Once upon a time, dogs spent their days outside as their people went to work (many times they were actually working side-by-side with their people on farms, ranches, etc.). These days, most of our dogs spend their days in the house, alone and waiting for you to come back. Often they’re bored and lonely. Sometimes you come home to find their boredom and loneliness has translated to inappropriate behavior, such as chewing on furniture or barking excessively. Fortunately, you can teach your dog to make the time pass more quickly and be more comfortable when left home alone.
The Puppy Stage
Being alone does not come naturally to young puppies. When they first leave their litters most pups object to being alone very loudly and very persistently. This a deeply ingrained survival strategy, as young pups left alone in the wild would not survive very long. But unless you plan to have your puppy curled up beside you 24/7 you must begin teaching your puppy to be alone from day (or night) one.
The first thing you need to do is buy a crate for your puppy. If you already have one, great! If not, consider this a good investment. Make sure you get one that is just big enough for your puppies to stand, lie down, and turn around in. There are crates available with dividers so that you can gradually increase the size as the puppy grows. Crate size is important in helping them with potty training; if the crate is too big, the puppy will likely use the extra space in the crate for going to the bathroom, which can hinder your potty training.
Once you have the proper crate, it’s important to help you puppy feel safe and secure in his crate.
1. Start by having your puppy spend short periods of time in his crate throughout the day as a regular part of his daily routine. If you only put your pup in his crate at bedtime or when you leave, he will decide pretty quickly the crate is not a fun place to be.
2. Have the crate near you whenever possible to provide a soothing voice for when your pup is fussing or seems uncomfortable. Avoid putting your crate in a different room where your pup may feel socially isolated. Some people use two crates, one in the bedroom for nighttime and one in the family room for daytime naps.
3. Schedule your crate time so that you can determine when the pup is let out. This is to make sure he isn’t fussing because he needs a potty break. If you are sure he doesn’t need to potty, only let your pup out of his crate when he is calm and quiet.
4. It is also helpful to give your pup a special chew toy whenever he goes in his crate. My favorite is a specially stuffed Kong toy that he only gets when he is crated.
Now that your puppy sees his crate as a safe place, you need to decide on a room in the house to puppy-proof. This should be a room where you can confine your puppy in, and where there is nothing they could destroy or injure themselves on. The purpose of the puppy-proofed room is to have a place to confine your pup if you must leave for longer periods of time, so you don’t force your pup to soil his crate. (For more information see my Puppy Tip Sheets on Potty Training and Crate Training.)
You now have safe places to leave your dog when unsupervised. It is easier to prevent your puppy from making mistakes and learning bad behaviors than it is to fix them later.
Whenever your puppy is not in his crate or puppy-proofed room he must be supervised! Not only is supervision critical to successful potty training, you must also watch him at all times to redirect inappropriate chewing behavior. Teaching your puppy what to chew on and where to find his appropriate chew toys will help prevent destructive chewing later on.
The next steps are to gradually increase your puppy’s freedom and then teach him how to behave when you are gone. I’m going to use how I trained my dog Karl as an example. Karl, our Bernese Mountain Dog, joined our family nearly three years ago, when he was 10 weeks old.
Karl is a large breed dog and as a puppy he was not allowed to climb stairs (to protect his developing joints) so his crate was in our family room on the main floor. The first two weeks someone slept on the couch near him so he would feel safe in his new home. As he became more comfortable in his crate and more secure with being alone for short periods during the day, we moved back upstairs to our bedrooms.
When Karl was little, if we were home he was always supervised so we could direct his behavior. If he began to chew on furniture, we would direct him to his chew toys. If he showed signs of needing to go to the bathroom, we would direct him outside. Initially he was allowed in the family room or kitchen only (which had hard wood floors) and we would use child safe gates to limit his access to other areas in the house. When unsupervised he was always in his crate.
By about four or five months his potty training had progressed and he was more consistent with making appropriate chewing choices, so we began leaving him loose in the kitchen (our puppy-proofed room) while we were in other parts of the house. He also earned supervised access to the rest of the main floor, including the carpeted living room and dining room. Gates were then added to prevent his access to the upper floor and basement.
This is the stage where many people make a big mistake. They start feeling over confident in their potty training success, and let down their guard. They stop relying on their crate and confinement areas too soon and give the puppy more freedom than it can handle. This is where the problems begin.
Check out my next blog post to see how I handled this step with Karl.