How to use a dog crate – when and when not to crate your dog

Video: Training Tip: How to Crate Train Your Dog

How to use a dog crate - Black labrador laying

‘Black Labrador Retriever Lotte’ by Golden Retriever – Labrador on Flickr CC BY 2.0

This is the 3rd installment in the 8 part series, ‘Crate training – The complete guide‘.

We discussed the many benefits the use of a crate can offer, and hopefully put to rest any fears you may have had regarding the use of a crate being cruel in the previous article: ‘Why use a dog crate – and is it cruel to crate a dog‘.

This article flows on from the previous one, so if you haven’t yet, I recommend you read that first.

This article answers the question how to use a dog crate, going through the reasons and times at which you should consider using one, and then the times and reasons that it’s very important you NOT crate your dog.

It’s a long article, but it needs to be to make sure you use a crate correctly, effectively, and above all humanely and never in a cruel way.

Contents & Quick Navigation

  • 2 When To Use a Dog Crate
  • 2.1 Always Leave The Crate Open For Your Dog to Use Voluntarily
  • 2.2 Keep Your Puppy Safe When You Cannot Supervise Them
  • 2.3 Protect Your Belongings When You Cannot Supervise Them
  • 2.4 When You Can’t Supervise Your Dog With Small Children
  • 2.5 During The House Training Process
  • 2.6 Use The Crate For a Timeout
  • 2.7 Managing Problem Behaviors as Part of Solving Them
  • 2.8 Introducing a New Puppy Into a Home With an Older Dog
  • 2.9 For Safety Traveling
  • 3 When NOT to Crate Your Dog
  • 3.1 If Your Dog is Afraid Of The Crate
  • 3.2 Dogs Who Suffer With Separation Anxiety
  • 3.3 If Crating Will Exceed The Time They Can Hold Their Need to Toilet
  • 3.4 Your Dog Begins To Toilet In Their Crate
  • 3.5 A Medical Condition That Could Be Worsened By Being Crated
  • 3.6 For Lengths of Time Exceeding 5 Hours
  • 3.7 As A Punishment
  • 3.8 Don’t Ever Crate Them Just Because You Want Peace and Quiet
  • 3.9 Uncomfortably High Temperatures
  • 4 If Your Dog Is Alone While You Work All Day
  • 5 A Crate Is Not For Life – With Maturity, The Need For Crating Lessens If Needed At All
  • 6 Further Reading
  • 7 Conclusion
  • 8 More information:
  • How To Use a Dog Crate

    To get the most effective start possible you first want to prepare the crate.

    This means buying a good crate of the correct size, a few required accessories, have a location and a crate training plan all ready before you even bring your Labrador home. This way you can start crate training as soon as possible…the younger they are, the easier it is!

    The crate must be large enough for your dog to stand, turn around freely and stretch out laying down comfortably. But not so big that they’re able to go to toilet at one end and still be comfortable at the other as this defeats a lot of the purpose.

    You can see our hand-picked list of the best, most highly recommended dog crates by clicking here.

    You should always leave a chew toy or two in with your dog to keep them occupied, and remove any collar or harness so there’s no risk of snagging and choking.

    Purchasing the correct style and size of crate, as well as placement, preparation and required (and optional) accessories is discussed in more depth in the next two articles in this series.

    Don’t Just Crate When You’re Leaving Them Alone

    It’s extremely important that you crate your Labrador for short periods at regular intervals throughout the day when you’re home, not only when you’re about to leave the house.

    This prevents your Lab from learning that going to the crate always means they will be left alone which can result in them becoming reluctant to enter and use it.

    The Crate is Your Dogs Den, Not Your Children’s

    The crate is your Labradors special place of their own and it must remain just that…their own.

    So if you have children, be very stern about the fact they must NEVER bother the dog and especially never tease them when they’re in the crate.

    And never let them go inside, or play on or around it. It’s your dogs own special place and they must learn that they can go there for peace and quiet and will not be disturbed.

