Q: Recently, you wrote about the importance of raising a puppy correctly, and using a shipping crate to speed up housebreaking and reduce destructiveness. Our family got a puppy for Christmas and we could use a little more information on these techniques.
A: In recent years the use of a shipping crate to house-train puppies -- and even grown dogs -- has become de rigueur among knowledgeable trainers and breeders. It's easy to figure out why: Confinement is faster, neater and kinder than the old punishment-based regimens.
Crating is effective because it works with a dog's instincts, and because it builds on the excellent foundation training started by any decent dog mom. In addition to teaching a puppy where he can and cannot relieve himself, the use of a crate reduces destructiveness by focusing a puppy's natural inclinations to chew on those items you've chosen -- dog toys. Puppies learn which items are OK to chew on and which are not.
The underlying reason why this works is that a dog is comfortable with the idea of a den and is naturally inclined to keep it clean. A normal dog is taught from birth the importance of cleanliness and will not foul his sleeping area unless he has no other option.
Choose a crate made of molded plastic, the kind airlines use to ship pets. These have grates on the sides and a heavy see-through door on the front. They are easy to clean and don't retain smells. Pick a size that fits your puppy now, not the size he will be.
This is especially important, because if you put a little puppy in a huge crate he can relieve himself in one end of it and still believe he has kept his sleeping area clean.
Depending on the size, a crate can run from $15 to $60. It pays to shop around, or better yet, to ask around. Your breeder may lend you one, or your neighbor may have one collecting dust in the garage.
Crate-training limits a puppy's options. He's either empty and playing in the house, or in the crate, or at the place you've chosen for him to relieve himself.
Puppies need to relieve themselves after they wake up, after they eat or drink, or after a period of play. Set up a schedule to accommodate his needs -- puppies can't go very long without eating, drinking, sleeping or relieving themselves -- as you work to mold behavior.
Let the puppy sleep next to your bed in the crate -- sleeping near you speeds the bonding process -- and lead him to the chosen spot as soon as he's awake in the morning. Let him walk himself out -- don't carry him -- but keep him moving with praise and encouragement until he's outside. When he goes, praise thoroughly with words and pats, then take him inside for breakfast. Feed him and offer him water, then take him out for another chance to go. If he goes, more praise and back inside for play. If you're not sure he's completely empty, put him in the crate.
Ignore the whines and whimpers. A dog has to learn to stay by himself without waking the neighborhood or destroying the furniture, and the time to start learning is now. If left alone, the puppy will soon be fast asleep and will stay that way until it's time for the next round of out, eat/drink, out, play, crate.
How long should a puppy stay in the crate? For the youngest, two to three hours is plenty, with the time increasing as the puppy gets older. Eventually, your puppy will be spending more and more of his time loose in the house under your supervision. He will start asking to visit his outdoor spot, and it will be up to you to keep it so clean that he doesn't choose another -- like the carpet. Don't forget to confirm his early attempts at proper behavior by praising him profusely.
If you spot an in-house accident, don't punish the puppy. Rubbing his nose in it is both useless and cruel. If you catch the puppy in the act, a stern "no" will suffice, followed by an immediate trip to the yard, and praise when he finishes up where he's supposed to. Clean up the inside mess thoroughly, and treat the area with a solution of vinegar and water to neutralize the smell.
With crate-training, the number of such incidents will be few and you'll end up with a dog that is not only reliable in the house, but also confident in his own abilities to stay alone when you are gone. Because you've taught him to deal with time alone, he will be able to survive loose in the house -- and so will your possessions.
Of course, there's more than house-training involved in raising a good family dog. Don't forget to find a puppy class at 12 weeks to help your youngster build confidence and social skills. As for YOUR education, an excellent primer on puppy-raising is Carol Lea Benjamin's "Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog" (Howell Book House; $19.95).
In addition to chapters on destructiveness and noise, Benjamin explains crate-training in more detail and provides detailed schedules to follow.
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 21278.