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  • Dr Jen Nesbitt-Hawes BVSc MVSt MANZCVS

Concerning Crates

Updated: Apr 8

Dog crates can be a wonderful management tool, a safe retreat, and a place of comfort. However, increasingly, crates are being used as a shortcut; to avoid training, instead of being a step along the way; to confine, rather than treat underlying problems. So, let's talk about crates and the ways in which their use is (and isn't) recommended.

Setting up a crate:

A dog sleeping in an open crate

Crates should be big enough that the dog can stand with his head up, turn around, stretch, and comfortably lie down on his side with all four legs stretched out in front. If you have a large breed puppy, you may buy a larger crate for him to grow into. If you do, consider placing a large cardboard box in the back, so that there is not too much spare room, otherwise the puppy may learn to use the area off the bed for toileting.

Crates can be noisy, so make sure they are on a flat surface so they won't rattle or slide. Using a non-slip mat underneath can be very useful. Place a bed inside the crate so that the dog is comfortable. Depending on the season and your dog, you may choose a big thick bed, or a thinner mat. You may choose to cover the crate with a blanket or custom cover, for extra privacy, darkness or warmth (always making sure there is plenty of ventilation).

Teach your dog to be comfortable in the crate:

When you are first introducing a crate, have the crate open for your puppy or dog to wander in and out of. The crate should be inside your puppy-proof area (it should not BE your puppy-proof area; it is too small). The puppy-proof area could be a play pen or indoors x-pen, should ideally be in the main living area of the home, and should contain water, food, a chew, a toy, a toileting area, and the open crate as a bed. The following is an excerpt from the crate training section of my puppy guide, The Puppy Manual :

  • Initially, leave the door of the crate open and allow the dog to wander in and out at will. Give your dog treats and food dispensing toys inside the crate. Don’t ever force your dog in as this is likely to scare him.

  • Then, put treats in and close the door with your dog on the outside. As soon as your dog shows he would like to go in, then open the door for him.

  • Once your dog is comfortable going inside the crate, place a Kong or chew at the far end of the crate. While he is eating, gently close the door. Open it again if he comes towards the door, and before he finishes with the Kong. He needs to trust that you are not trapping him inside. Practice this stage over a few days.

  • When your dog seems relaxed with the door closing in the crate, have a quiet hour with him! Watch TV, read a book, browse the internet, whatever quiet and relaxing activity you enjoy. Close the door of the crate with your dog and a chew inside and sit directly next to the crate. Whenever your dog is looking relaxed, drop a piece of dry dog food just in front of his nose. This is not a ‘mark and reinforce’ situation – we don’t want a dog in training mode. We want to ‘capture the calm,’ Use lower value treats to try to reduce excitement. If you find that even kibble is too exciting (the dog keeps leaping up when you give it), then try just whispering ‘Good Dog’. Once you have done this a few times, increase the distance between you and the crate and repeat the exercise, so the dog is comfortable in the crate even when you are not right beside him.

  • If your dog whines, barks at you, or scratches the door to get out and you know he doesn’t need to toilet, you can quietly ignore this behaviour for a minute or two. Most dogs will figure out that it doesn’t work and stop quickly. As soon as he is quiet, or sits or lies down, then open the door. If he keeps whining or barking, gently talk to him "Oh, that's not going to work" and cue him to sit or lie down and start reinforcing quiet behaviour much more frequently (about once every second) until he looks settled again. However, if your dog is genuinely distressed (anxious, panicked, or frantic) then do not leave him in the crate. He will build up associations of bad things happening in the crate. Let him out straight away and go back to step one. If you are finding that this process is too stressful for your dog or puppy, he may have separation or confinement distress. Stop using the crate and contact your friendly positive reinforcement trainer or behaviour vet now – this is not something a puppy will ‘grow out of’.

A safe retreat

The crate should be a safe place for your dog, that he can retreat to at any time he wants a break. The dog is not to be disturbed while inside the crate. You can make it fun and toss treats and food in for him. But if he is sleeping in there, do not pat him. Children and visitors must be taught that the crate is out-of-bounds, and that they shouldn't approach the crate or touch it, even if the dog isn't there. If the dog is inside, don't reach in and drag him out. Instead, call him out and reinforce him for coming.

