The Great Crate Debate
‘Whether you’re beaten or pampered, fed the best foods or starved, kept in filth or kept clean, a cage is still a cage’ - Anne Bishop
When I decided to write this article, it was not without a degree of trepidation. I recalled the apprehension I feel whenever I tell clients that I don’t approve of crating. I feel apprehensive because I expect to be met with resistance and I don’t want to alienate my clients. Nevertheless, it is an issue that I feel is especially pertinent. Currently, the practice of crating is ubiquitous. In an average puppy class, I expect that at least 3 out of the 4 puppies present will probably be ‘crate trained’ or undergoing ‘crate training’. I understand that people are not crating their dogs to be cruel. And I understand that there are a lot of people out there who think that dogs love their crates; that putting a dog in a crate helps them feel safe. However, I feel very strongly that confining a dog to a cage for hours is unnecessary, and unkind. And that no animal ever likes to be locked in a cage. There, I said it! In our society, a rhetoric has built up around crates, which sanitises their use. We speak of ‘crates’ and ‘dens’ rather than ‘cages’. However, when we see any other animal confined to a cage, we don’t generally think of it as a den or a crate! We simply see an animal locked in a cage and deprived of freedom. Comparatively, in Sweden and Finland, legislation prohibits keeping dogs in crates, apart from for the purposes of travel. Even then, they must be walked every 2-3 hours. Most puppies I meet here in the UK (and a lot of adult dogs) are confined to cages for at least 8-10 hours overnight. People often tell me that they don’t crate their dogs… apart from overnight - this still represents nearly half their lives! A lot are also put in cages if their humans are going out during the day. For some, whose owners work, they are crated for another 8-10 hours a day, getting out for a walk with a dog walker somewhere in the middle. The problems wth crates are manifold, but one of the issues is that they inhibit natural behaviour. The Animal Welfare Act recognises an animal’s need to be housed in a suitable environment, and to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns. Caging a dog, by its very nature, deprives him of the opportunity to exhibit normal behaviour patterns such as elimination, free movement, and the opportunity to socialise with others. ELIMINATION: One of the most common uses for a crate is to toilet train. In this situation, the crate is being used to deliberately prevent a dog from exhibiting the normal behaviour of eliminating. The idea is that a dog won’t eliminate in his sleeping area. So you potentially have a dog desperately needing to go to the toilet, and being faced with the choice of holding it, without knowing how long for, or soiling their bed and lying in it. This is particularly cruel in the case of a puppy, who simply doesn’t have the physical control to ‘hold it’. Furthermore, dogs who are forced by confinement to soil their sleeping area can eventually overwrite their instinct to be clean in their living quarters, causing long term toilet training issues! FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT: Many crates (often to facilitate toilet-training) are just big enough for the dog to stand, turn around and lie down in. Although in the UK there are no restrictions on caging a pet dog, there are guidelines surrounding the housing of lab animals. While I think it is horrendous to keep animals in labs, I think it forms an interesting comparison that the guidelines surrounding the housing of say, laboratory beagles, affords them greater space and freedom to exhibit normal behaviours than a typical crated dog. The National Institutes of Health guide for the care and use of laboratory animals recommends that dogs have kennels, runs or pen, rather than cages. The space guidelines suggest 8ftper dog. Inhibiting movement for long periods of time can also have detrimental consequences on the health of a dog. In humans, remaining sedentary for hours can cause variety of health problems: joint and muscular pains, depression and anxiety, and even premature death. I’m sure the same will apply to dogs. DEPRIVATION OF SOCIAL CONTACT: Dogs are social creatures, and puppies especially have a developmental need for sustained social contact. From birth, puppies are programmed to gravitate towards the warmth of their mum and litter-mates. Often, when puppies are taken home for the first time, they spend their first night isolated and alone in a cage, away from family members. As dogs are a social species, the aforementioned National Institutes of Health guidelines for lab animals recommend that they be housed in pairs or groups. Isolating a dog in a cage is at odds with their need for social contact. Dogs of all ages are also social sleepers and depriving them of the opportunity to sleep with their social group can be a contributing factor to dogs developing behaviour problems. Additionally, dogs are polyphasic sleepers, so being forced to sleep in the one spot for 8-10 hours will go against their natural sleep behaviour. They cannot move around, stretch, or find a new spot to sleep like they might if they were afforded the freedom to do so. Read more about dogs and sleep here THERMOREGULATION: Dogs do not perspire to regulate their body temperature as humans do. They reduce their temperature by panting, and by lying out on cool surfaces. Most crates I see have their floor covered with beddings and/or pee pads, leaving a dog no cool ground on which to stretch out on should they become too warm. MISCONCEPTIONS There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding crates. Many people who extol the use of crating claim that the crate is a ‘den’ for the dog. Dogs are not, in fact, den-dwelling creatures! And even if they were, they would never be locked in a den! Crates are often used to deal with separation anxiety in dogs. However, a study found that contrary to popular belief, confining a dog does not reduce anxiety. Puppies that were restrained (ether alone or with a littermate) were three times more reactive than those that weren’t. Another study found that long-term or excessive confinement in a crate may have an adverse effect on the social behaviour of an otherwise well-socialised pup. If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety and consequently exhibiting destructive behaviours, locking them in a cage may save your door frames from being chewed, or your floor from being soiled. What it won’t do is make your dog feel any better, or deal with the root cause of their anxiety. All too often, crates become a means for controlling rather than treating behaviour problems. Crates are very convenient for the humans, as they can inhibit certain behaviours. A lot of people think that once locked in a crate a dog will ‘relax’. However, the fact that they are not actively fighting their confinement does not mean they feel any better- in zoos and circuses, animals are not routinely seen struggling to escape. In dogs, the process of ‘crate training’ can essentially create a state of learned helplessness, when, like animals in other forms of captivity, they cease trying to escape, as they have learned that struggling does not improve their situation. A SAFE SPACE? A safe space means having choices. A safe place is only a safe place if the dog can choose when to go in and when to come out. Once locked in somewhere with no chance of escape, a dog is not safe, they're trapped. SOLUTIONS AND ALTERNATIVES So, rather than locking your dog in a cage try the following: Provide access to the garden or wherever you want your dog to go to toilet on a regular basis. Reward toileting successes, ignore failures! Toilet training can take a bit of time, but dogs are naturally clean creatures, and there is no need to lock them in a cage in order to train them; Provide plenty of food-based chews for your dog. This can go a long way to deterring them from chewing less appropriate objects. It will also help reduce stress and keep them occupied; Put away anything that you don’t want your dog to destroy; Use a baby gate or other barrier to keep your dog out of areas of the house where there are dangers, or they can’t yet be trusted alone; If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, locking him in a cage will only worsen the anxiety. Your dog may become shut down, and have fewer ways of exhibiting his anxiety, but he will still feel the same. Instead, enlist the help of a dog behaviourist to work on reducing his stress and teaching him to cope with being alone. I hope this has been helpful. Ultimately, the crux of the matter lies in the question ‘What is best for my dog?’ rather than ‘What is best for me?’. Answering the first will hopefully lead you away from a crate!