When is Crate-Training Helpful? (Not as Often as You Think!)

If you believe everything you read on the internet, you’ll get the impression you’re a bad dog owner if you don’t “crate train” your new puppy or rescue.

I disagree.

Crating can definitely have its place, and its benefits. Problem is, “crate training” can mean a lot of different things. Depending whether you’re working on housebreaking, general obedience, respect and safety for your house and belongings, separation anxiety, or guarding/aggression, crating can be just as detrimental as it can be helpful.

Officially, “crate training” means positively reinforcing the crate so your dog starts to like going in. However, depending when you then choose to use the crate, you may be inadvertantly punishing your dog at the same time, or reaping other less-than-helpful consequences.

If you use the crate to isolate your dog when he’s begging, barking, or generally being annoying, then you’re only avoiding learning how to control your dog in trigger situations, and keeping him from learning limits, boundaries, and self-control. If your dog is  guarding or demonstrating aggressive behavior, most of the same points apply — although of course it’s important to put safety first. Until you get a professional over to help you plan your social situations, avoiding incidents may be the safest alternative to healing. Ninety percent of the time I meet a dog with separation anxiety who’s being crated when owners leave, we need to begin the healing/counterconditioning process by removing the crate and starting the dog in a comfy place that isn’t already laden with negative associations and memories.

There are only three reasons I find crates to be genuinely helpful. In two out of the three, there are usually better options. In the third, the door needs never be closed.

  1. Housebreaking

    The idea behind using crates to teach housebreaking is that dogs innately don’t want to pee where they live. By confining your dog to a small space, ideally filled with food/water bowls, a bed, toys, chews, and the like, he’ll “hold it” when he feels the urge. That gives you time to get him out to where you want him peeing — either a wee-wee pad or ideally outside — so he can start making that association.

    Problem with crates is they stay one tiny size. In order to condition your dog to the idea that he lives in your entire house/apartment, and not just that one corner, you have to gradually enlarge his living space, giving him gradually more access to more parts of the house for gradually longer durations. A helpful way to do this is with a modular metal or wood “playpen” (or several). First wrap it around the crate and leave the door open; now his home is slightly larger than the crate. Sleep a few nights, leave him in that space whenever unsupervised. Then open the pen larger, and repeat. Then start using the pen like a fence, to wall off larger portions of your home. Eventually Fido’s living space will be fully coincide with your own.

    If you’re doing this with the playpen, there’s typically no need to have the crate in the first place! (Unless your dog jumps or climbs out.) When I meet a new dog owner who hasn’t yet spent their month’s salary at PetCo, I tell them to buy playpens instead of a crate.

  2. Safety/chewing/destructiveness

    Most of the same points about housebreaking apply to chewing/destructiveness. In order for your dog to learn to respect your home and items in it, he has to be gradually conditioned to live unrestricted from them — giving him gradually more acccess to larger areas of the house. Again a modular pen can help condition him in a way a static crate cannot.

    However, most of the time a dog is chewing or destructive in the home, I tend to find at least two other elements missing: proper outdoor physical exercise and socializing with other dogs, and access to appropriate chewing outlets. I’ve already written bunches about these in previous posts.

  3. If your dog likes it!

    This is the best reason of all to get or keep a crate. Some dogs just enjoy the cozy feel, their own private space. Some like going in there at night, or during thunderstorms.

    Keep in mind if your dog is doing so out of fear, we’re going to want to push him out of his comfort zone so we can gradually show him that the world isn’t scary, thus opening up his world and makinag him happier. But in general, if your dog likes a crate, let him have access to it.

To summarize: out of all of the reasons people use crates, there’s only one — your dog likes going in — that I typically endorse as the best of all available alternatives. And notice that in this case, you never need to close the door!

So if you’re using your crate for a reason that requires you to lock your dog in, get clear about your goals, and reconsider how you might otherwise go about achieving them.