Crates, Gates, and Playpens: Limit Access to Space

When it comes to behavior management strategies, limiting your dog’s access to space plays a large part.  More space in your home sets up for more exploration and potential trouble.  Dogs are opportunistic scavengers who investigate with their mouths and enjoy problem-solving.  Teaching your dog to accept containment and, ultimately, value his “space” is well worth the effort. 

Crate, Gates, or Playpen?

The best option for the long haul is a crate.  A fold-up, wire-style crate is recommended.  It has an open “feel”, unlike the plastic airline-approved crates.  It is easily transportable, too, because it folds up flat.  Except for the smallest sizes, fold-up wire crates are sold with dividers to further shrink space for housetraining puppies. 

Gates can be used to contain your dog to larger areas for play, training, and independent engagement while under your supervision.  Gates are recommended in addition to a crate NOT instead of a crate.  Gated areas still afford too much access to personal belongings and household items as well as opportunities for housesoiling (aka housetraining “accidents”).  Gates for non-standard sized doorways can be ordered from Amazon, Orvis, and In the Company of Dogs.  Be advised that sooner rather than later, many dogs nudge their way around free-standing gates.

For a few weeks after puppy’s homecoming, a playpen can be helpful.  It’s a very temporary solution, though.  The playpen is too large for an effective housetraining plan.  Puppy can eliminate in one area and rest/play in another.  Wee wee pads in the playpen should be promptly phased out and replaced with a plan for outdoor-only elimination.  When puppies become over-stimulated beyond their threshold to cope, the playpen may not serve as effective a calm down space as the smaller crate space.  Finally, plenty of puppies readily figure out how to move the playpen around the floor OR climb/jump out!  Ideally, it is used in conjunction with a crate, so transition to crate containment is familiar.

Confinement Guilt Due to Anthropomorphizing

Many owners express guilty feelings about using a crate or other confinement means for their dogs.  This guilty mindset often springs from anthropomorphizing our pets.  (The dictionary definition:  to ascribe human form or attributes to an animal/plant/or material object.)  We all love our dogs, and they are, indeed, members of the family.  Canine members of the family, that is! 

Containment/confinement is a way to set boundaries – literal and figurative – for the dog.  Free access to space is a great way to set up for lots of mistakes for the dog and loads of frustration for you.  Dogs with too much space will do what dogs typically do.  This isn’t a useful approach to teaching your dog how to behave in a suburban home with his humans.

Free access to a large space miscommunicates the leadership message.  Access to space, like access to food, toys, play, and other “good stuff”, is controlled by us – not the dog.  Containment is a clear and humane way to set and maintain order in your dog’s world (your home).  Sometimes the safest spot for your dog is in her crate. 

Dr. Ian Dunbar is a British veterinary behaviorist and early proponent of positive reinforcement training methods.  He made a relevant point when he commented that it is far more humane to use confinement to teach young dogs and prevent undesirable behaviors than it is to allow too much space and opportunities for problems to arise.  At this point, it becomes necessary to shrink the dog’s access to space and introduce confinement when the dog is accustomed to roaming.

It’s Not Forever

Using containment to teach and manage behavior is not a lifelong proposition.  Many dogs come to enjoy their “space” in the crate and go in willingly on cue.  Confinement becomes part of the dog’s routine – without a specific context, such as bedtime or when no one is at home.  Use the crate when the family is home, too, just to help with adjustment to it.  With early training and management, your adult dog will be trustworthy to roam freely around your house.

Crates, gates, and playpens set up for success from the first day your doggy friend lands in your home.  Actively prevent undesirable behaviors while training in obedience cues for increasingly easier, reliable behavior management.  The goal here is balance:  natural canine tendencies with our human routines and lifestyles.


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2017 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC