Every once in a while, I will have a dog come in for a housetraining kickstart board-and-train who has already become comfortable doing their business in their crate. This complicates the potty training process, because typically the crate is a useful tool to help us signal to the dog that it’s non-potty time.
But if a dog has learned that their den is an acceptable place for doing their business, crating the dog can result in a messy pup and a frustrated owner, instead of a dog who is learning to hold it for the right time.
It is not typical for a dog to be comfortable eliminating in their crate by default. However, it happens with dogs who come from hoarding situations or are kept in a crate 24/7 and therefore have no choice, dogs who have been offered puppy pads in the crate, and dogs who have been kept in too-large dog crates that allow enough room to make a mess and still be comfortable.
Un-training the association between potty time and the crate can feel like an uphill battle, but it is definitely do-able. Like the rest of housetraining, it is an entirely reward-based protocol, but does require some diligence, attention, and time management.
Here’s what we do in these situations.
It may sound counter-intuitive, since we want our dog to see their crate as a comfortable den. But when we are working with a dog who already sees their crate as an acceptable elimination zone, bedding actually works against us.
Bedding like blankets, dog beds, or padding absorb urine smell and feces, which can continue signaling to your dog that the crate is a potty zone even after it’s been thoroughly cleaned. Remove the bathroom sign from your dog’s crate by removing the smells.
Crates are also much easier to clean in general with fewer objects inside. Removing unnecessary bedding definitely serves to make your life easier, too, when cleaning up a pet mess means simply removing the crate pan and hosing it down.
Your dog can have their “furnishings” back when they are a little further along in the training process. But for now, it’s best to make the crate as easy to clean as possible.
Pick the Right Crate
One reason a dog might go to the bathroom in its crate is that the crate is too large for the dog.
A lot of times, dog owners will assume that bigger is always better, and that getting an oversized crate for their dog will make them more comfortable.
Unfortunately, this can be true to the point of detriment. When a crate is especially large for the respective dog, this can put a housetraining pup in the position where they do not have to learn to “hold it” for any length of time because their crate is big enough for them to pee or poop at one end of the crate and still rest comfortably on the other.
If your crate is large enough that your dog can do their business and not have to think about it afterwards, it is probably too large. The ideal crate size is one where your dog can lay down spread out fully in each position with a little room, stand up, and turn around comfortably.
Much more than that, and the crate goes from your dog’s “den” into a “suite” with private bathroom.
To make sure you pick out the right size and type of crate for your dog, my article How to Pick the Right Crate for Your Dog can help.
Nix the Puppy Pads
We firmly believe that dogs should not be offered puppy pads (or potty pads/pee pads) in the crate. Puppy pads, for one, are a hazard for choking and intestinal blockage if shredded and eaten, but they also reinforce the association between potty and the crate.
We tend to recommend that our clients go about housetraining without the use of potty pads entirely, because they ultimately provide more problems than they solve. I write about this in my article, Are Pee Pads a Good Idea? (and 5 awesome alternatives).
For the purpose of the crate especially, though, puppy pads should be phased out as soon as possible to signal that the crate is not the place to be “going.”
If you’ve used puppy pads in the crate for a long time with your dog, it may be especially difficult to teach your dog that the crate is a no-no zone for doing their business. Your dog may need frequent breaks with shorter intervals in-between.
If they make a mess or need a lot of attention, understand that your dog is learning something new after a long period of conditioning for the opposite. Celebrate your victories and power through the messes as usual while keeping this in mind.
Create New Associations
One of the things we start to do when we have a dog who does their business in the crate is start feeding them in the crate. In fact, we often take it a step further and feed the dog directly on the crate floor without a bowl or mat.
This is to start reframing the crate as a “living” space and not a “pottying” space.
By placing the dog’s food directly on the clean floor of the crate at mealtimes, we designate the crate as the dog’s source of food. This not only raises the value of the space, but also crates a new desire in the dog to keep the area clean.
Combined with a diligent housetraining schedule as outlined in my article, How to Potty Train Any Dog, this can sometimes fix the problem of a dog going potty in the crate almost instantly.
Other dogs may still struggle getting the picture, still. But we tend to see this trick really help dogs re-associate their crate with the desired outcome.
Of course, make sure your are properly cleaning the crate floor when accidents do happen, and only provide food on a sanitary surface.
Stay on Top of Housetraining
Persistence is the key to all housetraining, even difficult tasks like getting a dog to stop using the crate as a toilet. Understand that if a dog is used to going to the bathroom in the crate, they likely also do not know how to hold it very well (because they can “go” whenever they need to when confined and have not built up the skill yet).
Allow your dog the proper patience as you ask them to learn to hold it in the crate. This may mean starting from scratch and letting them out as frequently as you would with a young puppy. Your dog may need the time to learn how to control their bladder and bowel movements.
My article, How to Know When To Take Your Dog Outside can help in this process. Know when your dog usually has a bowel movement and plan accordingly, or shift their mealtimes to help their systems get on your schedule. Withhold water right before bed and make sure that they get out at the appropriate times in the morning and evening.
The longer your dog has been comfortable doing their business in the crate, the more patient you will likely need to be during this process and the more diligent you will likely need to be in knowing when your dog usually has to go.