Apr 2022

A Guide to Crate Training Your Puppy

Crate training is, by far, my preferred method for potty training puppies and young dogs.

So, what is Crate Training?

 Simply put it involves the use of a crate, or dog kennel, to teach a dog bladder control and establish a habit of going to the bathroom outside.  

Dogs are den animals by nature, and crates form a natural nook that provides safety and security.  The crate has other uses outside of potty training, such as containment for dogs that get destructive when left alone, or as a calmness aid if the dog were ever injured and needed to be put on bed rest for medical reasons such as heartworm treatment, tendon injuries, or fractures.  

Additionally, a crate provides an element of safety and security when transporting the dog within a vehicle.  Covering a car crate, cuts down on the likelihood of carsickness.  It also contains the mess if they do get sick, or decide the car ride is a good time to relieve themselves.  Establishing good crate behavior is one of the most important things an owner should work on with their puppy as it will become a necessity at some point in the life of the dog.

Most dogs, with few exceptions, like to be clean and do not want to sit in or near their own waste.  They also show a marked tendency to want to keep their living, particularly their sleeping and eating, areas clean.  By establishing the kennel as the puppy’s sleeping and feeding area, the puppy will attempt to hold off on pottying in that kennel.

Crate Training Process

Crate training is the process of forming a habit of going outside to potty on a schedule.  In the crate a puppy sees four walls and a ceiling and when they go to the bathroom in the crate, they are stuck in it.  This is not a good turn of events for a puppy that wants to be clean.  They will attempt to hold it so that this does not happen again.  When you take them outside, they see no walls or ceiling and upon relieving themselves, they discover they can happily walk away from it, clearly the superior option.  

In short, pottying inside results in a dirty and unhappy puppy, while pottying outside equals a clean puppy that can get away from it.  Pottying outside becomes the preferential option.  

Dogs do not have a profound sense of volume and area, and the experience of four walls and a ceiling meaning potty puppy equals dirty puppy can eventually be expanded to a room and then an entire house.  This process is slowed by mistakes inside the house, but outside of the crate.  This causes the puppy to discover pottying in a corner of a room and walking away does not, in truth, equal dirty puppy.  It is for this reason pottying in the house and successfully getting away from it is a lesson we do not want our puppies to learn.  

Potty pads inside the house are a horrendously bad idea for that reason.  If you are using potty pads in the house, you are training your dog to potty inside your house.  Full stop.  If you are using them this way, and this is not your intention, STOP.  

Attempting to teach a puppy to ring a bell or hoping the puppy will naturally alert at the door when it needs to go out are both bad ideas.  It is easy to teach a dog that ringing a bell means a door will open, but they will often ring that bell simply because it is there, and it is the thing to do when they are there. Most everyone has experienced seeing a cat meowing at a door demanding to be let out only to turn right back around meowing at the same door wanting to be let back in. Dogs frequently learn to use a whine at the door or equivalent indication the same way as the cat.  When the puppy cries wolf enough times, you will become incentivized to selectively ignore the indication, and that will inevitably lead to urine or bowel movements at your door. 

The other big issue is that most puppies will abuse both potty bell or natural indication to go outside to play and explore.  The concept of ringing the bell only when the puppy needs to potty would be extremely difficult to train reliably and would be beyond the scope and ability of all but the craftiest of trainers and is not worth the effort and thought that would go into it.

It is for these reasons potty training to a series of scheduled potty breaks is the best way forward.  Bathroom schedules produce much needed structure and predictability to the life of the puppy, especially when combined with set feeding times.  The benefits of this, and similar types of structure are worthy of their own write up but are beyond the breadth and scope of this article.

On Crate and Kennels

The crate you will use to potty break the puppy needs to be large enough that the puppy can easily turn around, and tall enough that it can fully stand without touching the ceiling.  Beyond this requirement, it is best that the crate not be too large.  If the crate is too large the puppy will potty in one corner and hang out in the other and not be sufficiently upset by the experience to not wish to repeat it.

