If you have a dog or a puppy, chances are that you've heard about crate training and may have tried it yourself. Many people find great success in using crates to teach their dog various healthy habits, from learning to use the bathroom outdoors to simply recognizing and respecting healthy boundaries.
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What some people don't realize, however, is that crate training is generally intended to be a learning tool and one that your dog may grow out of once he's learned what you're trying to teach him. Knowing how and when to stop keeping your dog in his crate will depend on your dog, his progress and why you're using the crate in the first place.
Why try crate training?
There are a number of reasons people look to crate train their dogs, and any of them can yield promising results when done correctly. A crate can offer a dog a sense of safety, as the limited yet comfortable confines mimic the feeling of a den, which wild dogs naturally seek out and inhabit.
A dog crate can also serve as a bit of a quiet, peaceful sanctuary for our canine friends, which can come in handy if they share a home with small children, frequent visitors, or just an active family whose members are up and about throughout the day. Some dogs who have been crate trained properly will even seek out their own crates to retire to if they're feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or simply tired if for nothing more than a private sense of "me time" that we all crave now and again.
Many people use crates to house train their dogs as well, especially when getting a young puppy acclimated to her new home. What makes crate training so effective when training a puppy not to pee indoors? The same den-like dwelling that makes some dogs feel safe in their crates can curb dogs from eliminating indoors because most dogs won't soil the area they lie in. So, instead of giving your puppy free reign of the house where plenty of accidents can happen, allowing her a chance to eliminate waste before, say, leaving your dog in a crate while you're at work can help set up an efficient and effective potty-break routine.
When to quit the crate
Depending on why you use a crate to train your dog, he may outgrow his need for such a tool over time. This is especially true for puppies who are crated when supervision is needed, like when you're at work or asleep, and for puppies who are learning to use the bathroom outdoors.
If housetraining is the reason you've crated your puppy, it is suggested to set a deadline of two months from the last accident indoors—as in, if your puppy hasn't soiled inside his crate or in your home for two months, then it may be time to start exploring phasing out the crate.
Additionally, if your dog willingly retires to his crate before bed at night or when he's obviously stressed out by the environment and is looking for a quiet place to retreat, you probably don't have to enforce crating quite so much. As you likely remember from the crate training process, teaching your dog to use the crate is all about helping him associate it with positive things. So, if he already elects to use it on his own, you can explore leaving the door unlocked for periods of time so that he can come and go as he pleases.
How to stop
If you're thinking about phasing out a crate, you'll want to do so slowly and carefully. The last thing you want to do after all of that hard training work is to set your dog up to fail, so it will take a bit of continued work before crate training can be fully finalized.
You can start out by keeping your puppy or dog out of the crate for increasingly longer bits of time in between cratings. You should always make sure to offer your dog a potty break before these out-of-crate excursions and do your best to not time them right after a meal or a large drink of water. This extra time outside of the crate will require more supervision around the house at first, so be sure to do this when you also have time to pay extra close attention to her.
Eventually, you will be able to work up to longer periods of time, like leaving your dog out of the crate at night or while you're at work. Rather than allowing her access to the entire place, however, set her up to succeed by continuing to confine her but use a larger area than her crate, like a pen. Over time, your dog may graduate to a larger area, like the kitchen, before ultimately making the rest of your shared space available. Keeping your dog occupied with a favorite toy or a frozen treat that takes a while to eat while you're away will help her focus on one thing, which can prevent destruction or possibly relapses in bathroom-break routines.
Keeping the crate
Sometimes, crate training is the only thing that many dog owners have found to work when addressing certain behaviors— for example, if you have a destructive dog and everything else you've tried has failed. The same thing goes for dogs who tend to exhibit aggression, be it toward a person, dog, or another animal. Even if you are working with a trainer to address these issues, don't stop using the crate.
Additionally, some people like to keep their dog on a routine involving the crate if they travel frequently or if trips to the vet are a common occurrence. The fact that your canine companion is no longer destroying your belongings or peeing on your carpet is obviously a fantastic outcome, but having to reacclimate your dog to the crate each time you need to use it in the aforementioned cases can lead to frustration for your dog.
Using the crate as a training tool is not the same thing as, say, leaving a dog in a crate for 20 hours a day (which, hopefully, everyone understands is never, ever OK to do). If your dog is happy with her crate, has settled into a satisfying routine with it, and you need to keep it that way for practical reasons, it's absolutely fine to utilize it until your circumstances change.