Friday, February 21, 2014

The Crate Debate

Nothing like a good discussion on social media, eh?
Seriously, I like a good debate, whether online or in person. I like the mental fitness, it makes me think, drives me.
There is no shortage of topics that evoke strong, opposite polar opinions in the dog world. That is probably true for any other world, but the dog crowd is the one I am traveling in.
Neutering, diet, snoot-loop harnesses, rescue, breeders, training methods, are all contentious issues.
Add crating to that list.

Crates are widely promoted in North America, but not so much in some other countries, and banned at least in one: Sweden.
Does it surprise you that something that is such an accepted norm here is not popular, even illegal, elsewhere? Perhaps not so surprising if one sees the ugly side of a tool that makes it easy for people to neglect their dog’s needs.
A Border collie was euthanized when he was 10 months old because he was insane - compulsively had chewed half his tail off. He belonged to a busy family and was kept in his crate for most of the day and all night.
Two littermate Australian shepherds, acquired by a trainer when they were 8 weeks old for the sole purpose of competing in dog sports, were kept in separate crates unless they trained. At age 18 months both were surrendered to the humane society. Stated reason: Performed below expectation. The male became my client, nice dog, but socially inept.
Two adult dogs, very bonded who enjoyed each other’s company, played and snuggled, had free run of the house when their people were at work all day. Problems arose when they, to deal with barking at passersby, were suddenly placed in separate crates during the day, and as part of a Nothing in Life is Free protocol, also whenever the owners weren’t actively interacting with them.
Granted, above examples may be isolated cases, but others aren’t.
Dogs who, in an attempt to get out, bend wires and injure their gums, teeth, or paws.
Dogs that are so distressed that they vocalize unceasingly, soil their crate, drool excessively, or can’t be left with any comfort – a blanket, bed, or mat, because they destroy it.

Despite the ugly side, I want to state unequivocally that I do not want to see crates banned here, because I believe that when used caringly they can benefit both people and dogs. For example raising a puppy.
No doubt, house training is difficult when the pup’s space is not restricted. Of course it doesn’t have to be a crate. An ex-pen or a certain room can do, and with my puppies I also used the leash quite a bit – umbilical corded the pup to me, or attached her to a long line looped around a piece of furniture when I had to make a quick trip to another room. Obviously, the crate or any other space restricting measure only works if the pup is given ample opportunities to pee and poop outside, otherwise she learns to eliminate in her sleeping and living space. The general rule of thumb is age in months plus/minus an hour, but in reality young puppies typically have to go more often during waking hours, some every half hour or so.
A more valid reason for using a crate with a pup is for safekeeping, to prevent that she gets into something that could harm her when she can’t be closely supervised – in the house and in the car.
A pup safely in the crate buys new owners time to do people-only things. I recently had a client where this worked wonderfully: There were critical times during the day when they were busy, and because their excellent breeder had linked the crate with naps early on, it was a cue for the pup to settle. Not only did it function during the critical times, but also when the pup was too wound up and couldn’t settle anywhere else, and in addition she was quiet riding in the car, even on longer trips.
To me, napping and resting is the primary purpose of a crate - stimulation and enrichment happens outside of it. When the crate is that familiar and felt as safe retreat, it can be that for a lifetime, and that is very handy in circumstances when the dog needs a getaway place.

Even though our own puppies were only crated during the night, with the crates stationed in our bedroom, I am pro crate when it comes to pups. It is almost a must to keep the pup safe and owner sane.
A good breeder introduces the crate in a way that it doesn’t produce fear and anxiety. With luck, by the time the pup enters her new home she goes in willingly. Nevertheless, the owner should continue to combine crate time with good things.
With an adult dog, I feel differently. Going in the crate should be choice, optional, with the door open or removed, or it becomes a bad thing - a trap.
At what age does the change happen? Obviously, when the pup is reliably housetrained and trustworthy not to get into trouble or get hurt. Unfortunately, there is no general guideline when that is, it depends on the dog. During the day, three of ours were around 5 months old when they signaled that they had to go out, and fairly consistently searched the toy box for entertainment, leaving our stuff alone, but with some dogs, often retrievers, giant breeds and bullies, that can take a lot longer, up to a year, even 18 months.
At night, the crate door was closed until our pups were about a year old. When we left it open, Will continued to go in well into adulthood, but Davie was happy to kiss the crate good-bye for good. Despite our attempts to make it a positive experience, she never liked it.