If you have a young large breed puppy you can expect to upgrade crate size to adjust for dog growth two or three times.  

I prefer the plastic Veri kennel style dog crates.  I have witnessed clever dogs urinate or even defecate outside of wire kennels through the bars, and thus dodge the natural consequence of not holding it. This tactic is generally only learned when an owner is making tons of mistakes.  Wire kennels also have the disadvantage of being easier to escape.   These issues are uncommon, but common enough that I have developed a bias against the wire kennels.  All this considered, a wire kennel is still better than no kennel at all.

You will want to refrain from putting towels or bedding down in the crate if you see the puppy chewing up the bedding or diapering.  Diapering is when the puppy discovers it can pee or defecate on the bedding and then push it neatly into a corner and avoid being messy as a result.  If the puppy does neither of these things bedding in the crate is fine.

How often do you need to do potty breaks?

There are a few main factors that determine how frequently a puppy needs a potty break, but unfortunately there is no exact science to this.  It will be trial and error, and you want to take steps to ensure errors are infrequent.  Let outs that are too spaced out will eventually teach dogs to conclude it is less annoying to relieve oneself and sit in the mess than it is to hold it until the next let out.  You do NOT want this to happen.

Age of the puppy is the first consideration.  Puppies around 8 weeks of age need to go out A LOT.  Plan accordingly.

Level of activity will change the frequency the puppy needs to relieve itself.  The more active the puppy the more frequent the let outs.

Amount of food and water as well as proximity to feeding or drinking times also change the potty frequency.  More water in means more water out and usually within a short amount of time (think as few as 15 minutes for puppies close to 8 weeks of age.)  Feedings tend to encourage bowel movements, particularly when the feeding happens before the time a bowel movement should be forthcoming.

The number of feedings per day will roughly equal the number of times the puppy will need to defecate.  Two feedings per day, one in the morning and one in the evening are my preference.  In puppies this will generally result in two to three bowel movements per day, and eventually in adult dogs this will result in 1-2 movements per day.  Your results may vary, but probably not by much.

Scheduling rules of thumb:  Your results will vary but this is to give you an idea of what your scheduling is likely to look like at 8 weeks of age.

For an 8-week-old puppy you can expect to do let outs every hour if the puppy is awake and at a low activity level in the crate.  Mercifully at that age most of them do a lot of sleeping and you can generally get away with every two to three hours if they are sleeping during the day.  If the puppy is running around outside the crate it may need to urinate every 10 to 20 minutes if it is getting unrestricted access to water.  

Really young puppies often require one or more middle of the night let outs to ensure the puppy makes it through to the morning error free.  I would suggest allowing unrestricted water access to puppies at breaks during the day, and then cut off water access around 4-6 pm to help the puppy make it through the night.

As the puppy gets older you want to extend the time between let outs to train the puppy to hold out for longer.  This time extension occurs as you test how long your puppy can hold it and not have in crate accidents.  The goal is to have no accidents in the kennel at all, so if you are having accidents occur frequently even if just once a day, you do not want to extend time between let outs in those circumstances.  To the contrary, you may want to make those let outs more frequent.  

It helps to keep a potty log, recording let outs as well as log of any accidents if they occur, to help you determine a pattern and adjust to help the puppy be successful.  Such a log would make note of feeding time, time of potty as well as what the puppy did during potty time, and what type of accident the puppy had (defecation or urination) as well as where (crate vs inside the house.)

If you are doing well by week 13-15 your puppy’s let outs at low level activity in crate should be closer to one every 2-3 hours and if napping, they should be able to deal with 4-5 hours between let outs. They should also be making it through the night without you needing to wake up if they remain asleep until morning.

How to do a let out

What should the let out look like? To an extent that is up to you, but there are some elements that need to be present.  

