

This strategy coupled with basic positive reinforcement obedience training will set the stage for a secure, balanced adult dog who is pleasant to be around, which is always the goal.

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Purchasing the right crate

When you purchase a crate for your dog, the size is important. You want a space that’s not too big or too small. Your dog should be able to stand up, lie down and turn around comfortably in it, but it shouldn’t be so large that he can easily use one end as his potty spot and the other end for sleeping and snacking. If you need to housetrain your dog, a crate large enough to have a bathroom at one end can actually slow down the process.

If you’re unsure what size crate to buy, talk to a shelter volunteer, your veterinarian or your breeder about what you want to accomplish so they can help you pick the right size. If you’re crate training a puppy, especially a giant breed, you’ll probably want a smaller crate initially and then a bigger one as he grows.

When you bring the new crate home, place it in an area where your family spends a lot of time — not in an isolated spot, outdoors, a high-traffic location (can be stressful) or where your dog will experience temperature extremes.

Make sure there’s nothing hanging inside the crate that could cause your dog harm, and especially while he’s still young and rambunctious, take his collar off before you put him in the crate so it can’t get hung up on anything. As necessary, disinfect the crate with either mild soap or vinegar and baking soda and rinse it thoroughly.

Getting your dog used to his crate

If you purchased a crate ahead of time and it’s there when your dog comes home, as long as he hasn’t had a bad experience with confinement in the past, it’s should be pretty easy to get him acclimated to his little den.

The first rule of crate training is to never, ever force your dog into his crate. You never want to force your dog into or out of his crate, because you can end up with an unmanageable case of separation anxiety or a pathological aversion to enclosed or small spaces. The crate should represent a safe zone for your dog, so you never want to make his safe zone feel unsafe.

The second rule of crate training is what I call, “It’s all good,” which means everything about the crate is positive from your dog’s perspective. While you’re getting him used to his crate, everything he loves goes in there, and the door stays propped or tied open so he can freely investigate.

Put treats in and around the crate, along with treat release toys, chew toys, food puzzle toys — all his favorites. I also recommend feeding him in his crate with the door open. The goal is to have your dog voluntarily go into his crate because everything about it is positive and fun.

Helping a hesitant dog acclimate to a crate

If your dog is nervous about her new little space or is fearful due to a past bad experience, you’ll have to take things slower. A dog who has been crated as a form of punishment or has been locked in a crate for inappropriately long periods of time will need to be gently and patiently reintroduced to the crate.

Obviously, you want her to be in there comfortably with the door closed as soon as possible, especially if you’re in the process of potty training. But until she gets the “it’s all good” message about her crate, you’ll need to be extra vigilant about getting her outside to relieve herself at frequent, regular intervals.

Make sure to leave the door open (tie it open if necessary so there’s no chance it will close while she’s in there). Put food rewards around the outside of the crate and inside as well so she can get comfortable going in and out of her crate without worrying about being “trapped” inside.

Once you sense your dog is comfortable inside her crate, feed her in there with the door open. Once she’s comfortably eating in the crate, close the door. Don’t go far and keep an eye on her. At some point she’ll realize the door is closed and she’s inside her crate. Don’t acknowledge any whimpering or barking she may do. Once she’s calm and relaxed, open the door and praise her.

When you start closing the crate door, leave it closed for very short periods of time (no more than a minute) so that she realizes she’s not “trapped” and she’s not being punished. In the meantime, continue tossing treats into the crate several times a day to reinforce the association between it and good things.

Once your dog begins associating good things with her crate and she’s feeling more comfortable in there, you can close the door for longer periods. Be sure to leave something fun inside such as a treat-release toy she can focus on. Don’t leave your house until your dog is completely comfortable in the closed crate while you’re at home. You can gradually extend the amount of time you leave her in the crate, providing she's getting consistent, frequent trips outside to potty.

Once she’s comfortable being in her closed crate when you’re at home, you can begin taking short trips away from the house. If you need to leave your dog for longer than four hours, I recommend you use a dog sitter or a doggy daycare facility rather than crating her for long periods of time.

You want your dog to view her crate as a safe place to rest and be calm, so when she's in there and you're at home, resist the urge to energetically interact with her. When you let her out of her crate, give her a sit command and plenty of calm praise when she follows the command. Make entry and exit from the crate a calm, neutral experience and unassociated with any of your dog's behaviors.

If you’re struggling with crate training, I recommend talking with a positive dog trainer who can help you work through the problems you’re experiencing.