When you bring a new puppy home there’s a lot you need to get: food and toys to bowls, leashes, collars, and a crate! It’s important to start training your new puppy right away, including potty training and crate training.
Why crate train?
Puppies require a lot of attention and supervision to make sure they stay successful and safe. When we can’t give puppies our full attention, one option is for them to take a little nap in their crate. This will help keep your puppy from getting into trouble by chewing or eating items in your home that could be dangerous. In addition, crate training is an important life skill that your puppy will benefit from having later in life if they ever need to go to the groomer, or even for vet visits both routine and emergency where your dog may need to be kept in a crate while awaiting treatment or even recovering from surgery. In addition, crate training a puppy generally makes potty training easier and faster. Crate training is especially important if you bought a puppy during the pandemic and worry they may be prone to separation anxiety when you go back to work or school.
How to crate train your puppy
Step 1: Potty training
One of the biggest reasons to crate train your puppy is that it can be highly effective with helping puppy to get the hang of potty training. While it makes perfect sense to us that we want our puppies to only pee and poop outside, for dogs this doesn’t necessarily come naturally but what does come very naturally to puppies is to not eliminate where they sleep. By harnessing this instinct through crate training and by rewarding (with treats and praise) when puppies potty outside in our yard or on the street they are building an understanding of where they should go. The key to quick and successful potty training is supervision. Transitions like when a puppy wakes up from a nap, finishes playing, or eating are moments when you want to pay attention and get your puppy outside for a chance to potty. Similarly, if you notice your puppy starting to walk in circles or sniff it’s a good idea to take the puppy out to potty. To help with this constant supervision, keeping your puppy leashed to you is useful. If you aren’t able to focus on your puppy to catch these subtle signs they might need a bathroom break, having your puppy in a crate can be helpful as they are unlikely to have an accident there.
Step 2: Finding the right crate
If you’ve recently brought a puppy home, you know having the right supplies is key! When looking to purchase a crate for your puppy there are lots of options and it can feel overwhelming. The best crates for most puppies are either a hard-sided plastic airline-style crate or a collapsible wire crate. Fabric crates tend to not be good choices for young puppies as they can be difficult to clean/disinfect. Fabric crates can also more easily be damaged by puppies who might scratch or bite on the crate when first introduced to it.
When you get a crate for your puppy, it’s important that you get a big enough crate for your puppy, but not one that is too big. The ideal size crate for a puppy is one where the puppy can comfortably stand, sit, and lay down fully extended and turn around. To avoid having to buy multiple crates as your puppy is growing most wire crates come with a crate divider which can be helpful with adjusting the size of a larger crate as your puppy grows into it. Some dogs feel more comfortable in crates when they can see what is going on around them, whereas other dogs are much more comfortable seeing their crate as a private secluded place and do best when they can’t see a lot of distracting things. If you have a wire crate you can use a crate cover, or a blanket over all or part of three sides of the crate to make it darker and more den-like. If you are covering a wire crate just monitor your puppy to ensure they don’t pull the blanket into the crate and chew/ingest it.
Step 3: Choosing the right crate location
When you set up your puppy’s crate it’s important to be thoughtful about where in the house you put it. Dogs are social and like to be part of what is going on. For that reason, it can be helpful to have your puppy’s crate in a corner of your living room or kitchen, somewhere your puppy can easily access and go out, but also have a bit of out of the way where people won’t be tripping over the crate. Nervous or shy puppies may benefit from having their crate in a much more out-of-the way location in the home like a bedroom that is quieter with more privacy. The good thing is that crates are movable so you can try different locations in your home and see what works best for your puppy.
Important to note that if you have children, or if there are children who regularly visit your home make sure they understand that the crate is the puppy’s safe space. Don’t allow children to climb into the crate or play in the crate as it should be your puppy’s safe and private space. Also supervise children to make sure they don’t bother or engage with the puppy while they are in the crate as it can make the puppy feel trapped or teased which can cause puppies to get frustrated or even lash out protectively of their space.
Step 4: What should be in your dog’s first crate?
For safety if you’ll be leaving your puppy in their crate for any length of time you’ll want to make sure they have water. Water dishes that attach to the crate is a great way to prevent your puppy from splashing or spilling water. When getting your puppy’s crate ready you’ll want to give them a comfortable place to rest. Find a bed for your puppy that fits well into the crate, but make sure that the crate bed is very washable to make this easy to clean up if your puppy has an accident or spills food/water in the crate. Towels and blankets aren’t ideal bedding in crates for puppies that are active chewers because they can easily chew off bits of the towel which can lead to gastrointestinal blockages/obstructions. If your puppy does ingest part of their blanket, they should be seen by the vet immediately as the blanket/towel can require surgical interventions to remove.
