As Scout inches toward her two-year birthday (the unofficial end of puppyhood) in August, there is one last right of passage that she needs to cross: gaining the freedom to be crate-free while we’re not home. Many people let their puppies be free while they aren’t home long before they reach 2 years old. Puppy books may give you a general guideline or their opinion, and everyone who has raised a puppy will have their own timeline. It’s a pretty subjective thing, because it 100% depends on your dog and when he/she is ready to take the plunge. When will your dog be ready to not eat the items you leave out on the table when you run out to the grocery store, or the flip-flops you’ve casually left by the back door that your dog knows not to touch when you’re home? That’s what makes this tricky. You’re not home. All bets are off. And your dog doesn’t know when you’re coming back. Freedom is upon them.
A friend of ours, also a lab owner, had a rough go of it when her dog was a puppy. For a long time, she called her dog “Free To a Good Home.” The dog was wild. She ate an entire leather wallet (but left the credit cards alone), a freshly frosted cake, dinner right off the stove, countless children’s toys, refused to be leash trained, and on and on. Another friend’s blood hound puppy ate her dry wall. Both of them swore: Crate your dog until they’re 2 years old. Any younger, and the impulse to go wild when you’re not home won’t be held in check by their knowledge of the House Rules. That last bit of puppy juice in their veins is too much. Crate ’em.
Scout and Emmi (“Free To a Good Home”)
But Scout has never been that kind of puppy. We joke that she didn’t really prepare us for real puppy parenthood, because even though there were problem times (let’s not forget her penchant for peeing on her dog bed or our struggles with walking on a leash without imitating the Iditarod), she never did the other wild things we heard about (see previous mention of dry wall). We often wonder how much of this can be attributed to her breed (British Labs are pretty different in temperament from American Labs, and we’re thankful every day that we did the work to seek out British bloodlines) and how much can be attributed to the hard work we put into it. But whatever the reasons may be, we’ve ended up with a very well-behaved dog with a slight inclination to shred tissues and cotton balls. In the face of what she could be eating (again, see dry wall), we’re pretty happy.
And so it was with this in mind that we’ve begun to leave Scout out while we’re not home. We’ve decided to use the same methodology that we used when Scout was little and in the mist of being housebroken, a method advocated by Cesar Milan. When Scout was little, we did not give her free reign inside the house. At first, we kept her on a leash at all times when she was not in her puppy pen. We could loop the leash around our ankles and keep her with us while we did other things, or sit on the floor with her and keep her within arms reach. As Scout grew, we let her roam free in one small area of the house at a time, whichever area we were in. So, if we were in the living room watching TV, we took the puppy playpen (a terrific find via Ebay. Ours unfolds and can be broken out into different sections, so we could use it to block off doorways and parts of the house. It’s called the North States Pet Yard by Drs. Foster and Smith; we saved a bunch by getting it on Ebay.) and blocked off access to the rest of our apartment. Or if we were in the kitchen, we blocked off the living room. This way, Scout had to earn the right to wander the house freely by demonstrating that she understood the House Rules (don’t chase the cat, don’t go to the bathroom inside, don’t eat the plants, etc.). I can’t remember when we let her have free access to the whole house, but I know she was securely house trained, so maybe 3-4 months?
Scout and “cousin” Edward inside the puppy playpen
Our puppy playpen
So we’re doing this next stage in the same way. Once again, we’re utilizing the puppy playpen we bought, and blocking off the staircase whenever we leave, so that Scout stays downstairs. Once she’s learned that just because we’re gone doesn’t mean she can throw a block party, and once we trust her fully, we’ll nix the playpen and let her have full access to the house.
We’ve started this transition slowly, and have left Scout out of her crate probably three or four times now, when we make trips to the store or to run other errands. She’s been free for a few hours, but not the whole day. We also decided to start this process before she turns 2. We got to the point where we felt comfortable with her and trusted that she knows the rules. And we feel like we have a good guess as to what rules she’d break while we’re gone: stealing food off the counter tops and shredding any errant tissues left around (and by “around,” I mean in a trash can that doesn’t have a lid). So, we make sure when we leave that these temptations aren’t there, so that we’re setting Scout up for success instead of failure.
Even though Scout will eventually be completely free inside, I don’t think we’ll get rid of her crate. She still goes in it from time to time, such as on Sunday night, when at 4:30 a.m. she got sick and puked three times.* So, the crate still provides a place in which she feels safe, and we don’t want to take that away from her.
It feels a little odd to be transitioning Scout to this new stage, like we’re finally really saying goodbye to puppyhood. I’m not necessarily sad about it, but there’s nostalgia there, attached to all the memories from the past year of puppy parenthood.
As I said, I don’t know how much of Scout’s wonderful disposition is because of us and because of her good genes, but I’m thankful that we ended up with her and she with us. Even Zoey, once so mean to Scout, is more tolerant than she was. It went by in a flash, and here we are, inching toward the outside of puppyhood and looking back on it, older, wiser, and content.
*She’d eaten cat poo from the backyard and, in doing so, also ingested some pine bark nuggets. For joy. Thank goodness the bark came up, because for a while there we were contemplating a trip to the emergency vet and imagining intestinal blockages and surgery. The incident has forced us to acknowledge that the feral cats are a problem that won’t go away, and that as much as we want a solution to appear out of thin air, we’re going to have to do something. We can’t risk Scout getting seriously sick because she has no self control in the face of gloriously fresh feral cat droppings. We spoke with our neighborhood association yesterday, and were told that we should contact animal control. We’re not sure we’re going to take that route, so we’re looking at all our options before acting.