Setting up a pen area for puppy Zulu was a new concept for me because Mia didn't need one. I looked up many guides but didn't like any of them, so here is our version with product links for everything!
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Having an area where your new family member is safe when you cannot monitor them is a key to keeping your sanity during the first weeks. As they start to understand what they can and cannot chew and get better with potty training, you can offer them more freedom, but using a pen initially can give you a well-needed break knowing they cannot get into trouble while you are dealing with something else.
In our case, it was also crucial because our older dog, Mia, is not happy about having Zulu around, so we needed to keep them entirely separate for the first weeks. This allowed them to decompress and get comfortable with the new situation without being able to interact.
I want to highlight that this doesn't mean that it is acceptable to keep a dog in a small pen all day; this is just a safe place to put the dog when you are not managing what they do.
We used a pen from FXW. This 9-panel setup easily fits a small crate and potty areas while still leaving plenty of playing space. I also used some of the panels to create barriers at the doors and the stairs to separate the two dogs while they were settling into our new life.
The pen is available in four heights (24”-50”) and comes in 8, 16, 24, and 32-panel versions. The stakes connecting the panels can secure the pen outdoors. For indoor use, they just introduced accessories: floor protectors for the end of the stakes and the Muffler Tubes to reduce the sound of the rods shaking when the dog moves the pen. These make the pen a lot more convenient for indoor use!
The pen also comes with a door, so you have easy access. The latch holds the door with a safety latch, so Zulu never managed to push it open - unless we forgot to close the door all the way in until the lock clicked.
There are many options that you can use for flooring. I wanted something waterproof and thick enough to stay in place. My goal was to protect the floor from the pen sliding on it, create a non-slip surface for Zu, and make cleaning up accidents easier. If you are willing to spend more, garage flooring like the G-Floor Cover is a great option. I used a cheap floor mat from Home Depot that we already had. It is not ideal once the puppy starts chewing on things because the spongy material is easily chewed through, and they can swallow it.
In the initial period, I wrapped the mat with old sheets and blankets and replaced that every day with a new one, which made cleaning up easier. Later I removed the mats and just left a thicker blanket there for her to lay on.
The main guiding principle here is to only have items in the pen that are safe for the dog. If you have a small puppy, they don't do as much damage at the beginning, but as they grow, they can destroy and swallow toys or the flooring, resulting in an ER visit. Be sure to think through what your new dog can destroy or get tangled in and only let them play with those outsides of the pen when you are supervising. Also, double-check that there are no cables they can reach from the pen and pull in to play with.
We got many questions about Zulu's litter box, so I wanted to address this here quickly.
Since she only had one round of vaccines when we picked her up and we don't have a yard, we needed to start potty training indoors. I haven't done this with Mia since I picked her up later, but Zu came litter box trained already, so it just made sense to continue going this way.
My experience is that a litter box is much easier for puppies to understand than using pee pads because it provides clear boundaries they need to enter for the potty area. Also, when you remove the pads, many dogs transition to the carpet since it is close enough in look and feel in their mind. The litter is a different surface and feeling than anything else in a home, so I feel this makes transitioning easier.
Since this is only used for the initial few weeks until she got her vaccines, I got the cheapest under-bed plastic storage box you can find in Walmart/Target or similar stores. It should be low, so they can step in easily but plenty big so they can turn around in it to find the perfect spot. In the beginning, she needed two boxes, so there was always one close by, then I removed one as her potty training improved.
The litter we used is the Fresh News Recycled Paper Pellet. It is dust-free and does an excellent job absorbing what needs to be absorbed.
I used the top of the storage boxes by the litter box because Zulu ran to the box at the beginning and started peeing when only her first paws were in there. I think the sides of the boxes were too tall for her tiny legs at the beginning, and it was hard for her to get in quickly. Having the tops by the boxes made cleaning up these accidents very easy.
We started with a water bowl on the floor, but Zulu had too much fun splashing around in it, so I added a stainless steel water bucket that can be hung from the pen/crate. It also has a handle, so if the dog tries playing with it, you can secure it to the crate with a carabiner.
