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Dec 2010

The Great Crate Debate

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While I have an extensive knowledge of canine nutrition, and have spent a great deal of time creating mixes of the best vegetables for dogs, my background also includes many years working as a dog groomer, veterinarian technician and dog trainer. This long history of working with and training dogs has given me an extensive knowledge of different and unusual techniques for solving both common and rare problems. Every now and then a training method will become the “in” thing to teach your dog. Some are true breakthroughs in modern training, while others do nothing but take advantage of a dog’s trusting and willing nature.

Perhaps the most difficult and trying time after getting a new puppy involves potty training. Unfortunately there is a growing trend among pet owners to use “crate training” as a method to help them with this task. Crate training works on the principle that puppies will not soil their den; which is true. I personally feel that crates are cruel, even when used correctly, and that this method is a crutch used by people who are not ready for the real responsibility of caring for a puppy. Bringing home a puppy is no different then bringing home a child from the hospital. Both require thoughtful consideration to the changes they will make to your life and the sacrifices, both temporary and permanent, that you will need to make in order to ensure that they are happy and healthy. If you are unwilling or unable to make such sacrifices, then don’t bring the puppy home. This may offend some people, but those who resort to crate training are simply lazy. Crate training was not designed for the comfort of the dog, but for the convenience of the owner.

Below I have listed the principles and methods that trainers who utilize crate training try to instill in their clients, followed by the problems I see with them. Lastly, as someone who has potty trained over fifteen puppies, I will tell you how you can do it WITHOUT ever resorting to a crate.

PRINCIPLE - Trainers who use this method tout how short term confinement will teach your puppy bowel and bladder control and encourage them to eliminate when they are released from confinement. Instead of going whenever they want, they learn to hold it and go at conveniently scheduled times.
PROBLEM - Bowel and bladder control is actually “forced” on the puppy whose instincts tell him not to soil his den. However, if you forget to let them out after too long, they will go in the crate anyway and now you have made a difficult task even harder. Like children, bowel and bladder control for a puppy comes as their body matures, they honestly can’t “hold it” any better than a toddler, so why force them to do it?

METHOD - Trainers instruct new owners to use the crate only when they are home and encourage you to make the crate a safe and secure environment by using treats and toys as a way of bribing and coercing the puppy into the crate, letting them enter and leave a few times before shutting them in.
PROBLEM - No matter how much time you spend on getting them comfortable with the crate the moment you shut them in and the puppy realizes he can’t get out, anxiety and panic comes crashing down. Dogs are social animals. Your new puppy has had the company of its mother and litter mates since it was born. Now you have taken your puppy away from even your immediate presence and worse, they can see or hear you and can’t be with you. Time and again I hear about people who had to show their puppy “tough love” by putting the crate in another room and letting the puppy cry and scratch until it gave up. They seem so proud that they were able to teach their puppy how to behave, when in reality they do not see the emotional and psychological damage they have done. Your puppy does not understand that you are confining them to teach them not to soil in the house, they only know they are alone, scared and that you have abandoned them.

METHOD - Except at night, remove your puppy from the crate at least once an hour to go outside and eliminate. If they do not go, return them to the crate. If they do, praise and reward them with some play time before returning them to the crate. Puppies should spend the night in the crate.
PROBLEM - So, if the puppy does not have to go simply because he doesn’t have to go, you punish him by putting him back in the crate? What happens if your puppy has to go more often? Make him “hold it”? I have owned some puppies that went nearly every 20 to 30 minutes, some that could go for hours, some that went more often at night, others during the day. Every puppy is an individual and applying a single, cookie-cutter method to all of them is a huge disservice. Making your puppy spend the night in the crate is simply abandonment so that you can sleep undisturbed. You would never think to do that to an infant, why is it ok to do it to a puppy?

PRINCIPLE - You can enjoy peace of mind when leaving your dog alone, knowing that nothing can be soiled or destroyed, and that he is comfortable, safe and not developing bad habits in his crate.
PROBLEM - Yes, nothing will get destroyed or soiled because your dog is locked in a tiny CAGE. If you don’t have the time to spend training, exercising and playing with your dog so that they know right from wrong, then the only time you won’t have a problem is when they are in their crate. I have known numerous “crate trained” dogs who won’t go in their crate, because it is their den, but they don’t have any problem using the rest of the house for a toilet because they have never been taught that the ENTIRE house is their den.

Want to know about a better way? Here are my 3 steps to potty training a puppy without anxiety or fear. It requires effort on your part, but such is the way with all good things. This method will work for those who live in an apartment or condo (with or without a patio), as well as homes that are restricted from having a fenced yard due to association regulations. If there are no restrictions against doing so, always fence your yard. If your plan is to eventually chain or kennel your dog outside the home - DONT GET A DOG. Fish make wonderful pets.

This method works! Once trained, I have NEVER had a dog soil my house.

IMPORTANT NOTES:
If you work, do not bring home a puppy unless you have at least three days to spend at home with him. Plan your puppy’s arrival around a long weekend or a vacation. It is not that you must be with your puppy 24/7 during those first few days (that would cause problems with separation anxiety later on) but it is important that you take plenty of time to adjust and train your puppy so that neither of you become stressed. If your carpet or flooring is too valuable or too important to you to withstand a few mistakes, then getting a puppy is probably not the right decision for you.

Home Owners - Invest the money you would have spent on a crate on the most vital and important tool you will ever buy, a dog door. Once you own one, you will never know how you could live without it. Dog doors come in different models to fit either a sliding glass door or a regular door. If for some reason you do not want to purchase a dog door, you will need to leave a door slightly open during the potty training process.

