Within my doggy circles there's been some discussion on the topic of crating.
This is something that comes up every so often so instead of ranting at my poor partner Mike, I'll stick it in here.
So, what is a crate, what is it for, how can it be used appropriately and what might constitute inappropriate use?
A crate is a plastic or metal box, effectively - an indoor kennel, a travel container, a cage, - its a secure confinement system that you can have inside your home or your car or your caravan or boat or wherever, where your dog can be contained.
Dogs MUST be trained to use a crate - I have written about this process elsewhere but the short version is, the dog must WANT to go in the crate, there is NO distress involved, if the dog is crying or trying to get out AT ALL you are doing it wrong. The door is not shut and you do not walk away until the dog is SO happy being in that crate that he doesn't CARE if the door is open or shut, he's happy to stay in there.
It takes time to teach a dog to be crated, and it NEVER EVER involves just shoving a dog in, locking the door and leaving him to cry it out.
Throughout this blog I will be writing with the assumption that crate training has been done properly.
So whats it for?
Well I believe being able to be crated for short periods (four hours max unless travelling in a plane or on veterinary recommended crate rest) is a vital skill all dogs should learn.
This means your dog is happy to be crated if he is in the vets (where if you leave him there, he WILL be crated in one of their built in crates or small kennels), if you need to travel him, if you have a visitor coming over who is perhaps scared of dogs or maybe not able to behave appropriately around dogs, if he hurts himself and needs to have seriously restricted movement, if you go and stay somewhere that requires your dog to be confined.
These are generally 'emergency' situations where the LAST thing you want to be doing or potentially you cannot do, is magic up time to teach your dog to be crated.
Trust me, having an injured dog distressed and in pain, further distressed by being crated is a horrible experience for everyone. Similiarly, dealing with an emergency family visit with a small toddler who is magnetized to your dog, and your dog is scared of toddlers.. the last thing you want to be doing is trying to crate train your dog in 0 time so that everyone stays safe.
Beyond these reasons, a crate can be used to manage behaviour which can assist in training other things.
For example, you are house training a puppy which requires near constant vigilance, but you desperately need to pee yourself - you know that if left loose your puppy will pee on the carpet but if popped in the crate will hang on for the 2 minutes it takes you to pee.
Another example - your rescue dog is a joy and a delight, however he is absolutely shit hot at swiping food off counters. You have no door to your kitchen and a baby gate won't fit, and your husband is cooking and you are not home.
Crating your dog whilst he cooks means theres no chance for your dog to reward himself by swiping half your pizza off the counter whilst your husband looks the other way reaching for the cheese grater.
Managing your dog so that errors cannot happen will assist training - its crucial to understand that management really won't TRAIN the dog for you, you'll still need to train the behaviours you DO want. But it will help you prevent mistakes.
So sure, use the crate whilst you go pee so your puppy doesn't tinkle on the floor just as you sit on the toilet seat yourself - use that crate whilst you are gone and hubby is cooking because you know, men don't have eyes in the backs of their heads and he WILL let the new dog swipe food off the counter.
But of course, carry on working on potty training taking your pup outside frequently, rewarding for toiletting outside and being vigilant and keeping pup within eye-line when you can supervise.
Make sure that when you ARE home and cooking, you take time to do some multi-tasking sessions where you teach your rescue dog to lie on a mat or bed outside the kitchen whilst you cook a simple meal.
The key is to recognise the teachable moments and CREATE teachable moments whenever you can - and use the crate as a helpful tool for those moments where you really can't.
So what might constitute inappropriate use?
So here's the big deal really, here's where the crate is getting a bad reputation.
There does seem to be a growing trend, a culture even, of dogs being crated for long periods during the day AND night, and only allowed out to interact with owners for short periods.
This is wildly inappropriate use of the crate, even if the dog is taught to accept being crated properly.
A crate does NOT make up for you not having time to interact with your dog, supervise your dog, play with your dog or train your dog.
Using the crate INSTEAD of training your dog, where this means your dog then has a reduced quality of life.
By this I mean, instead of teaching your bouncy young pup how to behave around visitors, you always crate him when people come over, so he NEVER learns how to behave when visitors come over, so he misses out on that lesson on how to interact with people, he doesn't learn the rules and manners expected of him.
In turn this means that he has fewer human friends, is less likely to be able to go places with you because he lacks those skills, and his life is poorer for this, he may even become frustrated or anxious about people because he hasn't gained those skills.
When owners JUST focus on management and never progress to actually dealing with the various issues it can be a slippery slope.
Crate Fido when guests come over instead of teaching him how to behave nicely.
Crate Fido when cooking instead of teaching him how to stay on his bed or stay out of the kitchen, or just not to jump up on the counters.
Crate Fido whilst we go out instead of teaching him how to stay home alone.
Crate Fido whilst we watch TV instead of teaching him how to settle.
Crate Fido whilst we do chores or paperwork instead of teaching him how to play with his own toys quietly.
Crate Fido whilst we sleep..
Until it turns out that unless Fido is playing a game in the yard or going for a walk, he's in his crate!
The crate should not be used to just mask problems either - if you can't leave your dog home alone because he freaks out trashing the house and risking serious damage to the property and himself - crating is NOT your answer, this may prevent costly damage to your home, but your dog will still be distressed, and will probably hurt himself.
Finally - I don't believe crates should be used as a punishment - the most important factor of crating is that your dog ENJOYS his crate. Using it for punishment will ruin that and if it doesn't well its hardly an effective punishment so you'll need to re-assess what you are doing there anyway. (Note that using a crate as a means of asking your dog to settle down and calm down is NOT a punishment!).
So whats the bottom line here? Are crates good or bad?
Personally, I firmly believe that used appropriately a crate CAN be a very useful tool in keeping your dog safe, helping you manage problems WHILST you train or modify behaviour, and that every dog should be taught to accept being crated even if you don't intend to use a crate as part of training your dog.
It is by no means totally necessary to use a crate to train a dog - plenty of people have managed to train dogs very nicely without a crate, so if that's you and your dog, thats fab - but having the occasional practice session every so often will keep your dog happy about being crated should the need ever arise.
It is of course absolutely possible and sadly, it happens every day, that crates are mis-used, that dogs spend too long inside them and not enough time out and doing things, and that dogs are still shoved into crates and left to cry it out.
This should NEVER happen - so please, consider using crates appropriately but when you DO use a crate, check yourself - think 'is this necessary management, or could I train an alternative behaviour'... keep a mental check on how long your dog is spending crated and what can you do to change that?