ABCs of Confinement

Want the age-old dog training secret to raising a puppy? Okay, here it is: Supervise, supervise, supervise, and when you cannot supervise, confine.

Many new dog owners cringe at the idea of confinement. They envision their dog running free through the apartment, playing with toys, waiting patiently for their beloved and understanding owner to return home for a happy, tail-wagging reunion.

What most new dog owners cannot imagine is the couch pillows (or the couch itself) in various stages of disassembly, a chunk of linoleum ripped up, wallpaper ripped off, a hole in the Sheetrock, the TV remote gnawed (last used by a human snacking on chips and salsa), and a suspicious wet spot on the nicest (lightest, most cherished) rug. Worse yet, the rushed trips to the veterinarian followed by frantic surgery after the pup has swallowed something he shouldn’t have swallowed.

None of this happens with a well-trained dog. But those well-trained dogs don’t grow on trees; they are carefully created through the sensible use of confinement, supervision, and teaching.

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“What! Put my puppy in a cage?” is what we hear often. Our response is: Would you put your child in a car seat? Your toddler in a playpen? Of course you would, because it is your job to keep the innocent safe.

A crate, properly used, is a wonderful tool for just that purpose. And, like a car seat or a playpen, it can be misused by the adult in charge. Leave a pup in the crate for too long and you invite housebreaking problems, hyperactivity, and stress behaviors. Used sensibly, crates make the world safer for a pup who does not know any better.

A crate can be used when your pup is:

  • Old enough to control his bladder and bowels. This varies pup to pup, but don’t expect too much too soon. A seven-week-old pup has little or no control over his bladder and bowels. Crating a pup too early can force him to dirty his crate, which can lead to long-term housebreaking problems. Pups can be crated a few hours at a time before four months of age, but not more. If you have to leave your pup all day, either 1) hire a walker to come in once or twice a day, or 2) set your pup up in an area with papers, water, and a crate with the door tied open or removed. The most important part of housebreaking a young pup is preventing accidents in his crate. It is the desire to stay clean upon which all housebreaking is built. Lose that, and what should have been an easy process will be prolonged (and possibly corrupted).
  • Clean in his crate. Only crate a pup who is clean in the crate. A pup who dirties his crate is either being left in there too long, has worms or a poor, varied diet, has too much absorbent bedding (we recommend none at first), is stressed/upset, or has lost his desire to be clean. Pet store pups can suffer from this last problem. It can usually be resolved with some careful work.
  • Adequately exercised, socialized, and trained. Sometimes folks can go overboard with the crating. Your pup should not spend the majority of his time in a crate.

Hint: Never put newspapers in a crate. They encourage a pup to use the crate as a bathroom—not what you want. In fact, for all but the boniest pups, do not put any bedding in the crate, as keeping things sparse tends to encourage keeping the crate dry.

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There are numerous types of crates. Our favorite are the plastic crates, as they are, in our experience, safest and most reliable. They last a long time, are hard for the dog to get out of, and clean up well. Their drawback is that they do not fold up, making large ones awkward to move around and hard to store in the city.

Metal crates come in many makes and models. Our primary complaint about many of them is the gap under the door. This is just the right size for your dog to catch her foot in when going in or out. When this happens, the dog’s natural reaction is to try to pull herself free, which is frequently impossible (she needs to back up, something she will never think of on her own). This is frightening and painful and can cause real injury.

It is beyond us why the crate manufacturers do not design some solution to this problem. Until they do, blocking that opening with duct tape, cardboard, or a blanket will prevent harm to your pup.

Hint: For your pup’s safety, any and all collars should be removed before crating your pup.

Introducing a Crate

A crate is a wonderful training tool for a dog of any age. When possible, introduce the crate over the weekend so there is time for your dog to adapt a bit before you need to put him in for hours on end.

If you have a young pup (under ten weeks old), he can be crated only a couple of hours at a time, so this introduction can be done even more slowly during the time he is confined with a gate.

If the dog is old enough for some crate time, set up the crate in a busy area. If it is a metal crate on a hard floor, put a blanket/bathmat under it to keep the crate from shifting or rattling. Prop open the door or, as with plastic crates, remove it. Then ignore it. Allow the dog to explore it at will. After an hour or so, put in a comfy blanket (which will be removed once the real confinement starts) and toss his toys into it and a few treats as well. Leave a treat or two in front of the crate in plain sight, then ignore it again. Allow the pup to explore at will. Do not attempt to cajole him over and point it out. Both those things tend to make a pup more hesitant.

Once he has checked out the crate for a day or so, start feeding him next to it. If he is relaxed with that, put the food bowl just inside the door. When he eats from that without a problem, move the bowl farther back into the crate. Soon he will be eating inside the crate without problems. Now it is time to put the door back on or unprop it. During meals, close the crate door. Stay right there and open it again before he has a chance to fuss. Be calm and matter-of-fact. After a day or so of this, put him in the crate for naps. Now the barking/fussing may begin.

Game: Love My Crate!