    But having said that, you should make sure your Lab allows human contact and entry to the crate and doesn’t learn to resource guard it because you’ll need to place items in there, remove items from there and sometimes touch your dog when they’re inside.

    Take Them To Toilet And Exercise Them Before Crating Any Length of Time

    You should always make sure your Lab has recently been to toilet and had some exercise and interaction with their human family before you crate them for any length of time.

    If they haven’t been to toilet, it could get very uncomfortable having to hold it and they may even eventually be forced to go in the crate.

    If they haven’t been exercised and enjoyed some interaction, they may have pent-up energy and feel isolated, ignored and alone which can lead to anxiety.

    When To Use a Dog Crate

    When to use a dog crate - Large green tick on a dog crateI’m now going to discuss the times and reasons that you should use a dog crate, before providing instruction after on the equally important times when you should not use a crate.

    I’m forced to repeat here a little of what was spoken in the last article on ‘why use a dog crate’, but there’s a lot of new points as well. At least it will serve to really hammer home the benefits of using one :-)

    Always Leave The Crate Open For Your Dog to Use Voluntarily

    First and foremost, the crate should be left open and accessible for your dog to use voluntarily when they wish.

    It provides your dog with his own little place to go for peace and quiet where they’ll not be disturbed, which is particularly important in a house with small children.

    Also, if you have to leave your puppy alone for short periods, being in the crate will make them feel safer and more secure than being free to roam around a big room or the whole house alone.

    Keep Your Puppy Safe When You Cannot Supervise Them

    If you’re busy around the house and cannot supervise your puppy properly, popping them in a crate for a short while will remove the potential for them to get into trouble such as chewing electrical wires or swallowing harmful, toxic or inedible objects in your home.

    Protect Your Belongings When You Cannot Supervise Them

    Related to the previous point, when your Lab puppy is teething and chewing everything they can get their little mouths on, popping them into a crate when you can’t supervise them will protect your belongings.

    By spending $50 to $100 USD on a crate, you’ll get your investment back ten-fold by protecting your shoes, furniture and other possessions when you can’t keep an eye on your furry little chewing machine.

    Perhaps more importantly you can protect against possible damage of irreplaceable things that hold sentimental value.

    When You Can’t Supervise Your Dog With Small Children

    Labradors are widely known for having an excellent temperament and being loving and patient around children, but keeping a small child and dog apart is as much for the dogs safety as it is for the child.

    You should never leave a dog or puppy alone with small children.

    Children very often ‘play rough’ with dogs, pulling their ears and tails and can easily hurt a small puppy. And this can lead to a puppy becoming very nippy and potentially hurting the child in return.

    So if you cannot supervise them, do not leave a very young child and your dog alone together. Pop your lab in a crate for a short while until they can have your supervision.

    During The House Training Process

    You can take advantage of a puppy’s innate instinct to keep their den clean to help speed up the house training process.

    When to use a dog crate - lab standing by a door asking to go outYou would normally keep a vigilant eye on your puppy, looking for signs they’re about to go potty and move quickly to take him outside to the correct place.

    But if you can’t watch them carefully there’s a high chance you’ll miss the signals and your puppy will have accidents inside the home. And each little accident you’ve missed is a missed opportunity to teach where you want them to go.

    When you can’t watch them, pop them in the crate and they will hold it as long as they can. Then when you take them out, go straight outside, they’ll need to go and you have an opportunity for praising them for going in the right place.

    The more they get praise for going in the right spot, the quicker they learn what you want them to do and the quicker the house training process becomes.

    Being in a crate will also prevent them eliminating in the house during the night which can set things back.

    Use The Crate For a Timeout

    When your puppy becomes way over-excited, begins to get a bit nippy and they won’t calm down, (and this happens a lot with young Labrador puppies) you can pop them in the crate until they’re relaxed and have regained control.