Apartments/Condos (with patios) - The sliding glass dog door models are great as they do not damage the property. I toted one around for years before I bought a house. If for some reason you do not want to purchase a dog door, you will need to leave a door slightly open during the potty training process. You will also need to purchase a Porch Potty which is similar to a litter box only with artificial or real (preferred) grass.

Apartments/Condos (without patios) - You will need to designate a “temporary bathroom” for your puppy. We highly recommend it to be at or near the door. You will need to purchase a Porch Potty as well.

It is important to know that puppies develop preferences for going to the bathroom on certain types of surfaces. Most dogs prefer grass for their toilet, which is why we recommend the Porch Potty. If you use newspaper or wee-wee pads, puppies can learn to prefer them and it will be difficult to retrain them to use grass instead.

STEP 1


Teach your puppy to use the dog door. The simplest way to do this is to fasten the flap open (duck tape works well), get on one side of the door and call your puppy. Once through the door praise them and play with them, then go to the other side of the door and repeat (this also conveniently teaches them to come when called). Repeat until the puppy goes through the moment you move to the other side. If the base part of the door is too tall for your puppy to step over, build temporary steps. I’ve used old towels in a pinch or you can make some out of sturdy boxes or wood. Do not lower the flap until the puppy is confidently going through the open door. When you do eventually lower the flap, use your finger or hand to show the puppy how to push the flap with their nose. You will be surprised how quickly they learn how to do this. If at anytime they seem hesitant about the flap, fasten it open. You want them confident about going through.

STEP 2


While you are teaching them to go through the door, get to know your puppy. Observe them closely. All puppies will give you a sign that they are going to go to the bathroom, you just need to know what to look for. A sudden loss of interest in playing, sniffing the floor, a far away look in their eye, a sense of urgency to their movement, are all signs that your puppy is contemplating going to the bathroom. As a general rule most, but not all, puppies will go shortly after sleeping, eating or drinking. It is up to you to learn your puppy’s individual schedule. Keep a log. You will see a definite pattern develop within a short period of time and that will help you immensely. Once you see the pattern, you will know when it is time to encourage your puppy to follow you outside the door. Use the phrase, “Do you need to go potty?” Take them out to the yard or to the Porch Potty and praise them if they go. Your puppy will learn that phrase quickly and it comes in handy if you are ever someplace where there is no dog door. My dogs will either look at me and wag their tails (No, I don’t have to go) or jump up and head for the nearest door (Yes, I need to go).

Unless your puppy has gone recently (within the last 15 minutes or so) or is sleeping, you need to have one eye on them at all times. Yes, it is asking a lot of you, but you wouldn’t leave an infant unattended, and they are no different (except a baby can’t move as much and won’t soil your carpets). If an accident occurs, it is YOUR fault, not theirs, and do not punish them. If you can catch them in the act, move swiftly and pick them up. This usually stops them mid-stream. Scold them in a firm voice and take them outside to finish and praise them. Remember, for every accident that occurs, you set your training back a day. Don’t get lazy.

HINT... If you have a toy breed do NOT carry them outside to go to the bathroom; make them follow you just like a big dog. The reason certain toy breeds (such as Pomeranians) have such a bad rap as being hard to potty train is because their owners carry them outside all the time. Dogs learn by doing. If they are magically transported to the place where they go to the bathroom then when their ride is not available, they don’t really know where to go.

STEP 3


Determine the initial “den” size in your house. Take into consideration the size, age and activity level of your puppy and create a den around the dog door. You can do this by incorporating furniture (I recommend a sofa for reasons below), walls, child gates or even a portable, foldable dog pen. Make it easy for you to get in and out of as you will still be taking the puppy out frequently. You will initially have two den sizes: one for when your puppy is with you (larger), one for when your puppy is alone (smaller). I HIGHLY recommend that you sleep with your puppy (hence the sofa) so that you can continue to take them out at regular intervals through the night (hence the reason for being off work). If you do not wish to sleep with your puppy, keep the den small, but be prepared for the potty training to take longer as most accidents happen at night or in the early morning hours. Remember to start small. You will only expand the area after you have had at least 3 accident free days. If you widen the den and they have an accident, shrink it back down to its last size and keep it there until you have had 3 accident free days.

In my house I start out with a portable dog pen and a chair. I then expand it to include a solid-walled coffee table, then the sofa, then move the pen to create a wall across half the room, then remove the pen to give them the entire room, etc. As their bladder matures and they gain the understanding of going outside, they easily accept that their den is slowly expanding. When my puppies are alone, they have a bed (to encourage the sense of a den), tons of toys (to teach them to chew and play with appropriate things) and water. I do not withhold water at night. Puppies can dehydrate quickly so I do not like the practice of withholding water to prevent accidents. If you are worried that your puppy will potty during the night, sleep with them and take them out regularly. I am a very light sleeper, so any movement on their part wakes me up and I immediately take them out. If you are a heavy sleeper, set an alarm clock.

With the exception of one puppy, all of those I have raised have been fully potty trained using this method in less than a week. The exception, Oliver, was an older puppy when I rescued him and had probably had previous accidents in a house. He had a difficult time with the expansion of the den, so I had to keep it very slow. Nevertheless, even with Oliver, none of the puppies experienced stress, fear or loneliness or had to be locked in a tiny box, forced to “hold it”.

While this method utilizes the concept that puppies don’t soil their den and does incorporate keeping them in a confined area of the house, it does not ever lock the puppy up in a crate. They can interact with humans both day and night, they can go out and explore the yard, and they do not ever experience the anxiety that a crate generates. It also places less stress on a young bladder by not forcing your puppy to hold. You will be amazed how quickly your puppy will choose to go out on their own to potty, even when it is quite frequently. Also, it is a myth that dogs trained this way (ie: being allowed to go whenever they want because of a dog door) do not learn how to “hold it” when they are older. All of my dogs can hold it an entire night when it is necessary.
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