Show your pup a treat, then toss it into the crate. When she is inside eating, step away from the crate. When she comes out of the crate, repeat. Once she gets used to this, show her the treat and walk toward the crate, but don’t toss one inside. Wait and see if she’ll go in on her own. If she does, toss her a treat. If, at any time, she seems reluctant to come out of her crate, toss her another treat. No command is involved, she’s just learning that the crate is a pleasant spot.

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Start closing the crate door during the day when your pup’s normal barking will not unduly disturb neighbors or your own family. Pups bark and fuss until they adjust and realize that quiet behavior is the quickest route to freedom. Following are a few ways you can help your pup to understand this more quickly.

Plan for Success

Start when you have several hours to spend on this. You might want to warn your neighbors that this is going to happen and to thank them, in advance, for their patience. More than one city owner has found that a bottle of wine helps to smooth things over. Choose a time when your pup’s bladder is empty and he is tired. Adding a stuffed toy (made for dogs) for companionship can comfort him as well.

Develop Self-Control

A little self-control can help your pup stay calmer in the crate. Some pups are born with it, some need help developing it. Working on self-control exercises such as “leave it” will have gotten your pup well started on the “if I stay calm and control myself, good things will happen” mind-set. (To learn how to start teaching the “leave it” command, see page 80.)

Teach Your Pup to Lie Down

Most pups are calmer when they are lying down. If you’ve been teaching your puppy to “down” (as described at the end of this chapter), you can use that for crating. Once your pup does a nice down for a food lure outside of the crate, you can start showing her a treat through the gate and lowering it straight down toward the bottom of the gate. Hold it there. In a moment or two she should lie down, at which point reward her with the treat and praise.

If she stays lying down, give her another treat. If she gets up, repeat the lure. Any time you catch her lying down in her crate for the next month or so, give her a treat through the bars (low so she stays down).

Reward Quiet

One of the most effective ways to build calm crate behavior is to reward a calm pup. A small treat through the bars, a couple of warm, calm words, and walk away. Sure, this may start the barking again, but that’s okay, as it will give you another chance to reward him when he quiets.

Discourage Noise

Some pups just don’t have calm moments. They start crying and forget they can stop. These guys may need some help in creating an opportunity to reward and praise. If your pup’s been crying for half an hour without a break, go to a door nearby and give it a flat-handed whomp. Many pups will startle into silence for a few seconds. When they do, walk in calmly, give a reward through the bars, praise calmly, and either give your pup another chance to settle or let her out of the crate.

Try never to open the door to a crying puppy because that rewards crying and barking with freedom, instilling in her a strong belief that noise will open the crate door. Just the lesson we do not want her to learn! Also, if you attempt to placate your pup by talking and empathizing with her, she will think your attention is a reward. The exception to this is a pup who really needs to relieve herself. It won’t take you long to learn the difference between complaint and need.

Sit, then Open the Door

If you’ve been practicing your pup’s sit with a food lure (refer to page 75 for instructions), you can use one to lure him into a sit by placing a treat above his head in a wire crate or at the top of the gate in a plastic crate. Wait. When he sits, drop in the treat and open the door immediately. It may take some time at first, but then he’ll catch on and sit like a gentleman whenever you come to let him out.

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Rushing out of the crate can be prevented by opening the door a small amount but refusing to open it all the way if your pup tries to rush out. Hold it closed, wait for him to stop being pushy, then praise calmly. Now, move to open it slowly again. If he rushes, repeat the procedure. Soon he’ll learn that the door opens only when he is calm. (Please, don’t try it when he is desperate to go to the bathroom; that isn’t fair.)

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Gates can be wonderful. We use them a great deal around our home to limit access and to keep puppies in sight at all times. As a tool for confinement, they can present challenges.

The best kind of gate is metal or metal covered with plastic. The plastic mesh/wood baby gates are practically useless, as many pups (even toy breeds) will gnaw their way free in short order.

If your pup is large enough, use the vertical bar-type gates sold in many pet supply catalogs, as these are the hardest to climb. If your pup can get his head through these, use a mesh-type gate, but keep in mind that these are quite climbable.

If you have a climber, one trick you can try is resting a shake can (empty, rinsed soda can with twelve pennies inside) on the top of the gate. If the pup starts to wrestle with the gate, the can will tip off and make a noise that should startle the pup. Over time, the pup will associate the sound of the can with his messing with the gate and stop (at least that’s the plan; some sound-stable, low-surprise dogs will simply play with the can and then climb the gate). This should be done only when you are home, as you need to be able to reset the can immediately.

Hint: this is not a good idea for toy pups, who might be hurt by such an object. However, some sporting breeds, being good sound-tolerant gun dogs, will simply fearlessly pick up the can.

Another trick is to install the gate at a slight angle so the top is leaning inward. This makes it nearly impossible for the pup to climb it.

Last, don’t reward jumping and climbing. If, when you go to pick up your pup, he is leaping against the gate (and what pup isn’t?) stop. Pick him up only when he’s not touching the gate. You can use a treat to lure him off, then pick him up, or you can slap the front of the gate with an open hand to startle him back (and then pick him up). The idea is that he learns that being away from the gate earns freedom. As always, match the method to your pup’s temperament (and your own).

