What is Crate Training?

Crate Training is a form of conditioning in which you condition your puppy to live, with you, in your home. The objectives of crate training are:

To provide the dog with a secure space that’s his.

To aid the puppy in his potty training.

To contain the puppy so he cannot hurt himself or your home while he learns how to live with you. 

Provide A Den

Every dog needs a space that’s his. It’s where he sleeps. It’s nice if it can fit in a corner somewhere quiet and away from the main flow of traffic through your home. The dog must be able to feel safe in his den, so we never use the crate to punish the dog. 

I’d like you to imagine that you just brought your new puppy home and it’s his first night with you. When it’s bedtime, you take him outside to his “potty-place” and say whatever word you use for him to associate with eliminating his wastes. Then you put him in his crate as you say the word, “Kennel”, or any other word you’d like to use consistently as a command-word.    

At this point you must walk away from the crate and not look back or clutch your trembling hands together as you marvel over his cuteness. Otherwise, you will not be able to withstand the urge to comfort him when the wailing begins. You must allow him the opportunity to deal with this on his own. He’s probably going to wail and shriek for at least a few minutes and maybe most of the night.    

A healthy, 8-week old puppy that has all his needs cared for and has emptied his bowels and bladder, should easily be able to remain crated for around three hours. Your pup will need to come out of his crate sometime during the night to potty. Remember, you don’t want him messing his crate. If he stopped crying and went to sleep; the next thing you hear will be him announcing that he needs to go out again.    

I’ve had pups that needed to go out two or three times in the course of a night, but most of my pups only need to go out once a night after the first few days of living in the house. And yes, it’s loads of fun when you’re standing in your bathrobe at 3:30 AM in 38 degrees and drizzle while the dog pees, then as soon as you get him in, he wants to play, or better yet, you’re standing there in aforementioned bathrobe and he decides to go under the fence to the neighbor’s yard. This is a good time to avoid any behavior on your part that might excite the dog. Just scoop him up as calmly and quickly as you can and put him back in his crate without engaging in play or other activity that will further excite the pup.    

When he goes back in the crate immediately after his midnight potty-walk, he’ll probably protest with more wailing. This is an attempt to convince you that he will have a complete meltdown if you don’t take him out and play with him right this minute. This is the hardest part for some people. They can’t stand to hear their puppy wailing in the middle of the night, so they let the pup out of the crate thinking, “maybe if I just play with him for a few minutes, he’ll wear out and go to sleep”. What they’re actually doing is teaching the pup that the more he wails, the more likely he is to be released from the crate and (Bonus) be played with too!    

If you leave the pup in the crate and allow him to wail, you accomplish two important things. First, you begin to establish a pattern that will remain all the dog’s life: You are the “pack-leader” who will control his comings and goings all his doggy days. Second, you give him the opportunity to self-soothe or calm himself.    

The pup should go in the crate without food, water or toys inside the crate. A healthy puppy will not need food or water during the two or three hours that he sleeps in his den, nor does he need toys that may excite him and prevent him from sleeping. This should not be taken to mean that you can leave the dog in the crate without food or water for extended periods. It’s far more accurate to say that the puppy should not be stuck in his crate so long that food and water become an issue.    

Dogs are not humans. They do not have the need or desire for constant entertainment. This is why dogs don’t have smart phones, computers or X Box. When a dog isn’t feeding, breeding or fulfilling other basic needs, he will spend most of his time sleeping. Dogs sleep a lot.    

I wish I had some fancy statistic that showed how many of the behavioral problems seen in dogs today are the result of people expecting dogs to be “ON” all the time. This is so much against the dog’s nature that it damages some of them. A well adjusted dog will have the ability to “shut down” and spend a great deal of his idle time sleeping. By providing a safe den in the form of a crate, you give your dog the opportunity to assume his natural behavior from the very first night he lives with you, even as you begin to place pressure on him to conform somewhat to the schedule of his new “pack”.    

Aid In House-Breaking

A healthy puppy, taken from a healthy litter at the age of seven to eight weeks, will not soil its own sleeping area. A crate should be just tall enough for the pup to stand up, and have just enough length and width for him to turn around. There should not be enough room for the dog to soil one end of the crate and sleep in the other.    

The process of housebreaking a pup is very simple. You need two things. First, you need the crate, next you need undivided attention. Undivided attention is getting pretty scarce these days. Kids certainly can’t afford it and most adults won’t even focus for more than a few seconds before they need to text, email, tweet or… where was I going with this?… oh yeah, focus!    

Remember I said the “process” was easy? It is! Just keep your attention on the pup any time he’s out of his crate. This means no phone, no TV, no computer. Just watch the pup. Until he’s completely housebroken, you will need to devote a great deal of time and attention to him. He shouldn’t have time to potty on the floor because you’re watching him, right? And he shouldn’t have time to chew the corner off your leather sofa because you’re paying attention, right? Here’s the deal: He doesn’t know the difference between a chew-toy and a Persian rug. You can either pay attention or pay for new furnishings.    

The crate works for potty-training because you either have the pup in the crate, or he gets your undivided attention. Your pup will have accidents in the house. He will show you signs that he’s getting ready to poop or pee. If he has your undivided attention every time he’s out of the crate you’ll learn these signs really fast. Now the puppy is teaching you something that you will use for the rest of your life. This is what he’s teaching you:    

“These are the signs I give when I need something. I will never be able to talk to you, but if you give me enough of your undivided attention, I will show you signs for everything I need. I can also show you how I am connected to the wildness in the world and I can show you the way to the wild inside you; If you give me enough of your undivided attention.”    