    Never do this to punish your dog, always stay calm and speak positively throughout. You don’t want them to have any negative feelings about the crate. Just calmly take them to the crate with a toy to relax for a couple of minutes.

    Managing Problem Behaviors as Part of Solving Them

    Problem behaviors, such as jumping up on visitors or begging for food at the table, needs a two-pronged approach to being solved: Training the desired behavior and preventing or managing the unwanted behavior.

    By not allowing an unwanted behavior to occur, you automatically lessen it’s frequency and dramatically speed up the training of the desired alternative behavior.

    A crate is a very useful tool for this, temporarily confining your dog to prevent problem behaviors at the times they might occur. For instance, crating for 2 or 3 minutes after a new visitor arrives until they’ve calmed down, or for the half hour your family sits down to eat.

    Introducing a New Puppy Into a Home With an Older Dog

    You can never be quite sure how an older dog will behave with a new puppy, and a puppy can be too boisterous to be put up with kindly by an older dog, especially an elderly one.

    Video: Shaping your dog to love his crate - Clicker Training Tutorial

    When you can’t supervise their time together and step in if things get too much, you should crate your puppy a short while until you can give them your full attention.

    For Safety Traveling

    Whether by road or by air, traveling in a crate is the best and safest way for your dog to travel. It keeps them calm, offers protection for when an accident occurs and protects the driver from the distractions of a loose dog in the car.

    It’s also very useful for when you stay in a hotel or take your dog places where they aren’t welcome to run about freely, allowing your dog to travel with you but keeping them out of mischief by confining them to a place they’re accustomed to and feel comfortable in.

    When NOT to Crate Your Dog

    When not to use a crate - Big red cross over a crateThere are times when you shouldn’t crate your dog. Sometimes for medical reasons, sometimes for psychological reasons and sometimes because it may set back your dogs development and your training efforts so far.

    And I think most importantly because sometimes it’s just plain unnecessary, mean and not within your dogs best interests for quality of life.

    These are the times and reasons that you should not crate your dog:

    If Your Dog is Afraid Of The Crate

    Not all dogs like a crate and it’s cruel and inhumane to force a dog showing fear and anxiety to use one.

    You’ll know if your dog fears the crate because they’ll look incredibly scared: Ears flat, tail down, trembling and in extreme cases may even vomit or defecate.

    Never force a dog into a crate, they must be willing to go inside and should feel happy and comfortable there.

    In some cases they may seem happy when you first put them in, but when you return after some time you see damage to the crate caused by attempts to escape, wet fur or a wet floor due to drooling, urine or feces in the crate or reports from neighbors of barking and crying.

    This could indicate delayed fear of the crate that takes a short while to take hold, or could be separation anxiety.

    For temporary alternatives to use until you complete crate training and your dog learns to love their crate, please see this article by The Whole Dog Journal: What to do when your dog hates his crate

    Dogs Who Suffer With Separation Anxiety

    A dog that already suffers with separation anxiety should never be confined in a crate as this will only make things worse.

    If your dog shows any of the following signs of separation anxiety when left alone you need to discuss this with professional help and avoid crating them: Destructive chewing, soiling the house, excessive drooling, scratching at doors and windows trying to escape or non-stop barking and whining.

    Although nearly all dogs come to see their crate as their special place that makes them feel safe and secure, this isn’t the case with those that suffer separation anxiety and crating them could in fact make their feelings worse.

    In the most extreme cases of dogs in a severe state of anxiety they’ve been reported to rip claws and break teeth trying to escape a crate…and those not in crates to destroy entire doors and interior walls. You can imagine the fear and panic they must be feeling to do this!

    Regardless of whether you use a crate or not, if your dog has separation anxiety problems, you MUST speak with a professional to solve the problem as it severely affects your dogs quality of life.

    NOTE: Regarding fear of the crate and separation anxiety, I suggest if you can to set up a camcorder and record your dog in the crate when they’re left alone. This way you’ll have a true sense of how they find the experience. If they’re anxious and fearful you need to work on this and go back to crate training before using one. They aren’t ready yet.