A puppy sleeping in a comfortable open crate

Crate confinement (closing the dog inside the crate)

You can gradually increase the time which the dog spends in the crate with the door shut, if you are using it to confine your dog (such as during dinner time). This is good to practice, as it can help prepare your dog for veterinary stays, and car travel. For puppies, do not exceed 30 minutes without a toilet break. Older dogs may be comfortable with an hour or so, if necessary. If you use your crate overnight, you can keep it shut for longer, as long as the crate is beside your bed, so your dog can wake you up if he needs to go to the toilet. As an aside, the alternative to having to get up in the middle of the night is to have the puppy sleep in his puppy-proof area with appropriate toileting substrate (puppy pee pads) available. Using pee pads is a transitional stage, much like nappies for children. If you are working on toilet training during the daytime, you'll be able to phase these out once your puppy develops more control.

Once your dog is comfortable in the crate, you can use the crate for car travel. Crate confinement is common at dog shows and sports or other events. In some cases, crate confinement is also required after surgical procedures. Being comfortable with being closed in a crate will help your dog cope with these different, more stressful situations.

The rest of the time, the crate should stay open,

and the dog should be allowed to come in and out.

Now, I hear many people saying that they need to use crate confinement for other very legitimate reasons. Like safety, or toilet training, or because otherwise the dog will chew things in the house. Let's examine these in more detail.

Crate confinement for safety

Dogs may need to be confined for their safety, or that of others. For example, if the kids are playing on the lounge room floor, if the dog is not good with guests, or if the dog doesn't get along with others. It is true that these are genuine reasons for separation (not necessarily confinement). Crates may be considered in some circumstances, For example, two dogs of the same household who fight with each other may each be confined to a separate crate, while they are both inside the same living room of an evening.

However, in many cases where safety is a concern, the dog is displaying defensive aggression because he wants the scary thing to stay away. Confining dogs to a crate puts dogs in a situation where they cannot move away if they need to. If they are anxious or concerned about the presence of children, guests, or other dogs, then being in the same room, confined to a crate and unable to escape, can make their anxiety worse. It is far preferable that a dog has room to retreat. For example, the dog may be behind a baby gate into an adjoining room. Or confined to a play pen where he still has room to move about, and can choose to go and rest in his (open) crate, knowing that no-one will be able to approach him there.

Crate confinement for house training

A puppy with dog toys in a puppy-proof pen, next to an open crate

Crate confinement is frequently used as tool for house training. Puppies and dogs prefer not to toilet in their beds. So, if they are confined to their beds, they will try to hold on. If locked in a crate, they also have no access to the rest of the house, so they can't chew anything they shouldn't. However, using a puppy-proof area for confinement (with food, water, toy, open crate and a small absorbent toilet area (like absorbent pads, or a square of turf in a litter tray) is just as effective. The dog still has no access to random household items, but can be left unsupervised and has the freedom to toilet if necessary. Like very young humans, puppies have need to urinate frequently and have little control. Providing them with appropriate toileting options for when they are unsupervised will result in less accidents in the crate, and provide them with more freedom.

The house training itself only happens while someone is directly supervising and the dog is allowed access to the rest of the house. You need to put in the time to teach the puppy which things are appropriate to chew and which things are not. If they are not meant for chewing (and let's face it, most things in our homes are not!), you should redirect the puppy to one of his toys (preferably of a similar texture and feel as the item he was chewing). You're going to need to do this again and again, because puppies explore with their mouths, and there's a lot of trial-and-error learning that is going to occur. Make the puppy's toys as fun as possible, by holding them, moving them and tugging them gently. Be patient, keep your precious things out of reach, and provide lots of appropriate chewing opportunities.

You are also the one who needs to actively look for the signs of imminent toileting (a sudden loss of attention for play, sniffing, moving in circles, squatting), and immediately guide the dog to the appropriate toileting area. Once the dog toilets in the designated area, he should be reinforced with praise, treats or play.

The ultimate aim of housetraining is that the dog should be able to be left free to roam, unsupervised in the house. But unless you put in the time to teach the dog what is appropriate, then it isn't going learn.

Confinement for separation related behaviour problems

Some dogs become distressed when their caregivers leave, for a range of different reasons. The signs of this distress may be panting, barking, trying to escape, scrabbling at door frames, or destroying items in the home. Caregivers are sometimes advised to crate their dogs. While crating may limit damage to the home, it does not solve the underlying problem and in some cases makes things much worse. Dogs may quietly sit in their crate and still feel terrified, or break teeth and shred nails, or bend the bars of a crate in their desperation to escape. If you imagine what kinds of situations might make you behave in a similar way, you can see why just getting a stronger crate is not the solution. What IS the solution? Consultation with a qualified veterinary behaviour professional ASAP. These cases are complex and each individual will require a different combination of management, behaviour modification and often medication (both for the welfare of the dog and for most rapid onset of treatment). Safety crates may be prescribed if the dog causes itself physical harm, but only as part of a treatment plan, with other support on board.