Step 5: Building crate value for your dog or puppy
Although wild canines like wolves might be den animals, our domestic dogs don’t necessarily have the same automatic denning instincts. Although many dogs do grow to find comfort with being in a contained closed-in place to nap, it takes a little while for some dogs to get comfortable being in their crate, especially with the door closed. A simple way to start building value in being crated for your puppy and to help your puppy to build positive associations with being in their crate, is to feed your puppy their meals in their crates. You can start with the crate door open, and then eventually begin closing the door while your puppy is eating. Eating meals in the crate will help your puppy see the crate as a positive place that they want to spend time and seek out when they are tired, or are feeling overwhelmed by activity in the home.
Step 6: Keep your puppy busy
An important step to crate training is to make sure your puppy has something to keep them occupied with while in their crate. We want our dogs to see their crate as a calm, comforting place to relax when we can’t fully supervise them. Kong makes rubber toys (including puppy sizes) that are designed to be stuffed with kibble, wet food, (dog safe) peanut butter, canned pumpkin and treats. Chewing is an excellent way that puppies can self-soothe as the behavior not only feels good to puppies who may be teething, but it also releases feel-good endorphins which help to relax your puppy. Another option are treat holders that can actually be held in place in the back of the puppy’s wire crate and provide an interesting puzzle for your puppy as they work to get the treats out. For an added challenge you can freeze these stuffed toys creating an even slower-release toy that will help keep your puppy occupied and give them the opportunity to self-soothe while in their crate.
Step 7: Make sure the crate is fun
Crating should never be a punishment, our goal is to help our dogs to understand that this crate is a valuable place to be meaning when they are in their crate, they get things that are rewarding like food, toys and treats. Expert Dog Agility trainer Susan Garrett has a wonderful curriculum called “Crate Games” that is designed to help puppies (as well as older dogs) build up a positive relationship with their crate. I highly recommend her curriculum especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed with teaching your puppy about being in their crate or if you start getting into trouble getting the hang of creating. Crate Games is just as it sounds an interactive approach to making crating fun for dogs and puppies by helping them to make the choices. Describing her program Garrett’s website notes: “Choice based, game-based dog training has always been a win-win for both the dog and me. I would love it to be this way for everyone because my ultimate goal is to help dogs worldwide be better understood by their owners.” The Crate Games program is focused on dog-led training were dogs and puppies can build confidence with crating by making the decision on their own to spend time in their crates instead of feeling forced.
When not to crate
With a little practice your puppy will see their crate as a comfortable and safe place to be. In addition, make sure not to over crate your puppy. It’s important to never crate your puppy out of anger or frustration. We only want our puppies to be building positive associations with crating. Crating should never be used to punish your puppy. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers explains that “If you are trying to punish your dog – the dog will learn to avoid the crate and refuse to go inside, or he will become extremely agitated in an attempt to be let out of the crate.” If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated with your puppy it’s a good sign that you need some external support from a positive reinforcement dog trainer to help support you and your puppy get through those growing pains of building a relationship.
A key component of helping puppies develop and maintain positive associations with their crates is being thoughtful about how long puppy is crated and avoid asking your puppy to spend too much time in their crate. We want our puppies to like and be comfortable in their crates, but puppies shouldn’t be spending most of their day confined to a crate. Although crate training puppies is a very common training approach here in North America, this isn’t true in many other places around the world. In Finland and Sweden, it’s illegal to regularly crate dogs or puppies! Instead, people focus on spending time with their dogs, and puppy-proofing areas of the home for times when they can’t directly supervise their puppies. It’s generally accepted that puppies can hold their bladder an hour for each month of life but the Humane Society of The United States recommends that the maximum amount of time a puppy should be crated is three or four hours. This means you’ll be letting the puppy out every few hours during the night to have a chance to potty and needing to figure out a schedule during the day that doesn’t rely on the crate to contain your puppy all day.
Although regular limited crate use can be a helpful component of your puppy’s schedule and routine and help with training, it’s important to not overuse crates. The Humane Society of The United States notes that “a dog who’s crated all day and night doesn’t get enough exercise or human interaction and can become depressed or anxious.” If you need to keep your puppy contained for longer periods of time it’s best to consider creating a larger puppy-proof area in your home like a spare bedroom or kitchen that allows your puppy space to play, sleep, and potty pads (if needed). If you’ll be away from home for long periods of time it’s also best to hire a friend, family member, or dog walker/sitter who can come and spend time with your puppy during the day.
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