Crates Are Not Dens

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by Dorothy Litwin, MSc., Animal Behaviour Specialist (www.animalbehaviour.ca)

If you are a dog owner, items such as crates, exercise pens, baby gates, and many other forms of confinement are probably quite familiar to you. You might even practise some form of confinement for a number of good reasons. You have probably also been told or heard that dogs are naturally attracted to crates because they remind them of dens and provide a sense of safety and security because dogs, like their ancestor the wolf, are den-dwelling animals.

There are, however, a few problems with the above-mentioned notions.

The first problem is the belief that dogs’ behaviour is similar to wolves’ behaviour. Although dogs and wolves are related, they are considered different species, and studies comparing the two have revealed significant differences in their social organization, behaviours, and cognition.

The second problem arises with the concept of denning itself. A true denning animal, such as a wolf, uses a den for a very specific purpose: The female wolf locates a den for the sole purpose of whelping and raising her pups.

Although crates are a very useful training and management tool and many dogs can be taught to enjoy them, there is no research to support the view that dogs are denning animals that consider a crate a den or that they are naturally motivated to use crates and small spaces for resting, sleeping, or hanging out.

There are also a few important differences between dens and crates. Crates, unlike dens, can be very socially isolating – dogs are usually in a crate alone, while wolf pups in a den have social contact with their littermates, their mother, and, to some extent, the other pack members. Moreover, once pups are able to venture out of the den, they can choose whether to stay inside or leave the den, which is not always the case for dogs, who are often closed inside their crates by their human and do not have the choice to stay or go. Lastly, many dogs are introduced to crates later in life and not during puppyhood, unlike wolf pups, who are exposed to living in a den from birth.

The whole crate-is-a-den belief is, therefore, incorrect. While dogs can be trained to tolerate or even enjoy spending time in a crate, there is no evidence that indicates the majority dogs would choose to spend any time, let alone many hours, in a crate. If a dog is to learn to enjoy a crate, this process should be done gradually to allow time for acclimatization.

Taking this information into consideration can greatly improve our use of crates and confinement for our dogs. We need to carefully consider how we introduce crates to our canine family members. If using a crate with your dog, keep the following in mind:

  1. Make sure the crate is large enough – at minimum the dog should be able to stand up and turn around and sprawl out comfortably when resting. I personally prefer to go above and beyond that and provide as large a crate as possible or use exercise pens or baby gates to secure the dog when necessary so they have as much room as possible to move around.

2. Do not overuse the crate. Many dogs spend their nights and then their days (during work hours), in addition to other human absences, in their crates – those hours add up.

3. Most important is to teach the dog to enjoy the crate/confinement before you decide to use it. It is unfair to just expect a dog to tolerate a closed crate at first introduction. There are a ton of useful resources on this topic, but a good place to start is by feeding the dog every meal in the open crate. As the dog happily associates the crate with meals (good things), you can begin to close the door and open it when the dog is done eating. You may need to tweak the steps based on the individual dog’s response to being inside the crate. Do consider working with a qualified professional if you are having difficulties teaching your dog to enjoy the crate.

4. Crates should not replace training or be used as a form punishment. If your dog is misbehaving, you should not place her in a crate to stop the behaviour. Rather, you should try to identify why your dog is displaying the undesirable behaviour and address it through specifically designed training instead of relying on the crate as a solution. You should also not use the crate as a punishment or for a “time out.”

5. Never use a crate with a dog who is experiencing separation anxiety, as this typically exacerbates the problem. Many dogs not only suffer in distress the entire time, some actually injure themselves trying to break out of the crate.

When used thoughtfully, a crate is a very useful training tool for a variety of situations, including

  • As a housetraining aid for a new puppy or dog.
  • To manage chow time by preventing aggression when feeding multiple dogs
  • As a “chill out” spot – a place to rest and possibly find respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life or at busy times, such as during the holidays, when there is more visitors, loud music, delicious foods, and snacks within easy reach.

So when entertaining guests this holiday season, give your dog the option to hang out in her crate (as long as she has been taught to enjoy it) with a Kong stuffed full of some yummy food and after a good walk or exercise session so she is nice and tired and ready to nap. Although we want our furry friends to share in all that we do, and some dogs thrive in the thick of things, others may prefer to get away from it all and let you have the spotlight.

You can use your crate effectively, but always make sure your dog enjoys it.