Raising a puppy and the joys of the crate

When I told my mom/landlord that we were planning on getting a dog, she had one firm rule: The dog had to be crate trained, and it needed to be in that crate whenever we were out of the house.

“Unsupervised dogs can cause massive amounts of damage,” she told me, citing our own first family dog, who had allegedly (ok not just alleged, she was guilty as charged.) chewed through drywall and cost my mom a whole lotta $$.

I was a bit skeptical of the whole dog-in-crate thing because we’d had five family dogs throughout my childhood, and not a single one had been crate trained (yes, and yet here was my mom, preaching the crate. She talks the talk but she don’t walk the walk, clearly). And the idea of any of those dogs going into a crate voluntarily seemed ludicrous. To me, the only dogs that were crate trained were like, police dogs or something. Fancy dogs.

But this was my mom’s rule, and it was her house that we were renting, so that was that. Dog must be crate trained.

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Processed with VSCOcam with p5 preset

Betsy in her crate, 4 months old

Allow me to fast-forward for a second to say: As it turns out, having a crate trained dog has been freaking AWESOME, and I cannot recommend enough. A+, 5 stars, would see again.

OK back to the story.

So I start googling crate training, and it quickly became apparent that pretty much anyone who knows anything about dogs seems to be a huge proponent of the crate. I don’t think I saw a single dog trainer who didn’t recommend crate training. Especially for new puppies. Crates are the absolute BEST way to house train a puppy, is what the literature says. And honestly, having done it, I have to say it was pretty freaking effective.

Why crates are the best

In my own experience, here are all the ways using a crate has made our lives easier:

  • House training. Biggie. Dogs don’t like to soil their sleeping area, so keeping them in a small confined space when unsupervised means they won’t have accidents, because they don’t want to pee where they sleep!
  • Travelling. Having a crate trained dog is nice for travelling long distances in the car (safer for them and for us too…), plus rentals are more likely to accept a dog that will be safely crated away, unable to cause trouble when not being supervised.
  • Boarding. We left Betsy at a boarding kennel once and they crated their dogs overnight. Since Betsy was used to crates, it wasn’t uncomfortable or frightening for her to be in one. If anything it was probably comfort_ing_ to be in a familiar small space for sleep. This also goes for animal shelters – if your dog gets lost and is picked up by the SPCA, it will likely end up in a crate while it waits for you to come rescue it.
  • Noise. Betsy is extremely quiet in her crate, which is nice. Not sure if every dog is like this, but she is silent as a tomb. We used to have a girl renting our spare bedroom and every night she’d come home at 12am and Betsy would wake up and bark her face off. Then one night Betsy was in her crate, and the crate was RIGHT BY THE FRONT DOOR, and when the girl came home, Betsy didn’t make a single peep. So this is handy sometimes if you need your dog to be quiet and your dog is anything like Betsy.
  • Staying out of trouble Puppies destroy things, and it’s nice to know that when you aren’t home your puppy isn’t going to chew through a lamp cord or something.
  • Safe place to hide Betsy isn’t one of those dogs who just chills in her crate when she wants to take a nap, but I have seen her go in there a couple times when something was making her uncomfortable. She clearly sees it as a safety zone.
  • Safe place to keep your dog when you need it out of the way Like if you have small children coming to visit and you don’t want them poking your dog’s eyeballs out.
  • Multi dog household management tool If you have dogs that resource guard their food (I don’t but…) and you’re worried about a fight, feeding dogs in their crates is an easy way to manage this problem.
  • Extra privileges Ben took Betsy to work with him until she was 7 months old, and the reason why he could do this without too much flak from management (actually, to be honest, I think management LOVED Betsy) is because he kept her in a crate in his office.
  • Sometimes it’s just handy for unexpected reasons …When Betsy and I started taking agility classes, the trainer turned up on day one and was like “OK everyone, pick a crate and pop your dog in.” And some people scrambled because their dog was terrified of going inside a crate, and other people got their dog in but the dog whined incessantly. I got to feel smug, because I could say, “Go in your crate,” to Betsy and she would run into her crate from ten feet away and lie down quietly.

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Betsy at 1 & 1/2 years old, hiding in her crate when we had carpet cleaners over

OMG this post is so long already and I have so much more to write. What can I say, I love shoving dogs in small little cages!

The rules of crating a dog without being a jerk

So obviously if you want to crate train your dog you have to do it right and you can’t keep them in there for inhumane amounts of time. When Betsy was a puppy she spent a lot more time in her crate than she does now, because of the whole house training thing. And honestly, don’t tell my mom, but now that she’s almost 2 years old (wow!) we don’t always crate her unsupervised. If she’s well exercised and we’re only going to be out for an hour or two, we let her chill on the couch 😉

These are the basic rules that we follow, which I kind of just made up for myself based on other rules I have read online:

  • Dog must have nice long walk/hike/run/game of fetch before going in the crate.
  • Dog must have had opportunity to pee/poo before going in the crate.
  • Dog gets stuffed kong every time she goes in the crate (spoiled, probably not necessary 😜 but it’s a nice way to keep her occupied so that she’s less bored)
  • Dog must not be in the crate for > 8 hours but preferably < 5 (we are lucky because we both have flexible work schedules, me especially, so Betsy isn’t usually in her crate for too long each day. However, I have spoken to people who successfully crate their dog for 9 hours per day during the week. That’s probably the absolute maximum you can do without crossing into animal abuse territory.)
  • Dog needs access to water in crate
  • Don’t crate the dog on the weekend. Actually, I work from home Fridays as well, so Friday-Saturday-Sunday are 100% crate-free days for Betsy (except for extenuating circumstances where we have to go somewhere without her, of course)

In other words, don’t shove your dog in a cage for 90% of their life. The crate is a great management tool, but it has to be used responsibly. Betsy has absolutely no problem with going in her crate. She’s perfectly happy to go in there whenever we ask her to. This, to me, is a sign that we are doing it right and not abusing our power.

