I see you there. You’ve got a brand-new, fuzzy little lump of love you’re bringing home. And maybe like a lot of new dog owners, you’re hesitant about crate training your new puppy. Maybe you just can’t imagine putting that sweet little fuzz-ball in a cage. Or maybe you just don’t understand how it all works or how valuable it is with potty-training AND house-training.
Well, let me fill you in, give you all the details and tell you just why crate training your new puppy will save you time and a lot of headaches.
Trust me when I tell you – at some point in your dog’s life, he will NEED to be in a crated environment. And a dog who is already comfortable with crates is light-years ahead of one who is not. Want some examples?
- Traveling? Your dog will need to be familiar with being crated in order to fly. And will be safer crated in your vehicle if you’re driving.
- Veterinarian visit? If your dog stays overnight, he’ll be in a crated area.
- Dog sports? If you hope to do agility or other sports, your dog will need to be comfortable crated while waiting his turn to play.
- Home repairs? Your dog will need to be in a safe space if you have servicemen in the home doing work.
- New pet in the family? Your dog may need some alone time or a place to chill while getting accustomed to the new member.
- Injury? Some surgeries require your dog to confined to crate rest for long periods.
And house-training? It goes So. Much. Smoother.
Can we talk about safety for a moment? Puppies get into everything. The whole world is one big playground to explore, chew, sniff, dig, pee….you get it. You want to keep your little guy safe. And you’ll want to keep your new Italian leather boots safe from those sharp little puppy teeth, too.
Crate training to the rescue!
I want to make one distinction before we get started. If you have an older dog that has never been crated before, that’s a whole different scenario we’re not going to cover in this post.
So let’s focus on how to get your puppy off to a great start and make YOUR life a whole lot easier.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest…ever so gently… to try your very best to take time off work when you add a new puppy to the family. I’m gently insisting. To get your new best-friend acclimated and on the road to good house-training habits, someone needs to be home with him for at least the first two weeks. We take maternity/paternity leaves for babies. Puppies need that kind of attention, too.
Before you bring that bundle of joy home, you’ll need to have your crate ready. And not just any crate. A crate should be:
- simple to clean
- easy to move
- quick to access from the front or side or bonus points – both!
We really like our Lifestages crate from Midwest Crates. These wire crates are heavy-duty, yet can be easily folded like a suitcase for transportation. They have a plastic, pull-out tray that makes cleaning a snap. In fact, Chloe’s crate was a hand-me-down from our old dog Duncan. That makes this crate nearly 15 years old and still going strong!
What Size Crate?
Unless you want to keep sizing up as your puppy grows ( and that can get expensive!) choose a crate that will fit your puppy as a grown dog. If you’re trying to size-up that sweet little mixed breed pup, it might not be the easiest thing. Even your veterinarian can only make a guestimate at this point –but too big is better than too small.
So your itty-bitty lab puppy is going to look soooo teeny in that cavern of a crate you bought. No worries – we’re going to block off most of the area using a crate divider. A good crate will come with a wire divider. If not, you can use a cardboard box. You’ll be able to move the divider back as your pup grows to give him more space.
Puppies come pretty much hard-wired not to soil their sleeping area. In a large crate, they’ll just go to the back to do their business. What we want is to give them just enough space to stand, sit and lie down. This will encourage them to keep their crate clean and help in potty-training.
You’ll be tempted to put in a blanket or pillow. Resist the urge at this stage of the game.
Here’s how to set things up before your puppy arrives home:
Place your crate (with the divider in place) in an active area of your home. Be aware of drafts or direct sunlight. Choose somewhere you and your family spend a lot of time. This is usually in or near the kitchen or living room. This is where your puppy will nap and spend some quiet time learning to chill.
Set up a ‘safe space’ for your puppy to have room to play. This needs to be a room with an easy-to-clean floor, like the kitchen or a laundry room, that can be secured with puppy gates. Make sure it is puppy-proofed – no electrical cords or anything your puppy can injure himself by chewing. In a pinch, you could set up an x-pen (exercise pen) in your living room. This is where your puppy will play when no one is actively watching him.
Your young puppy should always be in one of three places at all times:
- In his crate, sleeping, eating or resting
- In his safe space when no one is actively watching him
- With you, inside or outside, when you or someone else is actively watching/playing with him at all times. That means no cell phones, no watching TV, no housework. This is puppy bonding and exercise time. Your puppy needs YOU. (Okay, if you and the puppy are cuddled together on the sofa snoozing, that’s fine.)
Since we’re not delving into the actual house-training or potty training in this post, let’s get back to crate training your new puppy and how you can make it one of your puppy’s favorite places to be.
Intro to the Crate
Your puppy may or may not love the crate from the get-go. Your job is to help him love it even more!
Start the introduction by tossing a toy or a treat into the crate. Encourage your pup to go inside. Don’t force him in – let it be his own idea.
