Fear Free Crate & House Training

Teaching your dog or puppy to relax in a crate is an effective way of ensuring its safety while protecting your home and possessions from damage caused by chewing or other destructive behaviors.  Crate training can also be an important tool in teaching your new pet the appropriate time and place to eliminate.

Many dogs that end up in shelters are there because of repeated housetraining accidents inside and destructive behavior. By learning the basics of housetraining and crate training, and what you can reasonably expect from your dog, these types of problematic habits can be avoided.

Talk to your Veterinarian:

Before starting any kind of training, have your new dog or puppy checked out by a veterinarian. Housetraining, or teaching your dog where and when to go, can be difficult if the dog is experiencing any kind of medical issue. Urinating or peeing more than usual or in numerous areas both outside and inside the house, especially if your dog has just gone, could be a sign of a urinary tract infection (UTI). Drinking more water than usual could also be a sign of a UTI or possibly a more serious medical problem. Runny stool or loose poop is not normal, even in puppies, and may be caused by some kind of infection.  Even dogs with separation anxiety, or an extreme fear of being left alone, may have medical issues contributing to the anxiety. Discuss any unusual symptoms with your veterinarian during your dog’s exam. The veterinarian will be able to determine if any medical issues need to be addressed and what to do about them.

Crate Training

What are the benefits of crate training?

Crate training will help teach your dog to be comfortable spending time in a kennel or crate during times when you cannot be there to supervise them or for car travel.  There will be times in your dog’s life where he may need to be kenneled or spend time at the groomers or veterinarian.  These are already stressful events for your dog and can be made worse for a dog who is not comfortable being in a crate or kennel. It can also help decrease the risk of over-attachment and separation anxiety by helping your puppy learn to spend time away from you napping and entertaining themselves.

Dogs are naturally den animals, meaning that their natural instinct is to find a quiet area. By providing a crate to sleep and eat in, you are giving your dog a private place (den) they can go to if scared or in need of escape from other pets or kids. Staying in a crate can prevent your dog from finding his way into your closet and eating your favorite shoes, having a feast in your garbage can, or urinating in a less than ideal place in the house.  Most dogs won’t eliminate where they sleep and eat, so crate training can be a big help with housetraining.

Crate training tips

Large Toppls filled with canned dog food then frozen

Crates, especially when you are beginning training, should be just large enough for dogs to sit, stand, lay on their side, and turn around comfortably. For large breed puppies, select a crate that can be sectioned off so that as they get bigger you can increase the size of the crate area. If a crate is too large, your dog may try to potty in one area and sleep at the other end.

Aim to make the crate one of your dog’s favorite areas of the house. You can feed meals in the crate as well as use the crate for bedtime and naptime. You may also want to give your dog a special toy that can be safely played with while unsupervised or a *”Kong” or “Topp” stuffed with their food, squeeze cheese or a dog safe peanut butter that are reserved to be  enjoyed only while in their crate. Avoid using the crate as a place of punishment, such as time-outs for bad behavior. You don’t want your dog to associate their special den with times of stress or fear.

To get your dog comfortable with spending time in the crate, start by tossing a tasty treat into the crate and as they are going in  say a command or cue word, such as “crate” or “kennel”. The cue word will help your dog to eventually associate the word with going into the crate alone, so that over time he will go into the crate willingly on command or on his own in anticipation of a treat.

An Adult dog who, as a puppy, learned to be relaxed and happy in her crate

Once you dog is in the crate give him/her another treat and lots of praise. You can also start using a “release” word such as “done” or “break” as they exit the crate. Once your dog understands that his cue word means to get into the crate (he should start offering the behavior) then you can wait until he has gone into the crate on his own with no cue word before giving the treat and praise. Once your dog has started offering to get into his crate and is comfortable being in it you can start closing the door and opening it right away.  Praise and reward your dog every time the door closes, not when it is opening. If for some reason your dog does not want to leave his crate, you can toss a treat out into the room and as soon as he moves out of the crate towards it use your release word. Praise your dog again once you let him back out. Slowly increase the amount of time the door is closed working slowly  up to you being able to walk away and out of sight over several days to weeks.  Go at your dogs pace and if you find he is getting anxious at a given stage go back to where you were successful and stay there for a few more days.  With lots of treats and praise and some patience your dog will quickly catch on to this “fun game”.

Don’t forget to reward your puppy or dog for being quiet and restful in their crate!!