Davie’s strong dislike being crated is not uncommon, and I want lay owners to understand that: Their dog rejecting and resisting the crate is neither abnormal, nor did they fail.
There are dogs who, regardless how many training games you play, continue to perceive a crate as aversive.  
Despite popular belief, dogs are not den animals, but whether they are or not is actually irrelevant because it is all about choice. One of the Five Freedoms that define acceptable animal welfare is Freedom to Express Normal Behaviors, and it is not normal for any animal to be caged for most of their life, and whenever they are not operant or their actions otherwise controlled. To express normal behavior is to have some autonomy over one’s movements, to find stimulation and enrichment, and choose where to hang out and relax. If that’s the crate, wonderful, but if the dog is forced in, it causes distress and creates anxiety, and Freedom from Fear and Distress is another criteria for animal welfare that is then not met. 
Anxiety doesn’t magically dissipate when the crate door opens. Initial pressure release is played out in exuberant, out-of-control jumping, mouthing and general rowdiness, but biochemically stress lingers and, if the dog is presented with her stressor regularly, accumulates. Biochemically, stress can become chronic, and cause a host of other issues. 

Karen L. Overall, in “The Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine” writes: “Dogs that do not go willingly into their crate and are happy to be in there should not be contained in crates”.
Note that you don’t always get the strong, obvious signals: The destruction, self-mutilation, unceasing howling, or soiling. Tension, being clamped up, scratching the door, appeasement signals, whining, bucking, not coming when called and moving away, are subtler ones that tell you that your dog doesn’t want to be in there.
I am well aware that that can put people who have dogs with behavioral problems in a bind. A crate is often suggested to deal with separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression, but in both cases rarely provide a solution.

A dog who has separation anxiety often soils the house, chews door and window frames, or eats through drywall, and naturally a crate prevents that. But the anxiety is still there, and that is when you get the gum lesions, broken teeth, bent wires and injured paws – and vocalizing that can get you evicted in a rental even if the dog is not destroying the apartment.
One of our foster dogs had severe separation anxiety. We are not talking about leaving the house, but leaving the room briefly. We typically tagged him along, but it was not always possible because at the time we also ran a business out of our home. Whenever we were out of his field of view, he screamed in panic and exploded in body fluids, and the only benefit the crate offered was that only the area around it had to be cleaned and not the whole room.
With two other fosters who had mild anxiety crating made it worse: Left in it, they howled and soiled, when left outside there were minor scratch marks at the door and some whining that quickly passed, but no other destruction, no soiling, no prolonged vocalization.

Resource guarding is another problem why people might use a crate, but that is also only managed, not solved. Granted, sometimes managing makes the most sense. In a multi-dog household, feeding each dog in her crate is easiest and can instill resource security for all. However, when there is serious animosity between dogs, food is typically not the only thing that triggers aggression. Anything can be contested: A toy, a stick or garbage outside, food accidentally dropped, space, and people and their attention, and what do you do then? What do you do when the dogs are outside their crates and the root of the problem has never been addressed?
In addition, the crate only prevents injuries, but the intimidation and fear continues through the crates, and causes distress in all dogs involved.  

Getting the dog used to being crated to simplify air travel or a stay at the veterinarian is another point people bring up, but the problem is that if you pop an anxious of the crate dog in daily you are not desensitizing but flooding, with the result that she becomes more sensitized rather than getting used to it.

So, what is the take-away message?
That a statement that says that crating is cruel and abusive is just as precarious as the blanket belief that it is good for all dogs.
Crating or not depends on the individual. Not the individual person, but the dog. Owners could, and with a pup should, aim for their dog to feel good in a crate, but there is no guaranty that the adult will like it, and in that case how the dog feels needs to trump. In real life, for the short term crating might be unavoidable, but the frequency and duration should be as minimal as possible, and for the long term, an alternate solution ought to be explored.


  1. An Excellent Blog. Thanks for taking this brave step and showing both sides of the debate. As always thanks for giving us very useful and positive advice. Keep it up and lead the way..

  2. I totally agree with your post. Dogs living in a crate all day have been a pet peeve of mine for some time. They have their purpose, but it is not a home. We live in a society where many feel the need to always have control. This is not a healthy way to live. No animal should have to live in a box. Dogs have so much to teach us and offer us, if we just let them be with us.