Buying a bed for a puppy is probably the worse investment ever because there is a good chance they will just destroy it. Also, they could swallow the filling, the zipper, or other parts, resulting in an emergency vet visit.
I prefer to use old towels and blankets for puppies until they are well past the teething period, and I still don't leave a bed with them unattended for a long time.
If you prefer to buy something for the pup to sleep on, you might have luck with something like the Deluxe Fleece Nonskid Dog Mat or the Deluxe Fleece Plush Double-Sided Crate Mats. Latter doesn't even have a rubberized bottom, so there are even fewer things the puppy can swallow, but they still might chew it up, so keep an eye on them.
Zulu had a few weeks in the beginning when she left this mat alone and was very happy sleeping on it, then later started chewing it, so now we are back to using blankets and towels.
This is also an optional item, some utilize it more than others, and some don't see the point if they already have a pen. I opted for crate training because when we are at search training or staying over somewhere, Zulu needs to stay in a crate, so I like to regularly use it at home as well to ensure she is comfortable in it. Zulu is also a shy pup, and she really likes that she can hide in her crate if she gets overwhelmed with visitors or something else.
I didn't close her crate door, though, until I removed the litter boxes. For potty training, I needed her to tell me when she needed to go out during the night, and while she wouldn't have an accident in her crate where she slept, she would pee in the corner of the pen if I didn't wake up for her first whine. Keeping her crate closed for the night sped up her potty training process.
We started with a simple wire crate, then received a Collapsible Crate from Impact Crates, and Zulu felt a lot safer in its more closed design. The Impact Crates are on the high end of the crate options on the market but they are made of aluminum, and the Collapsible design we received folds down to just 8 inches, making it great for traveling. It is also IATA-approved, so we can use it for flights if we need to fly again with the dogs. Their High Anxiety and Stationary crates are more suited for strong escape artists, but the Collapsible Crate's versatility fits our lifestyle and needs better. They also offer a puppy divider that you can safely secure so you can already use it for a puppy and give them more room as they grow. This is important to ensure they don't start using one corner as a bathroom and the other side as a sleeping area.
If you are interested in buying one, you get 15% OFF with the code “DOGGEARREVIEW15”.
I tried to rotate her toys to keep them more attractive and made sure she always had different types of toys in the pen: a soft toy, a squeaky toy, a plastic toy, etc., to provide exposure to different sounds and materials.
Having a set of different chews on hand was great to help her settle down and give her something to do. The favorites of both Zulu and Mia are the Water Buffalo Ears and the longer-lasting Best Bully Sticks. Latter comes in different thicknesses and lengths, so you can choose the ideal size for your pup and size up as they grow.
Below is the first setup, and the next image is how it looks today.
After 2 or 3 weeks, I needed to remove the flooring so Zulu could not chew the floor mat. I also reinforced the pen by creating overlapping connections secured with zip ties to prevent her from pushing the pen's sides out when jumping on them (be sure the dog cannot chew the zip ties and swallow them!). The pen is also secured to the heavier Impact crate that helps to keep the pen in place.
Now she spends a lot less time in her pen; it's a place for her quiet time where she can entertain herself between walks and training sessions. Having her in the pen made it possible that she didn't chew up anything so far and barely had an accident. Keeping a pup contained and monitored helps set them up for success because you limit their ability to make mistakes without you noticing what they are doing in time.
Mia always loved spending time on the deck, so I wanted to give Zulu the chance to enjoy the same while keeping her contained so she could not chew on the patio furniture, get in some trouble or annoy Mia. This was also important to expose Zulu to the smells and noise of our area when she was still not allowed to go for walks.
The FXW pen can be used both indoors and outdoors, so I moved a few panels to create a patio section for Zulu. This also allows them to get used to each other without interacting when I am not monitoring them completely. This area is attached to her indoor pen when the deck door is open so she can have more freedom while I'm working by her pen.
There is a little rust here and there on the panels used outside after two months, but altogether, they are holding up well enough.
I hope you found this guide helpful! Feel free to reach out with questions if I missed anything!
If you want to see more photos and videos of our setup, you can check out the “Puppy Pen” highlight on our Instagram page where I pinned all related stories.