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Canine housetraining, Part 2: Managing developmental issues with puppy crating


Make sure clients know the ins and outs of correct crate training.

My 4-year-old Australian Shepherd rescue, Picasso, is an example of a dog that was inappropriately crated. Pic was kept in a crate for 23 to 24 hours a day, from 8 weeks of age through 10 months (when he was relinquished to rescue). The crate was too small for him, and it likely had poor traction—factors that contributed to his deformed hips and hindlimbs. Now he has monitored freedom and somehow manages to run, but arthridides are in his future, and they did not have to be. Crating is common to us, but it's used less often in other parts of the world. Whether a client uses a crate is an individual choice, but all clients who use them must do so in a humane manner that meets the needs of the dog.

How does a crate work?

A crate (a cage or kennel) can be useful with most puppies and can be an essential step in the housetraining process. Small, enclosed areas encourage puppies to develop conscious muscle control to inhibit elimination at inconvenient times. Some puppies immediately feel more secure when they're left alone in a crate with blankets, toys, food, water and, if the crate's large enough, a papered area for urination and defecation. Puppies need big crates if they're going to spend long periods of time in it, but urge your clients to hire a pet sitter to exercise their puppies if they must spend time away from their puppies. Alternatively, veterinarians can offer puppy daycare, which will be helpful to young dogs in many ways.

Get off on the right foot: Finding just the right size and introducing a puppy to the crate in just the right manner are two of several things clients must know as they start out the process of housetraining.

The crate has three main purposes:

1. To encourage the puppy to start inhibiting the urge to eliminate.

2. To keep the puppy safe from all disasters—from electric cords to toxic substances lurking in the home.

3. To keep the humans sane when the puppy is too rambunctious.

Puppies are rambunctious. They need an aerobic outlet for all that energy. The crate is not meant to keep them incarcerated or to substitute for aerobic exercise. Clients need to know they can't keep puppies in crates eight to 10 hours a day as a way of mitigating their energetic and aerobic needs. If clients need a pet that can be kept caged for most of his or her young life, please encourage them to consider a gerbil.

Learning to love the crate

Crates should always be placed in family areas, not in the damp basement or the garage. The puppy must learn to love going into the crate. Feeding puppies in the crate with the door both open and closed may facilitate enthusiastic crate use. Once the puppy routinely uses the crate for rest or eating without coercion or distress, they can be left in the crate for short periods if provisioned with a toy, a blanket and something to chew (e.g., a biscuit, a big sterilized bone that has been stuffed with peanut butter).

At first, clients should stay home to ensure the puppy can't get into trouble. When the puppy is in the crate, it should reinforce the concept of quiet time for everyone. Such practices may provide the clients with the ability to give the dog a safe place to relax and calm down any time it is driving them nuts or they don't have the patience to work with the puppy.

Puppies are just like babies and need their own quiet time, too. During short (two to five minutes to start with) sessions, accommodate the puppy with the crate. Clients can stay quietly in the room with the puppy, but they shouldn't energetically interact with it. The puppy is capable of amusing itself. As the puppy becomes more accustomed to the crate, extend the period of time that it's in it and go to other areas of the house.

Before any puppy is released from a crate, the client should ask it to sit and praise it when it does so. Clients can encourage calm behaviors when they release the puppy from the crate, ask it to sit again and calmly reward it. If clients are calm and nonfussy, they can teach these same behaviors to their dogs. If clients desire an enthusiastic interaction, it should occur after the puppy has calmed down from being released from the crate. Entries to and exits from the crate should be neutral in order to not link any unintended behaviors with crate use.

Crates aren't for every dog

If a dog panics, becomes distressed, chews at the bars, destroys the crate, routinely vomits, urinates or defecates or damages its teeth, toes or nails, that dog should not be crated. People often try a bigger or different crate, but these almost never make a difference once the dog is distressed. Repeatedly crating such a dog will worsen any anxiety the dog is experiencing and may play a role in creating a panicky condition in the dog.

Alternatively, shy puppies may hide in a crate. If clients notice that they hardly ever see the dog because it's always in the crate, they should ask why this is the case. If the dog is older and this is a changed behavior, clients need to consider what changed in the household to encourage that dog to hide. Hiding may be a rational or irrational choice, but clients must monitor the dog to understand why it is hiding.

Keeping crates and puppies safe and clean

If the crate is soiled, use hot water and nonirritating soap or baking soda and vinegar and rinse well and dry. Clients should use odor neutralizers, let them sit for a bit, rinse well and dry again. Crates should be placed in well-lit areas, but not those that will get the heat of the afternoon sun—the puppy could easily overheat and die. Clients can put timers on the lights so the puppy isn't left alone in the dark. Radios and TVs can be left on for auditory company and to mask scary street noises.

Clients should never leave anything around the puppy's neck that can tangle and hang on any part of the cage or anything in it, like a loose buckle or choker collar. The puppy could strangle and die.

Young (8-week-old) puppies need to eliminate at least every hour (more if they're eating, playing or just waking up), and they'll need an area they can start to use for this. If the crate is small, an older puppy will be unlikely to soil it. However, no puppy can be expected to last eight to 10 hours without urinating or defecating. Please note: A dog sitter or doggie daycare is better than a crate if puppies must be left for longer than four hours.

Alternatives to crates

If clients aren't going to crate their puppies as part of the housetraining program, they may want to confine them to one area at first, like the kitchen, den or heated or air-conditioned sun porch. This may give the puppies a greater sense of security when the clients are not home and minimize damage. They can leave a radio and a light on for the puppies. Clients can expand areas the puppies have access to gradually—only when the puppies have not eliminated or destroyed anything in the area they are confined in. Urge caution when clients confine puppies to bathrooms, where they have been known to drown in toilets, or in kitchens if they can reach and turn on the stove accidentally.

Baby gates can help with this, and some companies make creative baby gates for homes with open floor plans. If the clients will be gone for more than two to three hours, the puppies will have to urinate or defecate, so the clients will need to provide the puppies with an area to do this, such as a litter box or newspaper. If the puppies do not use that area, they are not ready to be left in the circumstances that the clients chose.

Any puppy that's going to be left alone needs to experience a puppy-proofed environment: no cupboards with chemicals or toxic substances and no strings, ropes, slippers, magazines or mail the dog can shred or ingest, possibly causing an intestinal obstruction. Just as for a crate, the dog should have a blanket, water, toys and a biscuit or two.

Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, has given hundreds of national and international presentations on behavioral medicine. She is diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and is board-certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.

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