So how do you crate train a dog??

I think we were a bit lucky with Betsy… We crated her right from day one and she was always pretty cool with it. Remember when I wrote about social learning? Well my theory is that because both of her parents were crate trained, she was sort of already used to the idea that dogs go in crates before we even brought her home. But that’s just a theory.

I did do some reading on crate training before we got Betsy though, and I followed the advice that the Internet gave me. So I will regurgitate it up again here:

  • Don’t force your dog into a crate. They need to go in on their own.
  • Don’t immediately lock your dog in the crate when they go inside the first time.
  • Don’t always leave the house when your dog is crated, otherwise they could associate the crate with you leaving, which is no good!
  • Work on duration slowly, don’t start crating your dog for hours at a time right away.

To get your dog interested in the crate, sprinkle food around the opening and inside. If they go in the crate, praise and give them more treats. You can keep doing this every day, or multiple times every day, until they think their crate is some magical source of yummy food.

To this day I reward Betsy for going in her crate, usually with the aforementioned kong.

You really have to judge how fast to move based on the dog’s reaction to the crate. If they’re really nervous of going inside, you’ll need to take more time, leaving treats around the outside and near the entrance, and very very slowly helping them get all the way inside. If you have a dog like this, don’t expect them to be actually crate-able for some time. You need to ease them into it, or risk putting them off the crate altogether by pushing too hard.

The other thing to keep in mind is letting them out of the crate: Letting them out should be a very calm activity. Going IN the crate is the fun! exciting! treats galore! part. Being let out again is nbd, kinda boring, hm, I wish I was still in my crate, mom.

Oh and also, almost forgot to mention, whining! Whining is tough, the way to beat it is to not reward it. If your dog is whining in the crate, don’t let them out, don’t give them treats, don’t talk to them. Wait until they are quiet, and THEN let them out. Quiet dogs get let out, whiney dogs do not. If it’s hard to find a time when your dog ISN’T whining, just look for easy wins. Even the teeniest quiet moment is enough to start. Then work your way up to longer and longer periods of silence. THERE IS AN EXCEPTION TO THIS RULE: If you suspect your dog has to go the bathroom, you may let them out for that purpose. Use common sense here.

How do I use a crate for puppy house training?

I had a very strict schedule with Betsy and the crate when she was a puppy, and I’ll just write down what I did here. It worked really well for me, so hopefully it will for you too 😊

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Eight month old Betsy tries to fit in her old, puppy-sized crate (just for the photo-op, we are not that cruel!)

First, some general puppy potty training nice-to-know stuff:

Puppies have to pee pretty often. If they are playing they will have to pee even MORE often (all that physical activity!), and if they just woke up from a nap, they will DEFINITELY have to pee.

Also, every 15-20 minutes after a meal, like clockwork, Betsy would have to both pee AND poo. She pooped SO MUCH when she was a puppy, it was crazy!

Puppies can’t hold it for as long as adult dogs can, so don’t expect them to. Make sure you take them out for bathroom breaks a LOT. Like every hour or two. This also depends on the size of your dog – a small breed dog has a much smaller bladder than a large breed dog!

Finally, when Betsy was super young (8 weeks to 12 weeks or so), she couldn’t make it all the way through the night without a potty break, so I’d wake up 1-3 times each night to take her out. I set alarms at first, but her whining would always let me know when it was time.

So my typical day would look like this (note: playtime doesn’t have to be play. Just interaction/social time that might be play, might be cuddles, whatever):

  1. 6am. Wake up. Betsy has been in her crate all night. PICK BETSY UP FROM INSIDE THE CRATE. DO NOT PUT ON GROUND OR SHE WILL IMMEDIATELY PEE ON THE FLOOR. Puppies are much less likely to have an accident if you’re carrying them.
  2. Carry Betsy outside, put on grass, let her pee, poo, praise her, back inside.
  3. Give Betsy her first small meal of the day, plus water, in her crate. Close crate door, let her digest her food.
  4. After 15-20 minutes, it’s back outside for another pee/poo
  5. Playtime! Play with Betsy for 30 minutes.
  6. Pee break outside.
  7. Water in crate.
  8. Pee break
  9. Playtime!
  10. Pee break
  11. Food and water in crate, wait 15-20 min again
  12. Pee/poo time
  13. Crate for 1-2 hour nap!
  14. Pee/poo break!
  15. Playtime!
  16. Pee break!

And so on and so forth until bedtime when she is once again crated.

Some key things:

  • Always potty break 20 min after food/drink.
  • Always potty break after nap
  • Always potty break after play
  • Feed and give water in crate, and keep in crate until post-meal potty break has happened.

With this tight management, it is possible to get a house trained dog with ZERO mistakes. (We did not, but we came close!)

In theory, your dog will never be in a situation where they CAN have an accident without you noticing. Whenever they are out of their crate they are actively interacting with you, so you’re always there to make sure they don’t have an accident.

If you do catch your puppy peeing on the carpet, scoop ‘em up mid pee and whoosh them outside to finish. I also used some more extreme methods, like shouting “AHHH NO!” but that was mostly involuntary and probably not recommended 😁 (to be fair I think it was effective though!)

And that’s that! Crates 101! 2,500 word ode to crates!

Oh yeah, bonus tip: If you say a command, like “Go in your crate!” whenever your dog goes in their crate, they’ll eventually understand what it means, and that can be kind of handy 😉

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