Confinement and Using a Crate

Confinement is necessary to prevent accidents when you cannot watch your dog and to encourage him to control his bladder and bowels. Most dogs will instinctively not relieve themselves when confined in a small enough area.

The most effective and safest way to confine your dog is in a crate. A crate is a small cage for dogs. Some dog owners may be upset by the idea of caging their dogs. This is understandable; it seems cruel. However, the fact of the matter is that most dogs, after they get used to their crates, love them. They grow attached to them. The crates provide a sense of security. If you watch your dog, you will notice that he naturally chooses places to sleep where either he is under something or his back is up against something. Most dog owners find that even after their dogs are housebroken and no longer need to be crated, they continue to sleep in their crates by choice. I often think about the fact that my dogs have a special place to go when they want to be left alone and get away from the world, but I don't!

Crates can be made of plastic, which are often the kind used for shipping dogs by air, or of metal wire. Either kind is good for housebreaking. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The plastic crates are solid and prevent air circulation, which keeps a dog warmer, but may be too warm in hot temperatures. The metal wire crates are often collapsible, which is convenient for taking them with you if you travel with your dog. They provide good air circulation, and can be covered to keep out drafts, if necessary. Some dogs seem to like being able to see out of the metal crates, while others like being hidden in the plastic crates. Crates can be purchased at pet supply stores and through dog supply catalogs.

For a crate to work best for housebreaking, it needs to be the appropriate size. If it is too big, your dog will be able to eliminate in one end and sleep in the other. The crate should be big enough for him to lie down comfortably, stand up, and turn around, but no larger. It is okay if your dog cannot hold his head up all the way when he is standing or sitting in the crate. For example, a good size crate for a 65-pound Golden Retriever is 26 inches high,

Greyhound Dog And Trainer Photo
These are two different types of crates. The dogs standing beside them show the proper size crate for that dog. (Belgian Tervuren, Greyhound)

36 inches long, and 24 inches wide. A good rule of thumb is to buy a crate that is 2 to 4 inches taller than the height of your dog at his shoulders.

Buying the right size crate to housebreak a puppy is a more difficult task. The right size crate for an eight-week-old puppy is going to be quickly outgrown. Since some dogs may need to be kept in a crate as adult dogs for reasons other than housebreaking problems, such as destructive behavior when left alone, it is more practical to purchase the size crate your dog will need as an adult. If you do this and find that your puppy is relieving himself in the crate, find a way to block off part of the crate, such as with a piece of plywood. If you think your dog will be spending a lot of time in the crate, you might want to give your dog a little more room to move around by buying one size larger than necessary.

When you get your crate, you will have to choose a place to put it. There are many options. I like keeping mine in my bedroom. In fact, I have made covers for the crates to match my bedspreads! While my dogs are young puppies and I have to use the crates frequently, I move the crates into the kitchen area during the day. The kitchen is a popular place to keep a crate, if your kitchen is large enough. Puppies are often confined to kitchens anyway because of the easy-to-clean floor, and the kitchen is a place where the family spends a lot of time. Other good places to put a crate are in a utility room, the family room, or a room of the house that isn't used often.

You may want to put some sort of bedding in the crate. Obviously, washable bedding is a good idea. Many dogs like the washable, imitation pieces of fleece that are available for dogs. If your dog shows any inclination to chew his bedding, however, you will have to remove it. Swallowing fabric can cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage. My dogs have their own personal preferences regarding bedding in their crates. Our Belgian Tervuren consistently pulls out anything we put in his crate before he goes into it. On the other hand, our Greyhound has little natural padding of her own, so she appreciates as much padding as we can stuff into her crate.

To introduce your puppy or dog to his new crate, set the crate up and allow your dog to examine it. Put treats in the crate, at first near the door, then later toward the back so he has to go all the way in to get them. Avoid forcing your dog into the crate. Throughout the first day or two, drop treats into the back of the crate every few hours. When your dog is walking in and out freely, without any fear, start feeding him in his crate. Up until now, you should not have closed the door, but once he is contentedly eating in his crate, you can close and latch the door while he is eating. Gradually extend the period of time he is shut in.