  • When your puppy is outside you need to watch the puppy so that you know it has gone to the bathroom.  Puppies have the attention spans of gnats, easily becoming distracted and spending the entire potty time chasing leaves, eating grass, or smelling the flowers.  Many owners get lazy, send the puppy out, assume it did its business, and allow the puppy freedom in the house only to discover a pile or puddle of waste on the floor shortly after turning them back inside. The number of owners that will make this mistake, often enough to start a habitual pattern of behavior, then assume fault lies squarely on the puppy, would shock you.  Do not be that owner.
  • Do not distract your puppy when it is supposed to be doing its business.  Ignore the puppy and discourage any fun until after the puppy has done the deed, and then you can play with the puppy afterward.  This way the play can function as a form of reward, and a reason for the puppy to prioritize going to the bathroom quickly.
  • Do not take the puppy in as soon as they go to the bathroom.  If they connect the act of pottying with going back inside they may begin to delay pottying to extend their outside time.  This can get excessive and is undesirable.  Fortunately, you don’t have to wait very long to keep the puppy from connecting the events.  Waiting about twenty seconds between pottying and returning inside is sufficient, especially if you distract them with play or exploration time in that interim.
  • I prefer to institute a time limit for the puppy to get things done, usually around two minutes.  If it has not happened in that time and I know it needs to, I will bring the puppy inside and crate the dog for around five to ten minutes.  After that time has elapsed, the puppy can be turned back outside and gets a new two minutes.  If the puppy does empty out, then and only then will the puppy be allowed to have some free time loose in the house, while under heavy observation, or allowed to play and explore outside for longer.  This further incentivizes the puppy to do its business quickly with no delay.  This brevity isn’t properly appreciated until you have to let the puppy out in the early morning, or on a chilly night when you have neglected to bundle up, or if you are pressed for time and need to be somewhere soon.
  • This element is not essential, but I do find it useful enough to include here. It is possible to establish a signal that can encourage a puppy to potty on cue.  When the puppy is in the act of pottying you can repeat a phrase such as “go potty” or “get busy.”  It doesn’t really matter what you pick as long as you keep it consistent, both in word and tone. After a week or two of this you will find that repeating the phrase when the puppy has yet to potty will often cause it to do so, in the same way hearing a trinkle of water may cause someone to need to visit the bathroom.
  • Clean resets are critical to potty training success.  If your puppy gets dirty because of a mistake in the crate, it is important to thoroughly clean the puppy and the crate so that the puppy does not become acclimated to being dirty.  Anyone that has experienced a “dirty dog,” a dog that does not care if it sits in its own waste, can attest to the fact YOU DO NOT WANT A DIRTY DOG.  If the puppy makes a mistake inside the house, it is important to clean the spot as thoroughly as possible with a non-ammonia based cleaner.  I recommend one with enzymes meant to break down any trace of smell such as Natures Miracle.  Failure to do so may encourage the puppy to revisit the spot for a repeat performance.     
  • It is not a bad idea to pick up young puppies and carry them from the crate to outside so that they do not stop to urinate in the house on the way to the door.  If you are working on getting the puppy to make the journey on its own you should plan ahead.  Have your shoes, coat, etc., on and be able to go from opening the crate door to hustling the puppy outside without stopping.  

A Final Benefit That You Must Remember

As a final note there is an additional important benefit to the crate training method.  Young puppies are like undiapered two-year-old children with chainsaws that are loose in your house.  Allowing them freedom without careful observation to manage their choices is a recipe for disaster.  They can and will develop habits you will not like, and to get rid of those habits once they are established will take much more time, effort, and planning than heading them off at their very beginning. 

Raising a puppy is demanding work and the crate is a valuable tool, as well as a form of welcome reprieve, for the owner.  If overused it can become a crutch and delay the development of the puppy learning house rules and earning relative freedom in the house.  

However, usually the problem is underutilization.  Owners often feel guilty about the amount of time the puppy is spending crated.  The answer to this guilt is not to run yourself ragged attempting to keep up with the chainsaw wielder, but to use that guilt as motivation to take an active role in the life of the puppy.  Use the puppy free time in a structured and productive way to teach them how to be free in the house without behaving in a destructive, annoying, or maladaptive manner.  Puppies are a lot of work up front, but if that work is put in correctly, you can reap the rewards of a dog that is a joy to live with.

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