The Crate Debate
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
This is kind of a soap box issue for me. That is not to say that I don't appreciate both 'sides' of the debate. I love crates...sometimes... AND I see them being misused in ways that are quite damaging to dogs.
Let's just be educated and intentional about how we use crates with our dogs so that it is a positive experience for them.
Crates certainly have their uses. Never is a crate more useful than while you have a puppy! Crates can be a fabulous tool with both potty training and to contain your pup when you can't supervise them. They can also help during transport, at vet hospitals, at dog shows or training classes, while your dog is recovering from surgery or other medical issues, they give a anxious or over-excited dog a quiet place to be... and it is a good skill to have in case they ever need to be boarded. I probably forgot some, but the point is NOT to list all the fabulous uses of crates but to realize that crates are only useful if you have first taught your dog to have positive feelings towards them.
Wait.... dogs don't come pre-programed to like crates?
Not necessarily. It is always better to spend some time teaching your puppy or dog to love the crate than for them to have a negative experience that you then have to help them overcome! A little time up front can help you avoid problems later on AND make the process of training shorter and easier!
I see it all the time in the rescue world. The dog comes to a foster home from the shelter where it is loud and stressful and they are not sure what is going on. Let's call him Rosco. Even though Rosco is out of the shelter, he doesn't realize he's hit the jackpot and still feels stressed. It takes time to decompress! But the foster has to go to work, so in Rosco goes. Guess what? He doesn't like the crate...AT ALL! So Rosco goes into full out panic mode and breaks out of the crate, possibly injuring himself and also damaging the crate (and likely some other stuff). Eeeek! What to do? I know, get a stronger crate... one of the heavy duty, indestructible ones! That will keep Rosco (and my house) safe, right? Nope. Not at all.
Rosco is panicking. Maybe he has confinement anxiety (afraid of 'small' spaces) or isolation distress (afraid of being alone), maybe he just needs more time to settle and acclimate to his new environment. In any case, he is not being bad or difficult; he is having a panic attack. Locking him in a stronger crate does not address the underlying fear, it suppresses it. That fear may come out in another way in this scenario - being so panicked he looses control of his bowels, self-mutilates, or is so persistent in trying to get out of Fort Knox that he injures himself big time. That is not a pretty picture and gives me that 'pit in my stomach' feeling. Crates are not the way to go if your dog (or the dog you are caring for):
has confinement anxiety
has separation anxiety (crates often exacerbate this condition)
you are gone for long durations
they find the crate scary/aversive
If this is the case, find other ways to manage your dog. Does an xpen work better, or a gated off area? Is there additional training you need to do before you can leave the dog?
The possible solutions really depend on why your dog is struggling and what your situation is so we can't get into all that here, but please know that the following actions only make things worse:
letting your dog panic in the crate
getting a stronger crate
punishing your dog (bark collars, e collars, spray bottles, hitting the crate, yelling); these only make your dog's association with the crate MORE negative
using the crate as punishment
To make matters more difficult to discern, some dogs are fine in the crate when you are around, but loose it when you are gone. I love a camera for this reason. If you don't have one, two devices will do for this assessment. Because every dog is different, make sure you know YOUR dog. Then, once you do, get help if you need it!
As always, I am here for you!