Over the past decade or so, dog crates have become a must have piece of equipment for all dog owners. Trainers and pet stores have done a great job at promoting its use and most dog lovers today have adopted the idea that using a dog crate is a positive and humane teaching tool. But is it always? Has the promotion of dog crating gone so far that we’re desensitized to some of its downfalls? Just like any other teaching aid, there is a tipping point between welfare and abuse.
Teaching a dog any behavior is the process of creating conditions that will facilitate the development of certain habits over others. In other words, if you want to teach Fido to potty outside, it works best if while rewarding him for relieving himself in the backyard, you also prevent him from using the carpet as a peeing pad. With that simple principle in mind, using a crate to confine the dog when we cannot supervise him definitely helps in the process. Since most dogs have a natural tendency to avoid soiling the area where they sleep, using a dog crate allows better control of the timing and locations of the puppy’s potty needs. For more information on the subject of potty training you can refer to the following post: ‘Easy potty training instead of housebreaking‘.
Some people still see crating dogs as a form of animal abuse. The idea of confining a dog to such a small space can be disturbing for many. Understandably, the idea of being confined in a box just big enough for us to lie down and turn around seems like a traumatic experience. But if we compare the living situations of early or modern humans with those of wild canids there is a striking difference. Humans look for large caverns, build shelters and homes large enough to move around and house a family. Wolves, coyotes and foxes will ignore a large cavity in the hills and prefer digging their own den, just large enough to curl up. The same way, we like to lie on beds or couches, when dogs often chose to sleep under the living room table or in small corners. In my house for instance, dogs are allowed on the furniture, but my 80 lb German shepherd loves to sleep in one of our closets. It’s dark and confined, and the last place I would want to be, but that’s where she feels comfortable.
When introduced properly, allowing the dog to develop a sense of security in the crate, versus being shoved and forcefully locked in, dogs truly appreciate the den-like sensation that a crate will provide. I have witnessed hundreds of dogs choose to go to their crate on their own when looking for a place to rest. On the flip side, I have also seen dogs panic to the point of destroying their crate and owners simply buying stronger and stronger crates, never addressing the dog’s emotional angst.
Just like anything else, even when the dog likes their crate, there comes a point where the dog crate can become an abusive prison. The predominant question is about confinement in general. Restricting the dog’s ability to choose where and when to move around can be tolerated by the animal, but only to a point. For example crating a dog at night, when it would have slept for 8 hours anyway is more natural. But, crating the dog 8 hours a day, everyday, is a different situation from the dog’s perspective.
So what’s the tipping point? With puppies, crates are fantastic options to help them develop good habits, stay safe from chewing dangerous items and providing them with a comfortable space, as long as we don’t confine them for longer than their bladder can hold, which for the youngest, could be less than 2 hours during the day. As a rule of thumb, dogs of all ages shouldn’t be locked up for more than 2-4 hours at a time during the day. Their need for activity and play simply builds up the longer they’re confined and their feeling of comfort can turn into frustration and anxiety.
As the puppy grows up, has developed strong potty habits, and grown out of his
need for chewing everything in sight, the need for a crate should gradually subside. Adult dogs do not need to be locked up in their crate at all when they’re at home, or only on special occasions. When adult dogs are still crated all day, it’s generally because they still either potty indoors or tend to be destructive in the absence of the owner. In either case, crating has become a crutch for unresolved behavior problems. The dog may be anxious or bored when left alone for extended periods of time. When most of us have to work long hours, the dog pays the price of solitude. In those cases, crating only solves the problem for the owner, not for the dog. In the crate, the dog will no longer be able to pee on the carpet or destroy the owners’ favorite pair of shoes, but his anxiety and boredom have not been addressed. In fact, the long crate hours could have become a contributing factor to his separation anxiety. Working with a trainer on the underlying causes of the behaviors can solve the problem for years to come. Finding a dog walker, a daycare, along with other creative ways to keep the dog busy and happy require a little more effort at first, but can make a significant difference for the dog.
Just like any other device that restricts the animals’ freedom of movement, like a leash or a tether, dog crates can be a den or a prison for the dog. It all depends how we use them and for how long. They can help the owner when establishing specific habits of behavior and give a sense of safety and comfort to the dog. But their overuse can truly develop frustration and feelings of helplessness in the dog. Just like anything else, getting professional help and understanding the proper use of crates can make a world of difference for both dog and owner.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.