A well-known European breeder, someone whose opinion I respect, has created a bit of a stir by posting on his Facebook page that he will not ever sell a puppy to a home with a “cage,” or crate as we normally call it. Almost a hundred visitors chimed in, almost all agreeing: crates are “never acceptable,” the devil’s handiwork (!), in fact illegal in some countries. The consensus of the majority seems to be that if you don’t want to have your dog with you at all times, why bother having a dog at all?
Nobody seems to have asked the dogs. Quite a few of them probably would tell us they wouldn’t mind getting away from their humans for a little peace and quiet in their own private place sometimes, regardless of whether you call that space a cage, a crate or a “covered bed.”
I don’t want to be flippant about this, though, because it’s a serious question, and there are certainly people in most parts of the world who abuse the very real advantages that crates can offer. If a dog has to spend a large part of its life in a crate, this obviously equals animal abuse, but that doesn’t mean that all use of crates is inhumane – quite the opposite. There is obviously a distinct difference in attitude between the Europeans, who believe a crate is, in and of itself, a thing of evil, and the rest of the respondents, who mostly seem to come from America, and were shouted down by a vociferous group of crate haters.
As someone who is unabashedly pro-crate, let me state conclusively that it is definitely possible to shut the crate doors on occasion, while still loving one’s dogs and providing them with a good quality of life. The important questions really are: First, how long do you leave the dog in the crate? Second, what are the reasons the dog is in the crate in the first place? And third – and possibly most important – what does the dog itself think?
Not even dogs who are comfortable in their crates should be shut up for more than a couple of hours during the day, and if your dogs spend the night in their crates, they should absolutely be let out first thing in the morning and last thing at night – and ideally the crate should be outfitted with a water device of some kind as well.
A Matter of Safety
The main reason I like crates is that the dogs are completely safe in them. It’s easy to say that all your dogs should be friends, but even if that appears to be the case, you don’t know what happens when they are left on their own as a group. A small grumble may escalate into something serious if nobody is around to stop it; one of the dogs could find a hidden chew-bone and the others get jealous. I have never had a fight among my dogs, and I hope I never will, but I also can’t forget the experience of a friend whose champion bitches, usually left loose together without any problem, got into a fight when the owner was gone. When she returned home, there was blood everywhere, one of the dogs was dead and the other one nearly so. The only reason for the fight that anyone could think of was hormones running amok. It’s an extreme example of the kind of nightmare that a safe crate will eliminate.
Dogs are pack animals, and the pecking order may not always be apparent to a human, but when that order is challenged in some way, chaos – even tragedy – may ensue. I found the posted comment that “dogs should be free” particularly ironic, since we’re talking about a species that has been domesticated for many thousands of years. What makes a dog a dog, in fact, is that they gave up the “freedom” that wild animals supposedly have in exchange for the security and care that human beings can provide. It’s part of our responsibility to make sure we live up to this part of the bargain. Dogs are not “born free” and cannot “live a life of freedom” – but then, according to most zoologists, neither do supposedly “wild” animals. (That’s a different subject for another day, though.)
Another reason for crating dogs when they cannot be supervised, especially still “uncivilized” youngsters, is of course that the dog runs the risk of endangering itself by chewing on or eating unsuitable or dangerous materials (electric cords!). There’s also the risk that dog might do serious damage to house and home, either because it isn’t yet used to being left alone and panics, or because it gets bored and decides to have a little too much fun by ripping up the couch, chewing off the legs of the furniture, etc.
What the dog thinks of being crated is really the bottom line, of course. We all too often see a strong reaction in dogs that are not used to being created when they must be crated for a specific purpose – at the vet’s office or while being shipped, for instance. If the dog does not consider the crate as a safe haven, as it should, it must be incredibly stressful to suddenly be confined with nowhere to turn and walls on every side shutting out every possibility of escape.
Learning to Like the Crate
Since all dogs will most likely have to be crated at some point in their life, it’s definitely best for them to learn to like their crates. This can be done very simply, starting while they are still “in the nest” with their mother and siblings. When I was still breeding, my bitches nursed their puppies in a large crate, and the puppies slept there at night. That pretty much guarantees a positive early view of the crate as the puppy’s “home.” Once the puppy moves to its new family, it’s the owner’s job to continue the education. Following are parts of the recommendations I sent home with all new puppy owners:
“The upheaval in the puppy’s life, going to a new home from mother and littermates, will be overwhelming at first. He or she needs patience, time to adjust, peace and quiet, and a lot of kindness. The puppy will eventually become VERY lively, bark, bite, chew, mess up your house and get in the way of everything you do, but with the right upbringing he will soon grow up to become a civilized, easy-to-care for adult and will repay your efforts with unquestioning affection. Having a Whippet puppy is a little like having a squirrel in the house, and you will need to set some limits for both your own and the puppy’s sake.
“You absolutely need a crate where the puppy can be safe while sleeping and when you cannot supervise it. The puppy will be used to sleeping in a crate already (although they will LOVE sleeping in bed, too!), but he will be very lonely at first and miss his brothers and sisters. Put him in the crate with something to chew on when he’s tired, has eaten and been outside, put in a puppy-sized soft toy, close the crate door, turn on the radio or TV nearby — and hopefully the puppy will fall asleep after a little grumbling. Eventually he will get used to being alone in the crate. This is a very important step in adulthood: every dog should be able to ‘be crated’ without problems.
“It is important not to leave the puppy in the crate for too long: when he wakes up after falling asleep, it’s time to go outside again. The crate should be the puppy’s ‘safe house,’ where he can go to rest and be left in peace whenever he needs to during the day. Eventually you will find the puppy going into the crate to sleep on his own.”
My own adult dogs spend most of the day with me in the office or on the couch watching TV. They are in the dog room, with a crate for each of them, for maybe an hour during the day, but even when the gates are open they would as soon be in their crates as on the couch. The only occasions they are shut in their crates are when the house cleaner is visiting, so they don’t get in her way, and if I leave the house for a couple of hours – just as an extra precaution, so I won’t have to worry about two adult bitches possibly getting into a fight. They get along just fine, but why take any chances? The dogs certainly don’t mind having to be in their crates for a while on occasion.
What Kind of Crate?
If you’ve come this far, basically all that’s left for you to decide is what type of crate to get. It must be large enough that the dog can stand and turn around comfortably, but not so large that a puppy feels “lost.” To avoid having to buy different size crates, I used to put a couple of bricks wrapped in towels in an adult-sized crate, so the remaining space was comfortable for a single puppy. Definitely don’t get a soft-sided crate that the puppy could bite its way through, or a wire crate without solid sides, which wouldn’t provide the safe den feeling that dogs appreciate.
There are beautiful, expensive wooden and wicker crates that look great if you want the dog room to look like it belongs in Architectural Digest. I found a Luxury Pet Residence Dog Crate in mahogany for $799 online that “provides ultimate comfort for your pet and doubles as an attractive piece of furniture.” However, sharp puppy teeth would make short work of this, so get one of the hard-side plastic crates that can also be used if you need to ship the puppy. They cost anything from under $50 to over $200, depending on size, and they will provide your puppy with a wonderful home-away-from-home feeling.
Trust me: the crate doesn’t have to be a dog’s enemy. If you do things right, it can be a part of the dog’s life that both you and your dogs appreciate.