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Crate Training

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I often get asked for advice on crate training a new puppy.  I think crates can be a wonderful way to keep a young puppy safe, as well as help him finish housebreaking, as long as they are used correctly. Crate training is one of the most important skills a dog can have. Having a crate trained dog is nice if you ever need to use the crate while you have company, for a pet sitter or in an emergency if you need to evacuate, or the dog needs to spend the night at the vet. It is also handy if the dog needs to have limited movement to recover from a medical issue .  It is a good skill for a dog to have, to be comfortable and relaxed in a crate for the times it is necessary. Crates should not be seen as a negative by the owner or dog, nor should they ever be used as punishment.


I have a proven method I use. It does take time and effort but it helps get the puppy off to the best start in this area.  I actually start with a wire exercise pen with a crate in or attached to it. I will go into more detail below.


Hopefully your breeder has introduced the pups to crates, or at least as housed them in a large enough area so they don’t have to be in their own mess. That and cleaning often helps the puppies keep the instinct to stay clean. Once a pup has been forced to stay near it’s own waste too much, it can lose that instinct to stay clean. It makes them harder to house break. Also, puppies tend to imprint on surfaces or substrates, so getting them on grass by 6 weeks is ideal. Then giving a large area even outside to potty helps they learn to go further away. It’s how my own pups are raised, and it sets them up well to potty train once they go home. I don’t like to use pee pads as later on, many pups trained with them want to use rugs or blankets. For smaller breed pups who are kept inside at this age, I’d rather use a litter box with recycled paper pellets than pee pads.


Inside my house, they are in a large area and contained by several of those portable wire exercise pens (x-pens). It gives them room to play while not allowing them enough space to go potty out of sight or chew things that could hurt them. I put a couple crates in it and get the used to it. At this stage the puppy sets the timeline. I also will use that litterbox with the recycled paper pellets since it’s hard to get every pup in a litter outside often enough to potty.


Once I am actively crate training an individual pup, I use a wire exercise pen as a home base for the pup. When I am not watching him, he’s in that with toys and chewies. I take him out to potty often, train and interact, but I think of those pens as something like a play pen for a baby. It’s a safe, comfortable place for quiet solo play without direct supervision. I can put a crate in there or attach to it, and the puppy can start to learn to sleep in that. I also feed meals in the crate, as well as keep the best chew toys for crate time only. I don’t put a pup in a crate who is still wide awake and wanting to play, but wait until he is ready for a nap. The idea is to take it slowly, and ease the pup into the protocol. At no time do I want the puppy to “cry it out” as it can really cause emotional damage as well as aversively condition the pup to the crate. If you think about how feral dogs raise their puppies, they are never left alone at this age, so the puppies have the security of littermates and mom. A young puppy that is all alone is not likely to survive in a feral situation, so that instinct to want to be with littermates and fear of being alone is primal. That’s not to say it’s bad to get a puppy at 8 weeks, but in understanding how the pup feels and what normal behavior is for it, we can be more compassionate at getting him used to his new lifestyle, including crate training. You can have someone sleep near the puppy at first too. For bedding in the crate I like those cheap fleece blankets, since they are easy to clean and don’t fray like some materials. Don’t use anything hard to wash, or easy to chew up.


So once you understand to take it slowly and set up a schedule for feeding, play, naps, your pup should adjust to spending shorter times in the crate. Then you can increase until he’s able to go all night, sometimes with one potty break until he’s 3 months or more. Remember these are babies, so never crate too long at one time or too many hours in a 24 hour period. The crate is a bed, not a prison. You don't want to force them to have to potty in there.  At 8 weeks I would say 2-3 hours is the longest a pup should stay in a crate, and shorter if the pup needs out sooner.  Some can go up to 4 hours over night, so plan to get up at least once or twice each night.  Also, put the crate and/or exercise pen in a place that is not isolated.  If you have to leave a young pup for more than a couple hours, using the exercise pen with litter box is way better than using a crate.


The worst thing you can do is keep a puppy in a crate all the time because you don't want to have to supervise him while he is out, as it will become a prison.  Also, don't make a big fuss about getting the pup in and out.  Don't feel bad about using is as those bad feelings will make the pup think there is something bad about being in there.  View it as a safe, positive way to help raise your puppy to be safe, house broken and get through the teething stage safely. Rather than using a crate that way, use the exercise pen, again in an area the pup is part of the household activity, so he doesn’t feel isolated.   


At what age you can start to leave the pup/dog loose will vary depending on the individual.  Some are potty trained very quickly, by 10 to 12 weeks or so.  Some take a little longer for that.  But most chew a lot during the time their puppy teeth fall out and the new adult teeth grow in, and that is usually from about 4 months until 8 or 10 months of age.  Some learn to be trustworthy loose after that, and some take longer.  I always recommend giving short free times, such as when you need to run a quick errand, rather than leaving the pup loose all day while you are at work. If that goes well, you can leave the dog loose a bit longer.   Some dogs are good over night when sleeping loose, once they are past the teething stage, but still are better crated during the day when the owner works or is gone.  You just need to learn about your dog's individual characteristics and set up his routine accordingly.


Some ideas for keeping an older pup or dog occupied if you do have to crate them while working would include using the various toys such as Benebone products, or Kongs stuffed with something good. The dog can work at getting the treats out, and can chew the toy too. Don't put toys that are easily destroyed, or the dog may chew and swallow parts that could harm him. Same for bedding, many young pups chew and eat bits of bedding, so choose simple, durable bedding and supervise at first.  You don't want them to swallow the fabric or stuffing.  Also, if you give some mental stimulation and exercise before the dog has to be crated, he will be more likely to spend most of the time sleeping.


 If you use the crate and exercise pen as tools this way, and don't abuse it by leaving your puppy in too long at one time, or too many hours a day, he will grow up and view it as his bedroom and special place.  It will never been seen as a bad place to be.  Once the dog is fully trained you can leave the crate door open, and you will likely find the dog still wants to sleep in there. That’s what I do here, my dogs all happily go sleep in their crates during the day, with doors open, since they’ve never had a bad experience with them, only rewarding ones.  


 "For I know the plans I have for you,"  declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope." 


       Jeremiah 29:11



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