Words of caution

Crates can be a wonderful way to keep your dog safe and comfortable, but it is important to know your dog or puppy’s limits. No dog should spend the majority of the day in a crate. Puppies especially should be limited to the amount of time they spend in a crate to avoid elimination accidents and future behavior issues. A good rule of thumb for the maximum amount of daylight hours a puppy should spend in the crate at a time is to add one to the puppy’s age in months. For example, a two-month old puppy should spend no more than three hours straight in a crate during the day. After three hours, give the puppy a break from the crate, go outside to eliminate, and provide some time to play before putting her back in the crate. Always make sure that your puppy or adult dog has had sufficient play, exercise, attention and an opportunity to eliminate before confinement and that you return before their next need to eliminate occurs.  Confinement should be used when you cannot supervise your dog, but when you are at home you should try to keep your pet with you as much as possible to train and reinforce desirable behaviors and direct them away from  undesirable ones.  Some whining is normal, but if you are unsure whether the amount is normal or not please consult with your veterinarian before it develops into a problem.


Is Crate Training practical for all dogs?

An occasional dog may not tolerate crate training, and may continue to show anxiety or even eliminate when confined.  These dogs may adapt better to other types of confinement such as a pen, dog run, small room or barricaded area.

Dogs with separation anxiety can be difficult to crate train, and their anxiety behaviors may actually worsen if you attempt to keep them in a crate. Discuss your dog’s behaviors with a veterinarian. Your dog may need a combination of anxiety medication and behavior modification therapy, which is a different form of training to help dogs overcome some of their anxieties, before crate training can be successful.


Dog and puppy development

Puppies start learning to leave their family and den area to use the bathroom between three and 12 weeks of age. This means that some puppies may not be fully capable of learning where and when to use the bathroom before the age of three months. For those puppies that are ready to learn, they may not be able to hold their bladder for more than a few hours (typical of puppies less than 4 months of age). Why is that important to know? Owner expectations and the puppy’s ability to learn are not always in sync. Housetraining can be a lengthy and sometimes frustrating process. Housetraining an adult dog can also be difficult because they may have been going wherever and whenever was desired up until now. You will have the troublesome task of teaching your dog that previous bathroom methods are no longer appropriate, and on top of that, teaching brand new methods for elimination. Don’t become discouraged, remember just like people, dogs or puppies all learn at different rates.

Housetraining tips

Puppies and dogs will provide you with many opportunities for successful trips to go potty. Remember that what goes in will eventually need to come back out again. To help make timing bathroom trips easier, feed your dog on a consistent schedule, ideally two to three times a day. This way, 15 to 30 minutes after eating or drinking, you know it is time for a trip to the elimination area. Dogs, especially puppies, also tend to go right after playing or sleeping. A good rule of thumb during the beginning of housetraining is to take your dog out every two hours for the first couple weeks, plus after sleeping, eating, drinking, or playing. Be sure to take your dog out right before bed time too.

Use a cue word such as “bathroom” or “potty” every time you take your dog to the bathroom area, so the dog will learn to associate the word with what you want achieved. Try to take your dog to the same area each time. In the beginning, it is essential that you go with your dog or puppy and make sure she actually poops or pees. If successful, immediately reward them with treats and praise. It may be helpful to lead your dog with a leash instead of carrying her to the elimination area so that going straight to the appropriate spot becomes a habit.  The leash can also help keep their mind on their business and not wonder off to investigate.  Puppies are especially prone to “forgetting” what they are suppose to be doing.

Constant supervision is important when you begin housetraining your dog. You need to catch your dog in the act of going in the wrong place in order to correctly redirect them to the appointed place to relieve themselves. If you find pee or poop on the floor, the dog will not understand and make the connection with why you are actually upset. Catching your pet in the act of a mistake will help them correct it in the future. If this happens simply tell them “oh, oh” and rush them out to the appropriate place, using their cue word, for them to go. Remember to give them lots of praise and treats if they finish going there.   Rubbing your dog’s nose in pee after the fact will only make them anxious and more likely to “hide” away from you in the future.

Keep an eye out for clues or signals that your dog needs to eliminate. Circling, wandering off alone, whining, or going to the door you typically use to go to the elimination area are common signals. If your dog is demonstrating any of these signals, stop what you are doing immediately and take him to the bathroom. If he uses the bathroom when you take him to the designated area, be sure to reward your dog with praise and/or treats so he will continue to provide these signals.

Housetraining and crate training can be tough but rewarding. If you are ever in doubt as to whether you or your pet are on the right tract, call your veterinarian for advice. Otherwise, be consistent and persistent, and your pet will love you for it!


Information for this article was obtained from the following sources.

VIN veterinary Partners

“Perfect Puppy in 7 days” by Sophia Yin DVM,MS

“Decoding Your Dog”  from the American College of veterinary behaviorists

“Crate Games for Self-Control and Motivation” DVD by Susan Garrett


*”Kongs” and “Toppls” are available on line from many different retailers