By Matthew Kearns, DVM
Not sure how many families received a puppy as a gift this holiday season but I love to see appointments that say “New Puppy” on them. One of the most common topics discussed is how to potty train the newest member of the family. Crate training is a wonderful way to give the puppy the guidance it needs.
The idea of using a crate to train a puppy comes from a “den theory” in dogs. Although wild dogs are nomadic by nature, they do settle down for part of the season to mate and raise pups. The males will hunt and the females will search out a den. This den is a safe haven away from other predators and the elements, and residents instinctively go to the bathroom outside the den.
If the crate is treated the same way, it can be a nice, safe area for the puppy. They will usually sleep and allow you to sleep. You can go out to run errands knowing that the puppy will not go to the bathroom, destroy things, or get into anything dangerous. The primary goal of the crate is to always, ALWAYS, make it a “safe area” for the puppy. Do not isolate the crate away from the rest of the family and never use the crate as a form of punishment.
When you (or other family members) are home, the door to the crate should be left open to allow your puppy to go in and out as they please. Give your puppy a favorite toy or a treat when you put her in the crate before you leave the house. Although a crate is most effective, a crate does not always have to be a crate. You can baby gate off a portion of the kitchen, give a room, etc.
Be careful how long you leave your puppy in the crate so that they do not become used to soiling in the crate (they will if left no choice). Most pet owners purchase or adopt a puppy between 8 and 12 weeks of age. This is good because it is a very impressionable age and allows you (as the puppy’s “parents”) to help them make good choices.
Remember that puppies can only physically “hold it” for so long at that age. A good rule of thumb is count the number of months old the puppy is and add one to come up with the number of hours the puppy can hold it. So an 8- week (2-month) old puppy can hold it for 2 + 1 = 3 hours. Some puppies can hold it longer at night. However, when you first get a puppy, it would be a good idea to get out of bed to let them out (or even set an alarm clock) to take them outside, SUPERVISED, to go to the bathroom and praise them when they do.
Also remember that eating and drinking will stimulate the puppy to go to the bathroom. Therefore, allow extra time to bring them back outside after they eat and drink to give them the opportunity to go again. If for some reason you get there too late or an unexpected accident occurred, just clean it up. Remember, the crate must be a safe area away from punishment if it is to be effective.
Some puppies that have been in a pet store or shelter situation for too long can be negatively conditioned as well. If a puppy is left in a crate from five or six at night (when the shop or shelter closes) to eight or nine the next morning, they will get used to eliminating in the crate (cage) and come to believe that is normal. Those are exceptional cases and will require the guidance of a veterinarian that specializes in behavior or a Certified Animal Behaviorist to re-train.
Do not try to automatically force older dogs into a crate. I can’t tell you how many broken teeth and nails I’ve seen in my career because a dog owner decides they are going to put a young adult dog in a crate at 8 months to a year old because the dog has become destructive when the owner is not home. That is going to be like jail, and if it were me I would freak out also. That is not to say that you cannot crate train an adult dog, but it takes time, patience and the guidance of a behaviorist (that means extra moolah as well). It is much easier (and less expensive) to start at a younger age, remain patient and consistent.
Congratulations on your new puppy and good luck!!!!!
Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 17 years and is pictured with his son Matthew and their dog Jasmine.