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The crate debate

Many people think that crating a puppy is normal, and not crating them is strange, because so much literature on dog training refers to crate training as if it's the only way to toilet train a puppy and prevent it from destroying the house. I am personally very much against crates, with the exception of if a dog has an injury or needs to be prepared for travelling somewhere.

Think about it - how absurd is it that it's considered normal to confine an animal to such a small cage for such prolonged periods of time, with this space often being just a little larger than their body size? Would it be acceptable to keep a cat like that? How might you feel if you saw a zoo animal kept in such a small cage? In comparison, the majority of hamsters and other rodents live it up in multi-story penthouses. In fact, the only other animals that often suffer this same fate are many horses, guinea pigs and rabbits! Here is my run down of why I personally think we should not be crating our dogs from the get go:

  • Restricting a dog's access to move around and confining them to one space is NOT toilet training in my opinion. It is toilet management. The dog has two options : 1) Soil my bed and lie in it or 2) Hold on until my owner decides it is an appropriate time for me to go. This gives the animal minimal choice, and the first choice is pretty grim and totally unfair on the dog. The issue with option two is that how often a dog needs to eliminate depends on a huge range of factors and can vary from day to day. While some owners are observant and understand when to give their pup toileting opportunities, many are not canine body language savvy or are perhaps busy and don't notice. Or the pup is left alone at home for a few hours so they're not even around to let them out when the puppy indicates they need to go. Unfortunately some no doubt well-meaning books and articles advise owners that they should wait until a puppy is calm before letting them out of a crate. So even if a puppy is desperate and screaming to be let out so they can avoid soiling their bed, there is a chance that this will be ignored.

  • Toileting is a basic need and we all have the right to go to the loo when we need to. For young individuals who are building up muscular and sphincter strength, this is usually more often than with adults. In fact, Karen Overall states that on average puppies gain full muscular and sphincter control at around 8.5 weeks of age. Before then it can be near impossible for some individuals to successfully hold on. So what are the psychological implications of this approach to toilet training? Can it cause a dog stress? While I enjoy referring to scientific studies, for this I have none to refer to. However, I am a great believer in emapthy and often use this as a means of trying to figure some things out. I don't care if people scoff about anthromorphisim, because I refuse to consider animals as bionic beings who are resilient to feeling many of the physical stresses that us sensitive humans are subjected to on a daily basis. We all know what it's like to be busting for the loo on a car journey, and the horror we feel when the road sign says the nearest service station is 30 miles away. Imagine that bursting bladder sensation and feeling of urgency every day. I personally like toilet training the old fashioned way. Get the dog out every 30-60 minutes when they are awake, and within a couple of minutes of them waking, playing, eating and drinking. Mistakes and accidents are a part of learning and crate training ensures that any accident a dog has is a truly horrid one - in their bed, and in their apparently safe place!

  • Apparently crates stop dogs being destructive. In my opinion they can potentially do the opposite. If a dog's environment is so tightly managed through crating that they never get enough opportunity to touch, see and sniff things, then that environment remains novel for far longer than it would if they experienced more of it earlier on. The longer an individual is exposed to something, the less novel it will become. If a puppy feels familiar enough with their environment through adequate exposure then they're less likely to want to explore it. And guess what? Many puppies explore using their mouth, and the older they get the more damage their jaws can do. I think it is far more sensible to gradually expose them to their home environment while satisfying the desire to explore with an enriched environment of puppy safe items. Access to novel areas should be managed and supervised until the pup has settled, and it goes without saying that anything that could be of danger (especially wires) or that is too valuable to risk having puppy teeth marks in should be removed until that phase of the puppy's life has passed. Stair gates and puppy pen partitions are a great way of restricting access to inappropriate places.

  • Dogs are polyphasic sleepers. This means they sleep in short periods, like to get up and move around as well as change position. Crating dogs goes against their natural way of sleeping and removes all option of them fulfilling this instinctive behaviour. To enter deep REM sleep dogs need to have the ability to stretch their legs out, as full muscle relaxation is part of the process of slow wave sleep (the stage before REM sleep). Should your dog not enter REM sleep their brain may not be getting all the repair and recharging that it needs to function efficiently. It's during REM sleep that the brain receives energy and also cortisol (stress hormone) levels lower. We all know how cortisol affects our mood and brain, so it's vital we all get our REM sleep - dogs included! So my bold claim is that crating (when misused) can even INHIBIT training. If a dog can't concentrate due to lack of REM sleep, then how are they meant to learn new behaviours? I sometimes say to people who are pro-crates: 'How would you like being locked in your bedroom all night and/or for 8 hours a day? How do you think you'd sleep?'. Or, considering some of the sizes of crates, how about being confined to your bed for a duration of time? And being escorted to the loo when someone finally says you're allowed to go, before being escorted back to bed?

  • Sadly many people neglect to upgrade their crate size as their dog grows and this leaves many dogs in too small crates. This can create mayhem with their physical structure, as they are unable to stand up straight, stretch their bodies out, turn around or lie with their legs outstretched. This can cause muscle tension which can then create compensatory movement in the body. Think about how you have felt after a night sleeping on the sofa - a crick in the neck perhaps? A twisted feeling in the lower spine? How did you feel the day after and how long did it take to go away? Why is it so often overlooked that dogs would get this too? If a dog is in pain then their behaviour is often compromised - just like it can be with humans. How well do you concentrate when you have back ache? I can be pretty laid back, but even I'm guilty of getting irritable and taking it out on my fiance (never the dogs!) when I've been in constant pain.

  • Some people believe that crating encourages relaxation in a dog or helps them cope should they move house or visit a new place. Perhaps for some dogs this may be so. However, my preference is for all dogs to have the ability to relax and cope without needing to be confined. I want them to choose to relax, not relax because the option of movement has been taken away. I want them to have the confidence levels in place through previous experiences to be able to cope with a new environment and I want to give them the opportunity to be responsible in that environment. People who use crates to help their dogs relax need to ask themselves the question: 'Is my dog relaxing, or are they lying down because there is absolutely nothing else they can do?'. I have often wondered whether crates can in fact cause more hyper behaviour in dogs. Being boxed up for many hours surely can create a jack-in-the-box type reflex for some dogs who understandably struggle with not moving around for prolonged periods of time.

  • And then there is that frequently heard 'my dog's crate is their den' justification. A crate is only a den if the den is a safe place. A safe place is only safe when there is choice to move towards or move away. By shutting the door the crate no longer becomes a den.

More than once I've seen two or three dogs crammed into a crate designed for one small dog. I've seen dogs unable to turn around, dogs being left without access to water (another basic need) for hours on end, and dogs shut away for 8-10 hours a day with no bed or mat - just the plastic crate floor to lie on (because they soil their bed or rip it up). This is what the crate training concept has got people thinking is acceptable, and it's not acceptable at all. If you really think about it, it's immensely unfair and no wonder so many dogs develop anxieties, frustrations and fears when that is the daily life they lead.

As with all things, it often depends on the dog. Some dogs genuinely do like their crate and want to go in it. That's fine, keep the crate - but why shut the door? I feel that we should be more trusting of our dogs and not worry that they're going to wreck our houses with toilet accidents or chewing. We do so well at treating them as part of the family in every other way, so let's make that truly the case and ditch the cages! Roz Pooley is a dog trainer and behaviour counsellor, and the owner of The Mutty Professor in Bristol.


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