Few things are as misunderstood in the dog world as the "crate." You hear people bandy about the words "crate training" as if it’s something mystical. It’s not. Done correctly, crate training can be useful in many situations. If you have a puppy, the crate can help with housetraining and keep him in a safe area when you aren’t able to watch him. (Anyone who has ever owned a puppy can attest to the fact that you have to watch puppies constantly to keep them from damaging the house or themselves.)
A crate is basically either a plastic "sky kennel" or a wire mesh box with a door. When you go to purchase a crate you should get one that will fit the size of your dog when he is fully grown. It should be big enough so that the dog can stand up and turn around.
The concept of crate training revolves around the fact that many dogs like small enclosed areas. They think of these cozy spots as a "den." If you train the dog to associate the crate with pleasant experiences, he will willingly go to his den whenever he wants a nap, to feel secure, or just get away from it all.
We crate trained all our puppies, and the process is pretty straightforward. First, place the crate in a high-traffic area, so the dog doesn’t feel "banished" from the rest of the family pack. Then toss treats into the crate and encourage your dog to go in. Another approach is to feed the dog in the crate. The bottom line is to get the dog to associate something good with going into the crate.
After the dog has been introduced to the crate, it’s a good idea to get him used to being confined with the door shut. We started teaching the command "go to your bed" to associate the crate as a sleep spot. The crate was in the bedroom, so we could listen for any urgent rustling or whining that might indicate a need to go out. (Housebreaking a puppy may require a lot of patience and late-night runs outside.)
Although the crate is a useful tool, you can’t expect that you can leave the dog for hours and forget about her. Puppies need to go out a lot, and you shouldn’t crate tiny puppies at all. Once the puppy is 9 or 10 weeks old, you can crate her for up to an hour. As the puppy grows, you can increase the duration. At about 4 months, the pup can be crated 3 or 4 hours. But even an adult dog should never be crated for more than 5 hours, except for overnight.
Some dogs are more amenable to crating than others. And some dogs can’t deal with it at all. I’ve read about dogs that have literally eaten their way out of a crate. Dogs are individuals, so don’t force the issue.
Our dog Cami was difficult to housebreak, so her crate was her bed in our bedroom for a long time. She finally did get the idea though, and now the crate lives in the downstairs hallway with its door open. The crate is still her preferred sleeping spot when she’s downstairs. For her, going off to snooze in her "hut" is not a punishment, it’s a pleasure. And that’s how it should be.