If at any time your dog starts barking, whining, or pawing at the door of the crate because he wants to be let out, do not let him out. Ignore his efforts to get your attention, or tell him "no" in a firm tone of voice. Don't let him out until he is quiet and has settled down. You don't want him to learn that he can get you to open the door by carrying on.

Start associating a command with putting your dog in his crate. Take your dog to his crate (dog treat in hand), throw the treat in, then give him the command as he enters the crate. My command is a highly unoriginal "get in your crate." I have a student who refers to her dog's crate as her "apartment." How long should you keep your dog in his crate? This is a difficult question to answer. A young puppy of 7 to 12 weeks of age cannot hold his urine for more than a few hours, so don't crate him longer than that, except at night. Gradually build up to four hours. By 12 weeks of age, your puppy should be able to go eight hours at night while he is sleeping. You should avoid crating your dog for more than four to five hours if at all possible, except at night.

Warning: Never put your dog in a crate with a collar on. He could catch his collar on part of the crate and strangle himself in his struggle to get free. Many dogs have. This is true for any kind of collar. Don't take chances.

There are other ways to confine a dog besides using a crate. One way is to keep your dog on leash and with you wherever you are in the house. You can tie the leash to a piece of furniture while you are in the room, or to your bed at night. Another way is to tie your dog with a short chain (approximately four feet long) to a screw eye fastened into your wall in a place you spend a lot of time, such as the kitchen. However, you should never leave your dog alone on such a chain. He could get tangled and choke himself, or he may chew on whatever furniture or baseboard is within reach.

Laundry rooms or bathrooms can work, if the rooms are small enough and aren't carpeted, and your dog won't be destructive. Cover the floor with newspaper at first. Remove anything your dog may get into, like toilet paper, soap, and towels hanging down. Your dog will probably object strenuously if you shut the door to this room while you are home. It is amazing what dog claws can do to a door. If you have to confine him there when you are home, it would be better to block the door with a baby gate. That way your puppy will feel less isolated.

Some people confine their dogs in basements, back porches, or garages while they are away. However, these places are not small enough to inhibit a dog from relieving himself. Housebreaking in the rest of the house may be more difficult because your dog may have trouble understanding that he can relieve himself in one part of the house but not in the rest.

Some dogs will relieve themselves even though they are confined to a small space. Dogs from pet shops who have been confined in small cages where they have no choice but to relieve themselves in their cages lose their normal inhibitions against this. Confinement sometimes doesn't work with them, or it takes longer to work. Also, if a dog is relieving himself inside the crate, even though he has not been left there long, it may be a sign that your dog has a bladder infection. See "Health Problems," later in this chapter for more information about this.

Other dogs panic at being confined and relieve themselves out of fear. These dogs may adjust, given time and careful handling, but some may not. I experienced this kind of problem with my Greyhound, Zephyr. Even though she was seven weeks old when I got her and introduced her to the crate, she took what seemed like forever to adjust to it. In the meantime, I cleaned up several accidents in the crate. I had never had this problem with any of my previous dogs. I think she had problems adjusting because she was a very energetic puppy and tended to be overemotional about everything. She stopped defecating in her crate in a few days, and stopped urinating in it two weeks later. In spite of her poor start, Zephyr loves her crate and now happily runs to it from anywhere in the house whenever I say, "Get in your crate." Of course, the dog biscuit she always gets when I put her in the crate probably helps a lot. If your dog does not adjust to the crate, try some of the other alternatives listed in this chapter.

Please give crate training a chance, even if you have serious misgivings. I had those same feelings when I was first introduced to the idea of a crate. I didn't believe dogs would really love them as much as they do. Many dogs who were destroyed each year because they couldn't be housebroken or were destructive when left alone could have been saved with crate training.

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