Perfectly good if he only steps one paw inside. Toss a treat a bit further in next time. Make it a fun, exciting thing to do! Only good things happen in or near the crate.
Once he’s happily running in and out of the crate, try closing the door just for a few seconds while he’s inside – and then open it right up.
If you have a puppy that is very distrustful of the crate, you’ll want to feed him inside. A hungry puppy is not going to care where he is when his food is set down before him. Place his bowl in the crate, pick him up and place him in front of his food. Leave the door open so he can come out if he wants.
Pretty soon, you’re going to have a very tired puppy. This is crate time.
After your puppy has played and you’ve taken him outside to potty, bring him in and place him in the crate with some chew toys. He may have a bit of energy left, so learning to chill with his chew toys is an important skill.
He may fuss. He may bark. He may howl. Just go about your business. (I like to stay in the same room until he settles so he can see and hear me nearby.) A tired puppy is going to conk out in no time.
You can also drape a blanket or towel over the crate to block out some of the noise and light. Your pup may feel more settled.
Toys and food help your puppy form a good association with the crate. And sleeping in it helps it become his very own “place” that feels safe.
Quick Note: If your puppy is over-the-top distressed (you’ll know if it’s not simple fussiness or trying to get your attention) and seems panicked, please consult a qualified dog behavior specialist. It’s very uncommon with puppies, but it could happen.
How Long Does Puppy Stay in the Crate?
When your puppy wakes up from his beauty sleep, it’s time to come out of the crate. Simple!
Always pick your puppy up from the crate and carry him outside to potty immediately upon awakening.
When your puppy has relieved himself, he is free to stay out and play with you. Or he can go in his safe space if you can’t watch him.
When he’s tuckered out and ready for a nap, put him in his crate.
There’s a bit more to it when it comes to potty training, but for simplicity, let’s boil it down to this:
- Until your puppy is reliably house-trained, he sleeps in the crate
- When you leave the house for an hour or two, puppy stays in the crate
- If you leave the house for longer than 2 hours, leave your puppy in his safe space
Overuse of the crate is one of the main reasons crate training can have a bad rap. No dog, puppy or adult, should be left in a crate for longer than 4 hours during the day – and that’s pushing it!
What About Nighttime?
Puppies don’t develop full bladder control until they are 20-30 weeks of age. And yes, just like babies, they will need to pee during the night. It’s up to you to take them out when they do.
Instead of trying to move the crate in the bedroom at night, I simply put a big old cardboard box next to my bed. Waterproof pads go in the bottom and the puppy sleeps next to me all night. It’s super easy to dangle an arm down to comfort a lonesome puppy and I can easily hear him when he wakes up in the middle of the night.
Once your puppy is pretty comfortable napping in the crate during the day, you can move it to its permanent location in the house. That’s usually about a week or so after he first comes home.
Please don’t choose the basement or garage or an out-of-the-way location. We choose to keep our crate in the bedroom. Puppy now sleeps in his crate near your bed. That’s especially important when you’re still potty-training so you can get your pup outside during the night.
And he’s going to continue sleeping in the crate until he is 100% reliably potty-trained.
Don’t Forget About the Crate After House-Training!
This is the fun part – crate games with your puppy!
You’ll find a myriad of books, videos and instructions on how to play crate games with your puppy or adult dog. They build confidence, reliability, provide mental stimulation, impulse control – you name it!
Here’s one simple game you can try right now:
“Good Things Come to Those Who Wait” – Stand next to the crate with your puppy. Toss a treat inside and wait for the puppy to enter the crate to get it.
While the puppy is inside the crate, toss another treat inside. Wait for the puppy to eat it and then toss another. Repeat a couple times.
Wait for the moment the puppy eats the last treat and looks back at you. Toss another treat inside the crate. Every time your puppy looks at you for another treat while staying in the crate, toss another one in with lots of praise.
If your puppy comes out of the crate, wait and see if he’ll wander back inside to sniff for more treats. Once he’s inside, toss a treat at him and begin again.
You don’t have to stick with a wire crate forever. That one can become your travel gear for dog events and you can trade up for a hard-side crate for the house. Or even get fancy with a built-in edition that blends seamlessly with your décor. The options are endless.
- Super important: do not open the door of the crate if your pup is barking or whining to be let out. If you let him out when he barks, you are reinforcing that behavior. Instead, wait for the moment when he is stops fussing and then open the door. Won’t stop whining? A loud noise like a clap or a book drop may startle him enough to stop. When he does, say “Good boy!” and let him out.
- If you suspect the whining is because he needs to potty – pick him up immediately and take him outside.
- Crate rules for the littles in your life: never let anyone bother the puppy while he’s in his crate. This is HIS safe space. No poking at or playing with a crated pup.
You got this! You’re getting your new dog off to a great start, keeping him safe (and your valuables, too) and helping him be comfortable in his new home.