The crate debate- to crate or not to crate

Crate training has become the norm in today’s society. I find many clients refer to crating as if it is something all dog owners should be doing, and this is no surprise considering 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 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 dogs 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 one choice is hardly pleasant and in my opinion, totally unfair on the dog.
    The issue with option number two is that how often a dog needs to eliminate depends on a huge range of factors and as a result it can vary from day to day. Whilst many owners are observant and understand when to give their pup toileting opportunities, many are not canine body language savvy or they are perhaps too busy at times and don’t notice.
    Or, the pup is left alone at home for a few hours so their carers are not even around to let them out when the puppy indicates they need to go.
    Also, some (no-doubt well meaning) professionals write in books and online that owners 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 due to ill informed owners following instruction.

    Toileting is a basic need and we all have the right to go to the loo when we need the loo. For young individuals who are building up muscular and sphincter strength- this is usually more often than with adults. Infact, Karen Overall states that on average puppies gain full muscular and sphincture control at around 8.5 weeks of age. Before then it can be near-impossible for some individuals to successfully hold on, ie they need to go right there and then.

    So, what are the psychological implications of this approach to toilet training? Can it cause a dog stress?
    Whilst 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 do not care if people schof 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 or throughout the week.
    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, drinking.
    Mistakes and accidents are a part of having a puppy and crate training ensures that the any accident a dog has is not a pleasant one – in their bed, and in what is meant to be their 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 intensely.
    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 exposure pups to their home environment whilst satisfying the desire to explore using all the senses with an enriched environment of
     puppy safe items.
    Of course, 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 a puppy’s 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 changing positions.
    Changing surfaces that they sleep on also helps them regulate their temperature.
    Therefor, crating dogs goes against their natural way of sleeping and removes all option of them fulfilling this instinctive behaviour.
    It’s worth noting that 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, here’s my bold claim: ‘Crating (when misued) can even INHIBIT training!’ If a dog can’t concentrate due to lack of REM sleep, then how are they meant to efficiently learn new behaviours we want to teach them?

    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. This has a knock on effect – a bit like dominos.
    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?
    I refer back to my bionic dogs comment earlier, 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 irratible 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. And, 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.
  • Another reason I hear people say they use crates is because they want to prepare their dog for being at the vets/worse case scenario. I think forward planning is really sensible, however, I think when dogs are doped up on pain relief or are post-operation they are going to likely lie down and recover (this is the case with my dogs who aren’t crate trained).
    If the dog is wide awake and ready to go, then I’d be very surprised if anyone’s crate training generalises to the vet kennels which tend to be full of sick and stressed animals making a lot of noise. 
  • 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.

I do think that crate training for transport is a sensible thing to do if that is how you are going to transport your dog. I personally opt for car safety bars, but understand why some people use crates in their cars and in this instance- absolutely train your dog to be relaxed in the crate.

More than once I’ve seen two or three dogs crammed into a crate designed for one small dog. I’ve seen dogs being 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 doing and thinking is acceptable, and it’s not acceptable at all. If you really think about it, I mean, reaaaaaaally think about it- it’s immensely unfair and no wonder that so many dogs develop anxieties, frustrations and fears when that is the daily life they lead.
We control so much in our dog’s lives, do we really have to control exactly where they sleep, when they sleep and how long they sleep for too?

As with all things, these things do often depend on the dog. Some dogs genuinely do like their crate and want to go in it. That’s fine, keep the crate – just leave the door open.

I feel that for the home environment 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 lets make that truly the case and ditch the cages!


2 Comments on “The crate debate- to crate or not to crate”

  1. Am I right in assuming that while you are “…personally very much against crates…”, you are all for training dogs to be comfortable using one? To be honest, having just written that down, it does look rather absurd and contradictory, however the 2 exceptions you mentioned immediately after that statement would seem to require an amount of familiarity for the dog to make a potentially stressful and likely unavoidable situation even slightly less stressful.

  2. HI Rachel

    Sorry for the slow reply, we don’t get alerted to these comments very often.
    I personally do not like the concept of crate training for it’s most common use (alone time, house training etc). I think there is something very wrong with boxing animals up and I hope my post explains these specific contexts clearly.

    However, if a dog needs to be crated for transport (short or long haul) then I will help a client teach them to be comfortable in their crate for transport. Unless someone travels with their dog 8 hours or more a day, I’m going to assume time in the crate is short lived.
    If a client wants to crate train their dog in the event of it one day requiring major surgery (or in the lead up to scheduled surgery) then I will happily help out and teach them to be comfortable in it with the door shut. They could have it set up with the door open for the rest of the time, which I’ve explained I don’t have an issue with due to the dog being able to come and go as they please.

    If a client contacts me and asks me to help out with crate training because they just want to crate their dog when it is alone or at night time etc then I will politely explain my stance.
    But, if they’re going to use one anyway (regardless of what I say) then I might as well help that dog be comfortable in it and as such, I am prepared to help (or refer to someone who is more comfortable with the concept).

    For the record, I’ve had a dog who has had major surgery and also once had to learn how to walk again after a vestibular episode. We managed just fine without a crate- so there are alternatives such as 24 hour care or carefully managed environments.
    Most vets have kennel spaces now, and I encourage clients to request these if they are worried their dog wont cope in the vets. However, as stated- it’s hard to generalise training to a vet kennel block, so it’s possible training would fall flat in this environment (the dog is outwardly or inwardly stressed due to the environment rather than due to being crated/kenneled).

    I appreciate that some struggle to grasp that trainers such as myself can get by without crate training, but it is possible. I have yet to include it in any protocols nor require it with any of my dogs.

    I hope that explains things and I haven’t written anything else that is too absurd


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