Most dog trainers, veterinarians and other pet professionals agree that crate training is, hands-down, the most effective way to housebreak Fido if you're teaching him to relieve himself outside. It is can also be a helpful part of an indoor potty training program for dogs who will be papertrained or litter box trained.
Crate training is a method of teaching Fido hold his bladder and bowels by confining him in a cage or airline kennel, also known as a crate, when he is unsupervised. This allows you to prevent him from having accidents by taking advantage of his natural instinct to avoid soiling where he sleeps.
Crate training is a good choice for just about any dog owner. The only people who shouldn't choose this method are those that have very young puppies and are away from home all day or those that have unusually long work hours and can't come home during the day to let the dog potty on a reasonable schedule. Occasionally, certain dogs will panic in the crate, even after the proper steps are taken to acclimate the dog to the crate (this is very rare). These dogs, obviously, are also not good candidates for crate training and should be trained using another method like umbilical cord training or dog door training, if possible.
Many dog owners are resistant to crate training because they think it seems mean or because they haven't been exposed to the method before. They also worry that Fido might think he's being punished or "put in jail" when he's in his crate. However, most dogs respond very well to this type of training, since they have a "denning instinct" that causes them to feel secure in small spaces and makes them want to keep their sleeping area or "den" clean. Most of us have witnessed this instinct in our own dogs. Have you seen Fido curl up under a table or desk when he wants to take a nap or when he thinks he's in trouble? He'll naturally be drawn to a cozy, sheltered place when he wants to feel secure, so crate training is a great option for most dogs.
Dogs typically acclimate well to spending time in the crate if they're introduced to it properly and they're kept on a reasonable schedule. Fido should be in his crate overnight, when you're away from the house and when you're at home but unable to supervise him. If you work full time, this can translate into a lot of time in a crate. If you have to be away from the house for a full work day, you'll need to make an extra effort to be sure that Fido is on a reasonable potty schedule and has sufficient activity and attention. You'll need to be sure to spend plenty of time with Fido when you're at home with him in the mornings and evenings, and we strongly recommend that you recruit a neighbor or hire a dog walker or pet sitter to get Fido out for his potty trips during the day. Of course, the person helping you out should know where Fido's potty area is, how to get him in and out of the crate, when he needs food or water and that he needs to be supervised when out of his crate. Be sure your helper knows how to contact you if there are any problems.
If a housebreaking helper isn't an option, you may also choose to have a safe outdoor area where Fido can spend the day, weather permitting. A safely fenced yard or outdoor dog run will do the trick, as long as you've confirmed that Fido is unable to escape and there are no safety hazards. If you choose this option, Fido can go potty as often as he needs to during the day, but, remember, he's had a long, boring day outside. If Fido is going to spend his days alone, you need to increase the exercise, playtime and attention he gets in the morning and evening and on weekends when you're at home. Neglecting to do this will lead to a bored dog with an energy overload, which usually translates to behavior problems.
First, you'll need to get a crate (and a dog!). Your crate should be be just large enough for Fido to stand up, turn around and lie down. This will be quite a small space, but if you give Fido more, he'll use one half of his crate as a bathroom and the other half as a bedroom, which will make crate training him impossible. His crate should be a tiny studio apartment for him to snooze in, not a multi-room house for him to throw parties in!
The first step of crate training Fido is acclimating him to the crate. Some dogs end up loving the crate, others end up just tolerating it. Although you should try your best to get him to love it, tolerating it is okay, too, so don't worry if he doesn't seem thrilled when it's time to go in.
Sometimes you'll get lucky and adopt a dog who's already used to spending time in the crate or you'll get your puppy from a breeder who's already gotten him used to the crate. If so, congratulations... you can skip the first step of crate training. Sometimes, if you're not so lucky and you got a dog from a pet store or a dirty kennel, you'll find that he thinks the crate is his sleeping area AND his potty area, since he's been forced to to potty in his "den" and now ignores his instinct to be clean.
Crate Training Basics
Crate training is a process that involves confinement, supervision and proper scheduling. Some people mistakenly think that they can train Fido by just shoving him in the crate and leaving him in there most of the time. That's not crate training, it's cruelty. Dogs that are crate trained must be properly introduced to the crate, must have sufficient opportunities to get out to go potty, must be given food and water on a regular schedule, must get a reasonable amount of exercise and must spend plenty of time each day with their owners playing, getting affection and just hangin' out.
When you are crate training Fido, he can be in only 3 places. 1. He can be in his crate. 2. He can be in a safe area where he's allowed to go potty (fenced yard, dog run, indoor potty area). 3. He can be in the house under your direct supervision.
That's it. To avoid accidents during the early phases of crate training, Fido should have absolutely no unsupervised free time in the house. Not a moment. None. Zero. Nada. Remember, if he has an accident and you're not there to catch and correct him, he learns that he gets relief from pottying on the floor in the house, so he's likely to do it again. After all, it feels just as good to go in the wrong place as it does in the right place if nobody's there to teach him the difference.
You must remember to supervise Fido at all times when he's out of the crate, as outlined in THOU SHALT SUPERVISE FIDO'S FREE TIME IN THE HOUSE. Just being in the room with him is NOT sufficient supervision. You may want to use "umbilical cord training" and/or the "puppy airlift" in conjunction with your crate training program, since it allows you to easily keep track of what Fido's up to.
Scheduling Potty Trips
When Fido is being crate trained, keeping him on a good schedule is critical. He should be taken our regularly and given the chance to eliminate in his potty area. To get an idea of how frequently he'll need a potty trip, refer to the chart below. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines, and you may find that Fido needs to be taken out more or less frequently.
|6-12 weeks||12-16 weeks||4-5 months||6-7 months||8-11 months||12 months and older|
|daytime||1 hour||2 hours||3 hours||4 hours||5-6 hours||8 hours|
|nighttime*||3-4 hours||4-8 hours||8 hours||8 hours||8 hours||8-10 hours|
*nighttime hours assume that the puppy or dog was not fed or watered 3 hours before bed
You should be sure to take Fido directly to his potty area each time you take him out of his crate, even if he's been in only for a short period. You should also take him out immediately after he eats, drinks, naps or plays. And remember to play it safe... even if Fido hasn't engaged in any of these activities and it's not time for him to go out at his regular interval, if you notice any signs that he may need to do his thing, get him to his designated potty area as soon as possible.
When you take Fido to his potty area, remember not to stay there endlessly, waiting for something to happen. You'll be more successful in your housebreaking if you get Fido into the habit of going potty promptly when he gets to the right spot. The way to do this is to stay in his potty area briefly to see if he has to go. Wait for about 2 minutes, either standing still or walking back and forth in a small area if your dog seems to need to move around a bit to "get things moving". If he empties out within that period of time, praise him and play with him or take him for a walk as a reward for doing the right thing. If he doesn't go within that period, take him back inside or away from his indoor potty area (supervise him carefully to prevent accidents) or put him back in his crate, then wait for a bit and give it another try.
The length of time to wait before trying again depends on Fido's age and how long it's been since he last emptied out. For young puppies or dogs who haven't emptied out for a suspiciously long time, you might wait only 5-10 minutes before trying again, for older dogs or dogs who have had a recent successful potty trip, you might wait an hour or more.
Yes, there's a payoff for all this hard work. If Fido's had no accidents in the house or the crate for at least two months and he's at least a year old (or if he's younger and you're really brave!), you're ready to move on. Read "Teaching Fido to Spend the Night out of his Crate" and "Fido's Crate Trained... Now What?" to learn how to allow your good dog more freedom in the house.