What is the problem with keeping a dog in a crate?

All animals are built to behave. When we assess the welfare of any individual animal, our question is not just whether the animal is free from harm. Basic welfare also includes the freedom to behave in species specific ways, to interact with the environment, and importantly, to have the freedom to choose. Studies in animals have shown that control is essential for positive psychological welfare, and that making choices is a means by which to exercise control (Englund and Cronin, 2023).

A dog looking worried in a closed crate

Being locked in a crate is extremely limiting, physically and mentally. Although a dog at liberty within the house may choose to sleep for four hours straight, he may also choose to move off his bed and lie on the cool tiles on a hot day. He may choose to get up and have a drink of water. He may run to the door and sniff underneath when someone walks by, He may have access to a dog door and can toilet whenever his bladder feels uncomfortably full. He may hunt for treats hidden by his caregiver in his environment. A dog locked in a crate has a lack of choices. When choices are markedly restricted and environmentally focused activity is restrained, possible negative effects include hypervigilance, negative cognitive bias, depression, boredom, helplessness and frustration (Mellor et al 2020).

Emotional stressors for dogs during crate confinement also include the inability to move away from sources of overstimulation, inability to initiate social contact, and the inability to seek information (for example by sniffing) (Dorn 2017).

Some people feel that their dog is fine with being locked in a crate, that he is used to it, or even enjoys spending time there. Dogs can certainly adapt to routine. However, when he enters the crate, knowing that you are going to lock it, does he bounce in enthusiastically, or does he look resigned and walk in? If you gave your dog a preference test, and showed him two identical crates, side-by-side, and if you taught him that if enters Crate A he will be locked in for a certain period of time, and if he enters Crate B the door will remain open and he is free to move in and out at will.... which would your dog prefer?

Some people insist that the dog's crate is like a den, therefore it is natural for the dog to want to be confined in it. Dogs do den when they have pups, but they are always free to move in and out of their den to range, hunt, sniff, toilet, eat, etc. When dogs are confined to a crate, they do not have freedom to move.

How to minimise crate confinement

There is no doubt that crate confinement is necessary in some situations. However, in most cases, crates are intended to be a temporary training solution. For example, once your dog is housetrained, you can leave the crate door open at night. You may need to spend a week or two consistently reinforcing where it is appropriate to sleep at night, but you shouldn't use a desire to avoid training as an excuse to permanently confine the dog. There are additional benefits too - a dog is much more effective as a 'guard' or alert dog, when free to roam in the house.

If you are thinking of closing your dog in a crate:

  • Consider all less restrictive confinement options first. Then implement those other options, even if it's harder or more work to organise! Although it may not seem to make a big difference, even providing a puppy-proof pen or room with more option to move and behave is far better for the dog's welfare. Yes, it takes more space in your lounge room. It's worth it for your dog's physical and mental health.

  • Crate confinement should be for the minimum length of time possible and not for more than 30 minutes for a puppy and four hours for an adult dog.

  • Crate confinement should occur at the minimum frequency possible.

  • The crate should be in a safe place, where the dog will not be disturbed or scared by whatever else is going on in the environment.

  • Training should be implemented with the end goal that crate confinement will no longer be required (except in specific circumstances like shows, travel, or as part of treatment for medical conditions).


Crates are great training tools to help prepare dogs to be comfortable with confinement for car travel, vet stays, and can be used early on as part of an overnight toilet training program. With the door open, they can be used as a safe place to retreat to, and dogs can enjoy spending time in them. The goal should be to eventually be able to always keep the door of the crate open.


Englund MD, Cronin KA. Choice, control, and animal welfare: definitions and essential inquiries to advance animal welfare science. Front Vet Sci. 2023 Aug 2;10:1250251. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2023.1250251. PMID: 37601746; PMCID: PMC10433213.

Mellor, D.J.; Beausoleil, N.J.; Littlewood, K.E.; McLean, A.N.; McGreevy, P.D.; Jones, B.; Wilkins, C. The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human–Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare. Animals 2020, 10, 1870.

Dorn, Marianne. (2017). Crate confinement of dogs following orthopaedic surgery. Part 1: benefits and possible drawbacks. Companion Animal. 22. 368-376. 10.12968/coan.2017.22.7.368.


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