I wrote the bulk of this several weeks ago in response to a spate of messages on a message board I frequent about this topic. Because I’m feeling lazy, I decided to re-post it over here so I can just direct people to it again rather than re-writing it every few days.
It’s a pretty common scenario- and one that I’ve responded to several times now, from face-to-face clients and, more commonly, on internet message boards. (Which is why I have decided to type this up!) Someone has gotten a new dog planning to use the crate method to housebreak him or her, and the dog soils in the crate, resulting in an unhappy owner, a stressed out (and dirty) dog, and tears all around. This isn’t uncommon with puppy mill dogs or dogs who came from really filthy conditions, but even more commonly, I see three main reasons why this happens. Firstly, is that the dog is being asked to ‘hold it’ too long. A rule of thumb for puppies is one hour per month of age, but there’s a great deal of individual variation. A stressed out puppy will need to go MUCH sooner than one who is used to being crated and settles down to sleep right away. A 2 month old Great Dane is 20 pounds, but a two month old Toy Fox Terrier is perhaps 2 or 3 pounds! Some puppies are just more mature than others. Secondly, the dog may have a physical problem- immaturity (and some dogs can be REALLY slow to mature!), a UTI, spay incontinance- or some form of separation anxiety (this last is the rarest). So a vet check is in order before trying this. Thirdly, the dog comes from, as mentioned above, an environment where he or she never had the chance to eliminate away from the nesting area as a baby and has never learned to prefer NOT to sleep in her own mess.
Just like with any dog being housebroken, supervision and scheduled feedings are really important. If the dog is not being supervised, they need to be confined. But for dogs who soil in the crate, this can be a nightmare. So what do you do?
Firstly, find an alternate means of confinement. Indoors, set up an exercise pen with the dog’s crate in it (I will be using ‘her’ for the rest of this article) and newspaper/unscented potty pads outside of the crate so that she has access to them at all times. Put a plastic shower curtain or heavy-duty plastic sheet under the pen to protect the floor, too. Babygating the dog into a dog-proofed area is also an option- a laundry room or hallway can work, too, especially with larger breed puppies and adult dogs. Except with quite small dogs, it will be hard to fit a crate into an exercise pen and still have enough room for the dog to get outside of it- this is easy to solve by using a wire mesh crate, and clipping the exercise pen to the sides so that it opens into the fenced-in area. Before the advent of cheaply available plastic crates, paper training was the normal way of housebreaking a puppy.
Paper training isn’t a great first option as a rule, because you’ll have to gradually transition the dog into going on a single targeted sheet of paper or pee pad, and then gradually move that outdoors (while making it clear that eliminating off the pad is not done. ) But one problem at a time- by doing this, the puppy is set up NOT to potty in her crate. This reduces everyone’s stress right away- no more daily scrubdowns for puppy or crate in nearly all cases. Put a bed or something (and use something easy to wash- I use fleece from the fabric store) in the crate and pin (carefully!) or twist it so that puppy can’t pull it out of the crate to lay on it outside- you want the crate to be the most comfy place to nap.
I don’t put toys or chewies in the exercise pen. This isn’t a playpen, and it really should be used just like you’d use a crate. (I would give the dog chewies when they were tethered to me, instead of giving them as rewards for being in the crate, at least for a few days.) The dog shouldn’t be playing in the pen- if they are, they’re spending too much time in there. I give this a week and see if the puppy will choose to potty as far away from her ‘bed’ as possible. (She may decide not to sleep in the crate- at this point, that’s fine, just as long as she’s eliminating far away from that area.) One potential problem with this setup is if you don’t pick where the pen goes carefully, she can end up eliminating and then walking through it to get to the side you typically walk on or pick her up from. So pick a spot carefully, and don’t be afraid to move it.
If, after a week, she’s consistantly NOT eliminating in the crate, I start reducing the paper in the pen- first, leave the area under the crate and a tiny bit in front of it uncovered. Give that a week, 10 days, and reduce the paper again by a tiny amount- maybe 10-20%. If this schedule works? Continue it- and you can speed up to making changes every 3 days, as long as she’s consistantly using the pads and not the floor. It will take between 2-3 weeks to get down to just 1-2 potty pads in the pen with puppy and her crate.
Once you have her down to 1/4 of the pen covered with a potty pad and she is using it consistantly (and NOT soiling in her crate), I start re-introducing the crate- but I’d treat her like a dog who hadn’t been crate trained, because she effectively *hasn’t*.
I then reintroduce the crate very slowly, and in stages. – I’d do this really slowly and in stages. Someone- and I can’t remember who originated this, but it might have been from Pigs Fly- giving your dog something REALLY REALLY TASTY- a Kong, a marrow bone- giving them 2 minutes in the crate (door closed) with it- and then PULLING THEM OUT AND DOING SOMETHING BORING- I like grooming for this :P) Most dogs will be quite eager to go back to their crate after 3-4 minutes of this- so let them! Feed in the crate, crate for very short periods of time- while you take a shower, while you unload the dishwasher- and see how she does.
In the mean time, while you’re reintroducing the crate, get a feeling for how often she’s peeing and pooping (and what times) on the papers. If you’re very confident about the schedule and that she won’t use the floor? Pull out that pee pad and put it in another part of the house and start taking her to it when you know she needs to go. If you can get her to do that? You’re 80% of the way done- she’s learned the self control to wait and now you jsut have to transition from pads to outdoors. More on that in another post.
This isn’t impossible to overcome. The biggest thing is patience. Toy breeds (most of the posters who have this problem have toy or small breeds or, oddly enough, dachshunds) can be REALLY tough to housebreak. This issue- it is, I believe, the #1 reason toys end up in rescue (housebreaking, not crate soiling). Like any dog behavior problem, the key is changing the way you manage the dog in order to make everyone’s life lower stressful while you retrain the dog’s behavior.