The idea of keeping a puppy in a wire crate1 may seem cruel, until you give it some thought. The puppy is protected from lots of thing: from other pets you may have; from rough handling of over-excited children; from the dangers of accidentally being trodden; and from chewing electrical cables and many other things besides. As dogs naturally enjoy den-like enclosures, the puppy will also feel secure.
Description of a Puppy Crate
A puppy crate is usually a wire-constructed oblong box with carrying handles on the top. There are some made of different materials, but the most basic crates are wire on all four sides, with a large door at one end, and a plastic tray which fits snugly inside — the larger sizes will also have a door on the front. The crates come flat-packed and are foldable; they are available in various different sizes and wire thicknesses depending on the needs and size of your puppy. Dividers are available for some of the larger crates, ideal for starting with a small area, and then expanding it as the puppy grows. You can even purchase coloured wire crates with matching coloured trays; blue for male puppies and pink for female puppies.
The size of the crate varies from small: length 50cm, width 33cm, height 40cm intended for toy dog breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers and Chihuahuas, to giant: length 118cm, width 76cm, height 88cm intended for giant breeds such as Great Danes and Saint Bernards, with a few different sizes in between. As you will probably be using the crate until your puppy is nearly one year old, maybe longer, you will need to purchase a crate big enough so that when the puppy grows into an adult dog, she2 has enough space to comfortably stretch out on the floor, stand up and turn around without touching the sides, and to sit without hitting her head on the top of the crate. Most crates have an information label listing the size of breeds of dog they are intended for, but remember this is just a guide.
Situating the Puppy Crate
Your crate should ideally be situated in the room you use the most, as you will need to monitor your puppy when she is in the crate. This is usually the front room, living room, lounge, or whatever you call it. The idea is to include your puppy in your home, not exclude her. Position the crate in a quiet corner, and not too near a heater or a cold draught.
Equipment for the Puppy Crate
Your puppy's bed can be as simple as an easily washable blanket; as puppies will chew, it's not worth spending money on an expensive dog bed at this time. The general advice is that as adult dogs don't naturally wet or soil their bed, the blanket should cover the whole surface of the crate's floor. However, as puppies, particularly those under three to four months, don't have much control over their bladders and bowels, some wetting or soiling will be unavoidable, therefore newspaper should be provided for overnight, or if the puppy is left in the crate for an extended time. There should be a clear space between the puppy's bed and the newspaper. The idea is not to encourage your puppy to habitually use the crate as a toilet area, just to make provisions for the unavoidable times. Newspaper should not be provided during the day. You will need to observe and learn your puppy's sleep pattern, so that you can be available to let her out for a toilet break as soon as she awakes. This sets up a good routine for house training.
You will also need a small, heavy water bowl that cannot be easily tipped over by the puppy. Alternatively, you can purchase a clip-on water bowl which attaches to the crate. Fresh water should be given daily, and when needed if the water bowl gets tipped over.
A selection of suitable puppy toys, including puppy-teething toys will be most useful during the puppy's teething stage, usually between four and eight months old. Ensure any toys you put in the crate are safe: no soft toys or toys that could break into pieces; either could be a potential choking hazard for your puppy. Don't over-burden the crate with too many toys. If you find you have too many, swap them over every day or so. All puppy toys come with a recommendation of supervised play, therefore no toys should be left in the crate over-night, or when no one is home.
Important note: for safety any collar should be removed before the puppy or dog is put in the crate.
Getting your Puppy used to the Crate
Remember that if you have just got your puppy, whether she has just come from her mum and siblings or a rescue centre, she has been separated from the life she knew, and will need time and help to settle in to her new life and routine.
First thing, make the crate comfortable and inviting for the puppy. Ideally you should start getting her used to the crate from early in the morning, so she has been in and out of it several times before the long over-night stay. If your puppy is very young, seven to ten weeks old, it should just be a matter of placing her in the bed and shutting the door when she has a nap. Make sure you are nearby when the puppy wakes up, as she may panic if she wakes up in a strange place, locked in a cage with no human comforts. However, do not let her out of the crate while she is making a fuss - barking, whining, or scratching at the crate - as this would teach her that this is the way to gain your attention and get what she wants; look on this as your puppy's first training exercise. Calmly wait until she is quiet for a short time, about 20 seconds for a very young puppy; when she has achieved that, let her out with lots of praise.
More time, patience, praise and some trickery will be needed for an older puppy; expect it to take a few days. One option is to put some treats just inside the crate's door, with the door open, then gradually move the treats further into the crate, and hide some under her bed so she has to find them, still leaving the door open. Using one of dogs' natural behaviours of hunting, killing, eating and sleeping will also help with the process. This roughly translates as, 'play and exercise with your puppy, feed her, and then she should be ready for a nap'. Either put or encourage the puppy into the crate and shut the door. She may be a little restless at first, a bit like a tired baby that won't go to sleep. Ignore any minor whining; she'll soon settle down and go to sleep. As with a very young puppy, use the letting out of the crate as part of her training, though the time of quiet before letting her out needs to be a little longer for an older puppy. Don't forget the important praise when she achieves her quiet time.
No matter what age, don't let the puppy get too distressed waiting to be let out of the crate. If she is frantic, and in danger of hurting herself, let her out; you've only lost a battle, not the war. Use this experience to determine how to avoid this situation in the future; for instance, be available to let your puppy out of the crate as soon as she wakes up, before she has a chance to make a fuss.
With perseverance, practice, patience and consistency, your puppy will soon consider going into her crate as part of her normal routine.
When to Stop Using the Crate
Unless you plan to have the crate as a permanent fixture, the time will come when you will need to fold it up and put it away. Aim to stop using the crate when your puppy is between 10 and 12 months old, as most puppies stop teething, and therefore the need to chew everything they can get hold of, at around eight months. This is also the approximate time when puppies gain full control of their bladder, though some may take a little longer. However, every puppy is different; observe your puppy's behaviour when she is outside the crate, and make a judgement on when she can be trusted to ask when she wants to 'go out', doesn’t chew your slippers, or run off with your socks and is generally sociable to all members of your household, including other pets.
If you made a good job of getting your puppy used to the crate, and have continued to use it regularly, you may find that you need to wean her out of using it. Start by keeping the crate's door closed and only allow her go in the crate when nobody is at home and over night. At times when you are home, when she would normally have gone into her crate, use treats and praise to encourage her to lie in the convenient place you have chosen for her new bed, lined with a soft blanket or similar. Alternatively, splash out on a new dog bed and encourage her to use this. Gradually decrease the amount of times she spends in the crate until you feel the time is right to fold it up and put it away.