Every year Loki and I spent a week at the county Fair, doing demos and talking to people about dog training. I certainly enjoyed these days, but really we went because Loki loved it. Twelve hours a day of doing his favorite tricks and getting applause, getting loved and petted by thousands of people, eating steak burgers and ice cream, and generally being the center of attention was a perfect day for Loki, so of course we went… Every few hours Loki would go into his crate for a quick nap. He loved this also—for a border collie, Loki was quite lazy, and a good nap was among his favorite things. One day I was sitting there next to Loki’s crate when a woman came running up calling me a heartless bastard. I looked around to see what she meant, and after a moment realized she was talking about Loki, lying there on a soft bed in a crate trying to sleep but somewhat disturbed by her yelling… I reached down and opened the crate door. I thought it was a grand gesture that conveyed everything I was thinking. She got even angrier and told me that I had broken his spirit and he was too afraid to come out of the cage. So I called him out and he cheerily did a few tricks; I tossed the Frisbee for him a few times, gave him the last bite of my ice cream (hey, it was the Fair!), kissed him on the head, and sent him back into his crate to finish his nap…
A few weeks later I was working on a photo-shoot at a lovely park in Beverly Hills on a warm day with several puppies. The shot involved them playing with a boy in the shade, and they had a great time playing and tugging and occasionally licking baby food off the boy. The whole time there was a fan blowing on them, and any time one seemed tired we rotated it out and used another puppy. Between shots we went back and sat in the very comfortable 16’ x 8’ air-conditioned back of our truck. I put pairs of two puppies each into three extra-large crates together to let them play a little and relax. A woman came over and asked if she could look at the puppies, and I said sure. She came into the truck, looked at them and said, “Awwww, you poor babies…” So I looked to see what was wrong! They were rolling around on cushy beds, at 65F, with water and bowls of ice with toys and chewies. They were obviously ecstatic, as opposed to all the people who were standing outside in the heat. So I asked her what made them poor babies, and she said, “They are in a cage.”
My initial instinct is to dismiss such people as crazy—ignorant and irrational people who are so married to their preconceptions that they are unable to objectively evaluate what is immediately obvious to anyone who takes a minute to observe and think; people who ardently call themselves animal lovers, and undoubtedly love the idea of animals, but are ignorant of the needs and desires of actual animals. However, so many people seem to feel this way about crates that I genuinely try to understand their perspective. These people do not see what I see when they look at a dog in a crate. They cannot see past the bars—they do not see if the animal is happy, healthy, relaxed, or content. They do not imagine the other 90% of the animal’s existence, out of the crate, having a rich and full life. They do not see that the animal is able to have a wonderful adventure today and not be left home because of the crate. They do not see the safety afforded by the crate. They do not imagine that the dog wants to be lying down right now and that it prefers lying in the comfort and security of a familiar man-made den.
Crates are tools—neither good nor bad—they have no innate value. Their value derives solely from how they are used.
Of course, the people who think crates are inherently cruel are unlikely to be reading this blog; nonetheless, I thought I would review the primary situations in which a crate is a great tool and the primary situations in which a crate is deleterious:
When Crates are Ideal
Safety in vehicles: in a vehicle, a crate is the canine equivalent of a child safety seat. Sure, it may look like you have strapped the child into a torture device, and yes you have temporarily restricted their personal freedom, but it is essential in order to transport them safely. We all understand that good parents take their children places and use safety seats to protect them, similarly responsible pet owners know that they need to take their pets places in order to give them rich, full, fun lives, and that crates protect them while travelling. Crates keep them from being thrown during impact, from interfering with the driver, and from escaping into the street if there is an accident.
Safety at home: think about a crib. Understanding that an infant can quickly hurt itself by eating or touching the wrong thing, we all recognize cribs as a tool of responsible parenting, and would be shocked to learn of a parent who did NOT use a crib—who left her infant to wander the house while mom took a shower or napped or whatever. Nobody sees a crib as cruel when used appropriately—the child is going to nap or play in a small area much of the day naturally, and providing bars that keep the child safe is humane and advisable. Countless dogs die every year from eating toxins, chewing electric cords, getting out, etc. And many of these dogs had been left loose many times previously and one day they did something they had never done before and were seriously injured or killed. Other dogs are left outside and are stolen, poisoned, or escape.
Training: many undesirable habits can be challenging to break if you cannot always be present to enforce the rules, but if you can use a crate to prevent the dog from rehearsing the behavior except when you are present to train, you can fix most of these problems very quickly. Millions of dogs end up at the pound each year, and are eventually killed, because of simple behavioral issues, many of which could have been fixed in a few weeks of the owners had properly used a crate.
When Crates are Detrimental
Too long: the obvious failure of crates lies in using them for too many hours per day, too many consecutive hours, etc. Unfortunately, some people really only want a dog for a few hours each week, and they use crates to essentially “get rid” of the dog for all the other hours. The dog gets inadequate exercise, and ends up bored and lonely and there is little relationship because the dog is always in a crate. However, this is a delicate topic, because many people “feel” that a dog is in a crate too long without thinking about how many hours the dog would chose to lounge around in one spot if it had the choice. It is somewhat amazing how many hours each day an average dog is content to lie around if the other hours are rich and full. This balance is different for each individual, so assessing how much crate time is “too much” requires paying close attention to the dog and listening to what he wants.
Avoiding issues: sometime people use crates to avoid behavioral issues that could be resolved with a little effort, but instead of making the effort people just avoid dealing with them by crating their dog all the time and never letting the issues arise. In most situations, crates should be used to help improve the issues, not merely to avoid them.
One of the most significant problems facing responsible animal owners these days is the willingness of “animal lovers” to make value judgments based on assumptions. If you really care about animals, you must evaluate their well-being based on their condition and attitude, not their mode of transport. I wonder how many of the people feeling sorry for my healthy and happy dog delighting in doing tricks at the Fair have an obese and untrained dog at home, bored out of its mind sitting in the same 2500 square foot crate for twenty-three hours of every day of its life.