Few things a dog trainer will ever suggest cause more confusion, worry and even anger than a shipping crate.
Or, as new dog owners inevitably call it, a "cage," as in "I'm not going to put my puppy in a cage. It's cruel!"
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the fastest, easiest and most humane tool to house-train a puppy could be more accurately described as a "den." That's how your dog sees it, and seeing things the way a dog does is crucial to developing a strategy for getting your point across.
Have you ever noticed how a dog's favorite spot is never in a well-traveled area, but in some comfortable corner of the room? Many dogs take it a step further and seek dark hiding places to curl up in -- behind the couch, under a table or down the side of the bed.
A dog feels secure in such a spot: No one can approach unseen and no one can pry him out without getting past a set of rather formidable teeth. It doesn't matter that your dog would never use those teeth in a million years. Settling into a dark, safe place is just the kind of thing a wolf would do, and every dog, from the tiniest toy poodle to the biggest mastiff, is still a little bit wolf, down deep inside.
The rules of crate-training are simple: If the puppy's not "empty" he's either outside taking care of business or he's inside, in the crate. Remember that puppies need to relieve themselves after they wake up, after they eat or after a session of vigorous play. Bear in mind that a young puppy can't "hold it" very long, and set up a schedule that goes something like this:
Morning: Puppy wakes up in the crate, wakes you up and both of you go outside. Puppy goes, you praise. Puppy eats, and it's back outside. Puppy goes, you praise. The puppy can play freely for a while, then outside again (praise!) and back in the crate for a nap.
Afternoon: Puppy wakes up, goes out. Puppy goes, you praise. Puppy eats, and it's back outside. Puppy goes, you praise. Half an hour of vigorous rough-housing, followed by another trip outside and more praise. Time to hit the crate for the afternoon nap.
Evening: Puppy wakes up, goes out. . . . You get the idea: Everything's the same except for the final step, putting puppy to bed for the night. With very young puppies, of course, there's at least one nighttime outing, and maybe two, but puppies are fun, so nobody really minds, right?
If you work, you'll either have to drop home at lunch or make arrangements for a friend or neighbor to handle the midday outing. The rest of the time, the puppy will be quite content to nap in the crate (tuck in a few toys).
Does the dog spend its whole life in the crate? Of course not. Gradually, as the puppy learns that outside is the only appropriate place to relieve himself, he's allowed more and more freedom, until finally he doesn't need the crate at all.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278