    If Crating Will Exceed The Time They Can Hold Their Need to Toilet

    The time will vary depending on the age of your dog, but you know how uncomfortable it is when you really need to go but can’t? A dog will feel the same when trying their very hardest not to soil their crate, so don’t put them in this position.

    If it does get to the stage where they end up soiling their crate, they’ll feel very disappointed with themselves and anxious, so avoid this all costs. It’s basic care to allow your Lab the opportunity to go to toilet regularly.

    Your Dog Begins To Toilet In Their Crate

    As discussed above, this could be due to fear of the crate or separation anxiety. But it could also be for medical reasons or just that they’ve ‘unlearnt’ to keep their crate clean.

    Video: How to Teach Your Dog to Go to His Crate | Dog Tricks

    When not to crate your dog - sad dog looking out the window

    ‘the dog’ by Kathryn Beadle on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    If they’re soiling their crate due to medical reasons or sickness and diarrhea, they cannot be expected to hold it, truly cannot help it and it’s totally unfair to have them crated when they’ll defecate in such a confined space.

    So don’t confine them until they’re well again, leave the door open so they may use the crate, but can leave when the inevitable happens.

    But if it’s due to losing their instinct to keep their sleeping place clean it could undo all your house training efforts and not only this, it’s very bad for the health of your dogs skin to lie in urine and excrement.

    A dog that soils their crate shouldn’t be confined in one but instead should be managed with a pen or by gating off a section of the house until you’ve fully trained them to be clean inside once again.

    A Medical Condition That Could Be Worsened By Being Crated

    Although a crate is very useful, recommended and will even be sought out by your dog when they’re ill or convalescing, some conditions require that a dog be able to move about freely to prevent their health from worsening.

    An old dog with arthritis or a younger dog with inflamed joints may become stiff and sore if they’re confined with little movement.

    There are other ailments with which being confined isn’t recommended, your vet will be able to advise if this is the case.

    For Lengths of Time Exceeding 5 Hours

    With the exception of night times and one-off exceptional circumstances, you should avoid crating your dog for more than 5 hours at a time, and the frequency of this should be kept to an absolute minimum.

    When a dog’s crated for long periods, they get no exercise, no interaction or socialization and this can lead to depression and anxiety. This is particularly true of Labradors, a sociable breed that truly needs companionship from their human family. Please try to avoid this.

    As A Punishment

    Never use a dog crate for punishment! If you do, you aren’t using it in the dogs best interests or as a management tool, you’re using it as a prison.

    And in all fairness, you’re probably imprisoning them just for being a dog and having done something that dogs naturally do. Something that you haven’t taken the time to train and teach them otherwise not to do.

    Please don’t punish your dog for your own failings!

    If you do confine them as a punishment, they’ll start to dislike their crate and will then lose the benefit of a place of safety and security all of their own. And you’ll no longer be able to use it for time-outs and management as they’ll start to fear the crate and feel anxious.

    Your dog should only ever have pleasant experiences while crated, to promote a happy association with it and to keep its power and benefits for both you and your dog.

    Don’t Ever Crate Them Just Because You Want Peace and Quiet

    If your Labrador puppy’s being a nuisance and begging for attention when you’re tired and want to relax, this isn’t an excuse to confine them to a crate.

    A puppy can be annoying, they can demand all your time, but you signed up for this and it’s a part of being a Lab parent until they’re fully grown.

    It’s nothing short of negligence to lock up your puppy if you ‘can’t be bothered’. You have to play with them, interact with them and provide the training they need.

    Uncomfortably High Temperatures

    Your dog should be able to seek out and find a way to cool down if it gets too hot and being confined to a crate doesn’t allow this. Especially some with relatively solid walls that allow little air-flow and can get extremely hot, even dangerously so if the general weather is hot outside.

