TO CRATE OR NOT TO CRATE?
by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
To crate or not to crate? That is often the question when folks bring home a new puppy or dog. Some people feel that the use of a crate is cruel. It is not the use of a crate, which is cruel but the ABUSE of a crate. Used properly a crate can facilitate house training, contribute to a dog's sense of security, and prevent or correct the types of behavioral problems that send many dogs back to an uncertain future at shelters.
The successful use of a crate takes advantage of a dog's natural propensity for denning. Wild canids use dens for a variety of reasons. Dens are places to rest, to avoid inclement weather, to give birth to young, and as secure places to retreat.
Type of crate: The type of crate used in homes is rectangular in shape and made of stainless steel mesh specifically for dogs. Most dogs appreciate a pad or bed of some sort on the floor of the crate. If you are using the crate for house-training purposes, use a waterproof dog pad/bed. The pad or bedding should just fit the bottom of the crate. Do not use an enclosed airlines travel crate for home crating. They do not allow for good air circulation and some dogs feel claustrophobic in them. Most crates have attachable water dishes that are not easily tipped over.
Placement of crate: Crates work well in an out of the way area, with the rear of the crate backed into a corner. The dog does not need to worry about something approaching from behind. This is similar to the sense of security that a den offers.
Sizing of crate: If you plan to use a crate, make sure the size is adequate for your dog. Your dog should be able to stand up completely and comfortably, turn and stretch out when lying down. You do not want the crate too big. For it to feel like a den, it needs to feel cozy. Too much space gives the dog the opportunity to find a spot to relieve herself far enough away from where she sleeps. This will not help with house training. Generally, dogs will not soil their crates/dens unless they are ill or have been confined there for too long.
Uses of crates: Crates are useful for a number of reasons. They can facilitate house training. They can make a dog feel more secure and safe -- and less likely to behave destructively -- such as when teething or when left alone. Using a crate can mitigate many behavioral problems.
The key to house training a dog is vigilance. The dog should be monitored closely as she learns to relieve herself outdoors and not in the house. By monitoring the dog, you can tell when the dog needs to relieve herself, and take her outdoors before an accident occurs. The dog will quickly learn that the house is not the place for bathroom relief. Crates can help this process. If you cannot keep an eye on the dog -- if you go out, take a shower, or when sleeping at night -- put the dog in a crate. By doing so you are taking advantage of the dog's natural inclination to keep the den clean.
For behavior issues such a chewing on furniture or ripping up newspapers, a crate can also be used when you are not able to monitor the dog. Safe chew toys like a kong with a little peanut butter keep the dog busy in the crate, and help satisfy the chewing urge. With any behavioral problem, the sooner you work at correcting it, the more likely you will be successful.
Crates can be used in cars to keep your dog secure during a drive. Make sure that the crate is placed on a stable surface so it does not bounce or tip over during travel.
Feeding your dog in her crate can help the dog develop a special fondness for her crate. If you have multiple dogs, feeding in the crate can help prevent food spats. Just remember that most dogs need to relieve themselves right after they eat, so don't delay in taking the dog outdoors after each feeding.
One alternative to the crate is an exercise pen. These are metal pens that come in a variety of diameters and heights. They are portable and can be set up when needed and stored when not in use. An exercise pen does not work for all dogs. Dogs who jump or try to get out of any confined area are not suitable candidates for an exercise pen. When you use an exercise pen for the first time, make sure you observe your dog's reaction.
Abuse of crates: NEVER use the crate as a place for punishing your dog. NEVER leave the dog in the crate for excessive periods of time. Isolating a highly social animal like a dog is abusive. I am amazed when I hear about people who keep their dogs in crates all day while they are at work, and then all night when they sleep. It raises the question why such a person would have a dog in the first place.
Not all dogs like or need crates. Since it can help with house training, it is good to try out the use of a crate with a new dog, especially a puppy. Over time you can work toward allowing the dog to have the full range of your house as she becomes fully trained. You may find that your dog will prefer a crate as a place to sleep or to retreat when needed. Leaving a crate with the door open in a secluded place in your house offers the choice. If your dog has a behavioral problem, the crate may make the difference between allowing the dog to remain a member of your family or surrendering her to a shelter. You owe it to your best friend to try a method that not only works but is based on natural canine behavior.
Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, six rescued dogs (four greyhounds, two terriers) and two horses.
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