Woof! That got pretty dang lofty for a potty training session huh?    

Anyhow, when you see the pup getting ready, or showing any of the signs of needing to potty, take him outside. Take him through the same door every time, to the same spot outside and use the same word, such as “potty”, or “bathroom” or “do your business”. It’s not important, what word or phrase you use as long as you are consistent, so pick a word or phrase you can be comfortable using in any setting.    

Provide A Safe Containment Area

The average American home is filled with things that endanger a puppy. Some of these dangers are:    

Electrical cords, such as lamp cords or extension cords.

Fall hazards, stairs, balconies, decks.

Drowning hazards, tubs, toilets, buckets.

Poison hazards, cleaning supplies, medicines.

Garbage / trash, sharp objects.

Choking hazards, any small object the pup might be tempted to chew.

The list goes on and on! If you’ve raised children, you probably noticed that this list of puppy-hazards is much like the one you had to worry about with small kids. The difference with a puppy is that an 8 week old pup is much more mobile than an 8 week old child. With an infant child you have some time to child-proof the house before the kid starts to crawl around and terrorize his surroundings. A puppy, on the other hand, will have amazing abilities to get into trouble right from the very first day he arrives in your home.    

A thoughtful guardian will go to great lengths to “puppy-proof” the home before the dog arrives, but the puppy’s inquisitive nature combined with his tendency to eat everything he can get his lips around, make it extremely dangerous for him to roam unsupervised in your home. No matter how carefully you puppy-proof your house, you can be sure that someone will drop a paperclip or a thumbtack, and the puppy will find this shiny treasure on the floor and immediately ingest it. Veterinarians love to tell stories about the strange items they’ve removed from dogs. The cost of surgically removing household items from a dog’s intestine starts at about $800. There’s also considerable risk involved in these surgeries.    

In addition to these hazards to the pup’s health, there is the risk that left unattended; a puppy will become bored and frustrated. Rather than drumming his puppy fingers on a table or flipping endlessly through TV channels, the bored and frustrated canine will begin to dig and chew. Keep in mind that he does not know the difference between a rubber chew toy and the I-Phone that you left lying on the coffee table. So when you come back into the living room after a quick trip to the bathroom, and find your expensive new phone chewed to bits, whose fault is that? Likewise, when you wake in the morning to find that your new pet has run through the whole house and redecorated with poop, pee and the stuffing from your favorite recliner, whose fault is that?    

All of the aforementioned hazards can be easily avoided by using the two most important tools of early dog training: the crate and your undivided attention. Simply put, when the puppy does not have your undivided attention, you put him in his crate. I know how hard it is to give a puppy (or anything for that matter) your undivided attention. We’re all busy! But consider this: if you and your family don’t have the time to give your pup the attention he needs, then maybe you don’t really have time to raise a puppy.    

If you find that your new best friend is constantly in his crate because you simply don’t have the time to give him the attention he needs; then you have discovered, too late, that you don’t really have the time to raise a puppy.    

I hope that this article has provided you with some real-world reasons for using a crate and undivided attention in your puppy-training program. I hope you will take an honest assessment of your available time before you choose to bring a puppy into your home. If you decide that you don’t have time to raise a puppy, perhaps you will consider adopting an adult dog.    

How To Pick The Right Crate

The most practical way to get started with crate training is to begin with a plastic transport crate. As mentioned earlier, the crate should be just big enough for the pup to stand upright and turn around. You should use this crate when you bring the dog home in your car and you can also use it to transport him to and from the vet when he goes for his shots and check-up. One of the advantages of early crate-training is that it allows your dog to become accustomed to confined spaces at a young age. This will make it much easier on him when he has to be confined at the groomer’s, the vet, or if he ever goes for an airplane ride.    

He’ll probably outgrow the transport crate pretty quickly, but you can replace it with a larger wire crate that fits him better. It’s also a good idea to replace the transport crate with a larger one as well. You’ll use the larger transport crate whenever you take the dog somewhere in your car. He should be accustomed to his crate by now and it will make him feel safer. The transport crate also comes in handy when you travel anywhere with your dog. If you’re visiting relatives and your cousin’s kids are getting too rough, you can just put the dog in his crate and tell them he’s taking a nap.    

How To Develop Undivided Attention

I hope you’ll forgive me for harping about undivided attention so much. I just don’t think its’ importance can be stressed enough. I think part of the reason we love dogs, part of the magic of their friendship, is the manner in which they help us to connect with the natural world.    

Since the first wolf pup was domesticated by pre-historic humans, a bond has developed between humans and dogs. Dogs, with their instincts and sharpened senses, have the ability to share with us a connection to nature that we would not have without them. Even with all our highly prized rationality and ability to analyze, we cannot hear a friend approaching from a mile away. We cannot smell the fear that another being feels near us. We cannot stop thinking about the future and we cannot disconnect ourselves from our past. But a dog can do all these things. For the small price of paying attention, we can partake in a dog’s boundless generosity to share all these abilities with us.    

Just watch your dog. Try not to analyze or judge everything he does. Try not to worry about tomorrow or dwell on the days you’ve already spent. Just watch your dog and listen. Your undivided attention will help him bring you to the place where only dogs and a few lucky humans can ever go, a magical place called “Now.”