Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
When new puppy owners are first exposed to the idea of using a crate as part of the short and long-term lifestyle for the new family member, a few are clearly horrified. Thoughts of jail cells and incarceration come to their minds and so the idea gets rejected. However, from the puppy’s perspective, crates can be great. They are not only an excellent way to house train your pup, but they are also very helpful with preventing and coping with separation anxiety.
In the wild, say with foxes, wolves or coyotes, puppies are born in tight, dark dens and they spend the majority of the first 5-6 weeks in these dens before being exposed to the light of day. As they get older, more time is spent outdoors learning the ways of the world, but they always head back to the den for safety, sleep and respite. If approached in the right way, your puppy will view its crate in the same way.
Depending upon how long term the crate will be used, it is important to pick one that is large enough that, as an adult, your puppy is able to stand, turn around and settle comfortably without being cramped. Sturdy wired crates that do not have openings big enough for a body part to get stuck work well. They should have a metal tray bottom with a washable fitted pad that is easy to clean and disinfect. For smaller breeds, plastic kennels can work well, as well. Obviously, as a puppy that is initially much smaller, a crate intended to last through all life stages would be too large. To avoid having to buy different size crates for a large breed puppy that will grow substantially, one can use a piece of plywood that is attached to the wire cage and forms a false back. As the puppy grows, this false back can slowly be moved backwards, continuing to give him just the right amount of room to stand and turn around. When being used for housetraining, it is important to allow just enough room to provide a comfortable sleeping area only. If the floor space is too large, it allows a puppy to more readily sleep at one end and use the other end as a washroom. Puppies don’t want to sleep where they soil, so the idea is to minimize any excess space allowing them to do this.
Because wire crates are open, it can be very helpful to place a large beach towel over the top to darken it down and make it appear more like a cave or den. Just like kids who play under the covers of their bed, there is a sense of security provided by being nestled into a darkened space. At the same time, placing the crate away from direct drafts, or air conditioning ducts, will make it more comfortable and closer to room temperature. It can also be comforting for your pup to have a radio playing very softly within earshot, or even a metronome to simulate a heartbeat can be soothing.
Not many puppies are inclined to fall asleep as soon as they enter the crate, so providing them with a favourite chew toy to occupy their curiosity is usually helpful to minimize the whimpering. In the initial stages, it can also be useful to offer treats or even feed your puppy inside the crate to get them feeling good. As an adult, leaving water in a bowl inside the crate is important to avoid dehydration, should you be delayed returning home. As a puppy, though, one is better not to leave food or water inside the crate. They are more likely to be tipped over and when one is house training/ crate training, having constant access to food and water will make it much more difficult to be successful.
Another challenge facing owners is where to put the crate. Some want it in their bedroom, others have it further away, barely within earshot. There is no hard and fast rule, but most owners will find it easier not to have the crate in the bedroom, rather on the main floor, often in the kitchen area. The rationale behind this is that in the middle of the night the puppy will hear you and you will hear every whimper. If you go to the puppy every time he whimpers, he will quickly learn this is how to get your attention. “Tough love” is easier to practise if you can only hear the major cries. The other consideration is that the kitchen is the busiest room in the house and so owners tend to spend most of their time while at home somewhere in this area. This also allows your pup to take a break from the hectic day and chill out in his crate, while still knowing the family is not far off. In most cases, you can simply leave the door open, allowing your pup to go in and out as they please.
When it comes to housetraining, it is best to be proactive when dealing with an immature bladder. A rough rule of thumb is to add one to your puppy’s age in months as a safe time period for them to be able to hold their bladder- i.e. a 3-month-old puppy should hopefully be able to go 4 hrs. Instead of waiting for your puppy to cry out that he needs to have a pee, you are better to wake him up in anticipation, take him outside and praise him with great fanfare and then back to bed immediately with a favourite toy. So, if you go to bed at 11 p.m. and your puppy is 3 months of age, set your alarm to get him up at 3 a.m. and then when you get up in the morning at 6-7 a.m., you immediately get him and take him outside.
The idea overall is to make a crate a safe and enjoyable space. It is very important to never scold or physically reprimand your puppy when in or around his crate. It truly has to be a positive experience to be quickly successful and never used as a punishment. Crates can be an excellent addition to ensuring an easier transition for your puppy into his new family. Most puppies will innately take to it and the vast majority of owners are very thankful of a puppy who enjoys their crate, whether it be at home or travelling in a car.