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Tethering your puppy, which means tying her to something, is the most dangerous option and has only a few safe uses, all of which involve careful supervision.

Tethering should always be done on a flat, nontightening collar and in full view! Never leave any dog tethered while you are gone. A German Shepherd Dog we knew almost lost her leg when she got tangled in the tether and panicked, thereby tightening it steadily. Another dog lost his life tethered to balcony fencing when he leapt over the railing after who knows what and hanged himself.

Tethering is a good way to keep a dog near you and out of trouble, but only under supervision.

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This phrase, coined by a client years ago, stands for “frenetic random activity period,” which is the wild racing around barking crazy session many pups have once or twice a day. FRAPs are normal and generally outgrown if you don’t reinforce them. Reinforcement can happen if you attempt to distract the pup with a biscuit or hold her, stroking, to calm her down. (You can use a treat, just get your pup’s attention and then have her do a few sits or downs before giving it to her so she learns that listening equals rewards).

How you choose to handle it will depend on your tolerance that day and your dog’s personal FRAP style. If your dog is small and races around quietly, you may just want to sit back and enjoy the show. Such displays of pure joy are rarely seen. But if your Labrador pup takes it as a time to grab your shoe and then leap back, barking, you may want to redirect her efforts.

You have several options, including the following:

Crate your puppy calmly, not as a harsh punishment, but as a way of controlling that energy flow. If she tends to FRAP between 6:20 and 6:30 P.M. (yes, they can be that routine), then why not crate her with a stuffed bone at 6:10?

Exhaust her mind. Self-control and problem solving will tire most pups, so, work on positive tricks or games. Building her response to “Leave it,” “Wait,” or “Down” can all help. Playing clicker games with her can defuse the behavioral bomb before it detonates in your living room.

Generally, these sessions lessen as your dog matures. And one day you’ll notice that some time ago they stopped altogether and you didn’t even notice.

Hint: What doesn’t work? Getting mad at the pup. She’s just doing what comes naturally, she’s not being “bad.” This is where patience is critical—emotional or angry reactions will only confuse your pup and result in more activity.

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A clicker is a small box that makes a clicking sound when you press it. Combined with food reward, it is used to tell the animal that he’s done something you like. Why use a click when praise tells them the same thing? you ask. It is a little bit different. Praise tells your dog you are pleased with him, while the clicker clearly marks the exact behavior you are pleased with. All we can say is, try it. (Hint: Start with it in your pocket or wrap your hand in a towel to muffle the sound to avoid stressing sound-sensitive dogs. Once your dog knows that clicks equal food, you can relax).

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In a nutshell, keep your puppy with you if you want to sleep (and if you want your neighbors to sleep). Work on confinement manners during the day, sleep at night. There are three ways to accomplish this.

Crate Your Pup Next To The Bed

Here’s the best choice. Crate him right next to you so he can hear and smell you close at hand. If you use a wire crate, put newspaper between the metal tray and the bottom of the crate. The pup can’t get to it, but it will help muffle any rattling as he moves around at night.

If the crate itself is on a hardwood floor, putting a folded towel or blanket underneath can keep it from slipping, rattling, and scratching the floor.

There are many “old wives’ tales” around for helping pups sleep, and as it so often turns out, those “old wives” were no fools. Worth trying is a tickling clock wrapped in a towel (be sure the alarm is off), a hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel, a stuffed, soft, safe dog toy about the size of the pup or a little larger (simulates siblings), a freshly worn sweatshirt, or, for the cold-loving pups, a frozen plastic liter bottle of water. As always, collars come off before crating your pup.

Keep Your Pup On The Bed With You

Who gets the wet spot? Actually, many pups will stay clean on a bed; the problem is that they will get off the bed. Some toy breed pups (and others) can get hurt jumping off a bed. If they manage to land safely, they will then relieve themselves in your bedroom. In addition, they can’t hop back on, so they’ re left roaming free to get into trouble of all kinds.

Tether Your Pup Next To The Bed

If you choose this, the tether needs to be short so the pup can’t move away from the area, pee, and return to sleep, nor can she hop onto the bed or get tangled in anything. When we use this method, we tether the pup to the leg of the bed up near my head, where I can hang an arm over and check the pup in the middle of the night.

The downsides to this are that the pup can still get tangled and possibly hurt herself without your ever hearing a sound. And it does not prevent chewing—the undersides of your mattress, the corner of your blanket, the leg of your bed (anything within reach is fair game to the average pup). We use this method cautiously, never sleep well when we do it, and much prefer a crate.

Hint: Do not leave your pup loose in your bedroom. This may seem like the easiest answer, but she could hurt herself while you sleep. Things you do not think twice about—the cord to your clock, a pair of panty hose in an open drawer, a stray pin from a shirt—all these things can kill your puppy.

Melodramatic? Not if it’s your puppy. A great deal of a young thing’s charm is its innocence, and that innocence makes it vulnerable. When you consider if a room is safe, ask yourself, What could she possibly get into? And not, What do I think she’ll get into? We promise you, your pup will find things to do that never occurred to you.

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