    If Your Dog Is Alone While You Work All Day

    CC Image courtesy of elisa416 on Flickr

    ‘Belinda <3’ by Elisa on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

    I don’t recommend the use of a crate for a dog that has to be left alone all day while their owners are at work, even if some dogs do actually learn to live with it.

    If this must be tried, then it’s absolutely vital that your dog is well exercised and given lots of attention before and after being placed in the crate, and you have somebody come and take your dog out for exercise and go to toilet half way through the day.

    But personally, I’m very strongly against crating in this way. However, I do also realize people’s personal circumstances change, relationships break up and somebody may find themselves suddenly in a situation where they live alone with their dog and have to work all day.

    If this is you, try your very best to leave your dog with a family member, hire a pet sitter or use a dog daycare service to cut the amount of time your dog must spend alone, particularly in a crate.

    A sociable dog such as a Labrador cannot be left alone and isolated 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year. This is a poor quality of life. This lack of interaction and companionship will likely end with your dog developing emotional problems, depression, anxiety and behavioral issues.

    A Crate Is Not For Life – With Maturity, The Need For Crating Lessens If Needed At All

    The main aims of a crate are safety, security, protection of belongings, to help house training and management of behavior problems.

    So if you have a dog who behaves wonderfully when left alone in the home, is very well house trained, has no destructive tendencies and no behavior problems, you have little reason to use a crate, so why would you?

    If your dog’s reached the stage where they can be trusted, crating only deprives them of the freedom to move around that they’ve earned by working hard with you in training, to learn and abide by the rules you want them to live by.

    Stop using the crate at this point. This is their reward. Like when your child can be trusted to stay safe and not destroy things in the home, you no longer confine them to a play pen do you? Please give your dog the same honor.

    You should plan to use a crate until your dog is over their destructive chewing stage. For Labradors this is usually between 2 and 2 1/2 years of age.

    Once they’ve proved you can trust them in the home, please stop crating them. They’ve earned the right and it’s a little boost to their quality of life.

    You should still keep the crate unless you need the space in your home back. Your dog will still covet it as their own little space to get away, and you can use it if you visit relatives, or your vet advises to crate them during illness or after surgery. And it may become useful as a management tool again if your older dog develops a behavior problem.

    Further Reading

    Conclusion

    Crates have literally saved the lives of countless dogs, and they’ve helped countless others to deal with life in a human world with less stress and fear. But there are a worrying number of people who overuse crates with their dogs.

    The ability to spend several hours a day roaming freely about the house rather than spending time in a crate will benefit your Labrador in many ways. A dog loose in the house, interacting with its family enjoys a far greater level of mental stimulation and a better quality of life.

    To train your dog to be trusted and reliably free in your house, have them out of the crate and with you whenever you can to supervise and more importantly, train and teach them.

    With maturity and training, the majority of dogs will learn to behave well in the house when you’re not watching as well as when you are, and then you can stop using the crate.

    But during the puppy and adolescent stages, considerate use of a crate will keep your dog safe, your possessions safe and stop bad habits forming.

    For those small number of dogs that truly fear a crate, you should never force them, that’s cruel and inhumane. But you should attempt to crate train your dog because this really is only a very small number of dogs and the benefits to crating are huge.

    The more you understand the benefits a crate can provide, and when you should and shouldn’t use a crate, the better you’ll be able to use it for the incredible tool it is to manage your dog for the benefit of their safety and happiness.

    Hopefully the articles in this series so far have helped you to understand just that. Why and how to use a dog crate, when to crate your Lab and just importantly, when not to.

    More information:

    This was part 3 in an 8-part series that details everything you need to know about the use of a crate and crate training your puppy. The information applies equally well to dogs of all breeds and not just Labradors.

    The Entire series is linked to here:

    I’ve tried to cover literally every question I could imagine on dog crates and crate training in the article series above, but of course it’s hard to cover every question that people may possibly have.

    So if there’s anything you need to know but cannot find an answer for above, please feel free to leave your questions in the comments section below and I will happily give all the help I can :-)

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