What is a crate and how to set it up
A crate is an indoor kennel which gives your dog a place of their own. They are often sold as metal or part metal/part plastic cage over which you can drape heavy blankets to create a den for your dog. There are also more solid plastic ones available which double as a carrying device for transportation. A quiet room or area towards the back of the house is ideal, out of direct sunlight but with natural light and ventilation too. Often a utility area works well. This crate is your dog’s bedroom so you should provide them with soft blankets for nesting, fresh water for drinking and a range of toys too. You’ll also need to make sure that you keep the children and/or other pets away. This is your dog's sanctuary.
Giving your dog their own space can help them to feel safe. Dogs who suffer from anxiety often do better if they have a small safe space of their own rather than access to the whole house which can lead to them fixating at what they see out of windows or trailing around behind you all over the house. Worse still when you go out your dog may patrol the house and wait anxiously for you to return. If your dog falls asleep in their crate on a regular basis they will gradually learn to relax more and more quickly when they are in their crate. Puppies who sleep in a crate are often easier to house-train and are less likely to get into bad habits chewing on furniture or shoes. Finally, remember that if your dog ever has to go into kennels, boarding or for a stay at the vets they may well be confined to a crate so it is well worth ensuring that they are used to the experience well before they have to go.
Is it cruel?
A lot of people instinctively feel that a crate is like a prison. I would not want to live in a crate. It would be a prison.
However, I do sleep a bed in a bedroom. Every night. I don’t randomly fall asleep by the front door or on the stairs. Once I’ve gone to bed, I stay there all night. In one room, without a huge amount of space. I can’t even do any stretches or yoga in there, but I can walk around two sides of the bed and I can have a glass of water by the bed. I don’t routinely patrol the house at night because I’d wake the children and dogs.
Neither do I encourage my children to wander round the house and fall asleep wherever they see fit. They sleep in a bed in their own room and have a bed-time after which they are expected to be quiet. If you have children you may also have realised that ‘sending them to their rooms’ for some dreadful misdemeanour stops being any sort of punishment as they become adolescents. Instead, for them, it is a relief to go to their own space and they start to go there of their own volition if you have visitors with whom they have nothing in common.
A crate should fulfil a similar purpose for our dogs and it is not a replacement for walks, access to novel environments, access to lots of smells, socialising, games and training. It is just a place for them to sleep and for them to go to for safety and when we have visitors that do not concern them. It is a natural instinct for dogs to fall asleep in small and cozy confined spaces.
How to ‘train’ the crate
In order for your dog to want to be in their crate you need to build lots of positive associations to being there. You can feed them in their crate and make sure that any chews or treats magically appear in their crate rather than coming from you. You can play with them in or near their crates, fetching a toy from the crate or running through a tunnel into their crate or searching for treats hidden in the crate, snuffle mats are great for this. They can learn to sit and lay down in the crate too. To start with just leave the door open and then as they get comfortable being there you can practice opening and closing the door of the crate. As you work on building the length of time you can close the door you need to give them a food dispensing toy or a snuffle mat to keep them occupied. When they are happy being in the crate for half an hour with you in sight then you can start to go out of sight. The RSPCA has a great factsheet on this, they recommend that adult dogs with a good association with their crates should not be confined to their crate for more than three hours.