Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Hariamrit Khalsa contributed to this post.
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Crate training is an important skill for all puppies and dogs to have. Dogs are den animals and instinctively feel secure in a small, cozy space. The crate is your puppy’s den. A dog that is crate trained will always have a place to go where it feels safe and secure. It is important to have any puppy or dog crate trained as you never know what will happen in the future when the puppy must be confined and this will alleviate any stress at those times. Even if a puppy family never plans to crate their dog, life circumstances can require crating and it's an essential skill. For example, If a family needs to evacuate from a hurricane or wild fire, there are now shelters that allow dogs, but they must be crated. Or if a dog needs to be hospitalized, it may need to be crated for extended periods for healing and convalescence. The last thing anyone wants is to add confinement stress to those already stressful times, so crate training early in life is very important.
Crate type and size
While house training, crates should be large enough for puppies to lay down and turn around, but not large enough so that they could mentally create a "clean" and "dirty" area and thereby learn to eliminate in their crates. We recommend that families purchase crates that would be appropriate for their dog's full size with a divider so that they can gradually increase their puppy's space until it is full grown. We also have found that wire crates, at least for us, work better. I still can't understand how a puppy knows the difference between a solid plastic crate and a covered wire crate, but they do, and we no longer use solid crates until a dog is grown and fully crate trained.
How to crate train
We prefer a graduated, slow process. I've got some ages in here for reference, but they are just guidelines. Your breed or even individual litters may develop at different rates. Don't rush them. Do not move to the next step until your puppies are doing well consistently at the previous step. Faster is not necessarily better. A little whining and complaining is normal while settling down, but puppies should be generally comfortable with each step before moving on to the next.
Step 1. Group crating for short periods.
We start crate training at 5-6 weeks we with 2-3 puppies in a crate with something awesome they don't get at any other time (bully sticks, stuffed snails or kongs, marrow bones, etc) for a little while while we clean. We also start feeding them in crates.
At first when we feed, we put them in there and close the door until the start eating. Then we OPEN the door so they can come out when they are done. This helps start a barrier frustration association with crates.
Step 2: Group crate training overnight
At about 6-7 weeks we do our first overnights with 2-3 puppies in a crate. We cover the crates. When they are doing well we move to individual crates.
This is the point where house training starts: taking the puppies outside to potty in the morning.
Step 3: Individual crate training overnight
When we start individual crates we cover them, but we cover TWO crates with one cover so the puppies don’t feel alone. Then we slowly transition to puppies in single crates covered separately.
If any puppy has trouble, we bring that puppy in with one of us at night to help the puppy transition to crate training. That only takes one or two nights. I put the puppy next to the bed at bed level so they are right with me.
Using crates to transition to house training
For us, crate training is the foundation of house training. Dogs are naturally clean animals and will avoid eliminating in their dens whenever possible. If you capture this instinctive behavior while they are puppies, you can use it to your advantage for crate and house training.
Once puppies overnight in their crates, they have started house training. Of course, there are almost always accidents, but they resolve quickly. At the beginning we prefer to wake the puppies in the morning and take them quickly outside to eliminate. Some may not make it outside the first few times. That's ok, We just want them to try and to start working toward it.
The majority of them seem to completely understand this concept and somehow know to potty outside when possible, and they seem to like it. Some litters are less clean than others and take time. Some breeds are less clean than others and take more time. The idea is to just keep working toward the goal and helping the puppies understand. Most of them do take time and WILL have accidents. We seem to expect so much from puppies, but remember, they are still little babies, and they need time and patience to understand and also to be physically able to control their bodies.
Once they understand this concept, we can start teaching them to eliminate outside during the day.
How to transition puppies to house training in their new homes
We use litter training when the puppies are here. HOWEVER, I do NOT recommend encouraging families to use litter or pee pads at home (exception, of course, for smaller dogs whose families desire litter training).
We don’t use pee pads past 4-5 weeks of age. Our puppies shred them. If you have a breed that doesn't, then you can continue using pee pads until the dogs are house trained.
When the puppies go home there's a change of environment, so it's the optimal time to transition from litter. If the families use litter they are teaching their puppies that it's ok to eliminate inside of their new home. We have found it's better for puppies to learn that in their new home, only outside elimination is preferred. It's much clearer and less confusing for the puppies and makes house training go much faster.
Troubleshooting your crate training
ALWAYS associate the crate with something good. There are disagreeing opinions about whether to allow a distressed puppy out of a crate. Some people think you should never let a crying puppy out of a crate as it teaches the puppy that crying opens the door. Others think it's just this side of a crime to allow a puppy to be distressed. [Note: these instructions assume you can read a dog well enough to discern between normal puppy drama and true distress. There's a difference between barrier frustration and separation anxiety and you need to be able to understand that to effectively help a puppy.]
I take a middle ground position. If a puppy is genuinely distressed, I won't let him out, but I'll go over and sit with him and make some quiet comforting sounds to help him understand he is safe. I'll give him treats to reward any quieting. As soon as he settles, I'll open the door. I'll gradually try to build up quiet time. I'll also work separately with puppies having trouble. Here's a video showing some crate work with a puppy.
In it I'm working to give her positive associations (+CER or positive conditioned emotional response) with the crate. The crate becomes a place of treats and a place of games.
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