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Dogs aren’t den animals...so why do we crate them?

Posted Jan 10 2010 10:00pm

Here’s a spicy topic I recommend you bring up any time you’re planning on ruining a perfectly good dinner party––one attended exclusively by dog people, anyway. It’s a surer bet than raising religion or politics, even. And all you have to do is mention this: 

Dogs are not the den animals as many of us have long supposed. They spend more than 95% of their lives outside in the open, not huddled in caves for comfort. Which is why some dog-watchers contend that crates do not meet their interests best. They argue that kenneling dogs is a practice applied in their domestication––for our very human convenience––and should not be confused for offering species-specific comfort. If it offers them any solace it’s simply because we’ve subjugated dogs to our way of doing things. 

That’s how the discussion went one day last month. In its wake, here’s what this argumentative faction proposed: How is it we can recommend chronic crating for dogs when we all know they’re not den animals? Might crating not serve as a source of frustration and anxiety for some of our more sensitive free-rangers? Isn’t it worse than [God forbid!] letting the dog spend the day outside, instead?

I definitely get the point. But here’s another twist:

The truth of the matter is that dogs DO use dens. Periparturient moms (before, during and after whelping their pups) venture outside their confines only for food and water. Pups spend their first few weeks learning that a den is a safe, clean place to live and learn. And for sick or injured dogs? It’s where they go to convalesce in peace...or die. 

So dogs ARE den animals, just not in the way vulgar dog lore or crate-selling stores have helped us suppose. 

But the argument’s kind of an annoying one in some ways. Because regardless of whether dogs are den animals or not, crating represents one of many canine concessions to domestication that makes canine companionship so accessible to so many. And because crates provide safety from foreign body ingestion, a sense of security when it thunders, a place to run when the toddlers get rough, the ideal location for post-op convalescence, a vehicle for safe transport, and the ultimate housetraining tool––among other highly defensible uses. 

Sure, you can argue the same is true of commercial dog food––it makes dogs safer and easier to keep––and God knows I’m big on arguing there’s a better way for those who want better for their pets. But crating is different, somehow. 

In fact, I’ll go one further: Acclimating dogs to kennel environments is best for 99% dogs who live with 99% of people. They may not need to spend much time there and they certainly don’t need to spend ten-hour days locked in their personal space just to make them “keepable” by modern humanity’s standards, but dissing the concept of the crate because it happens to be closer to what we want than what our dogs do doesn’t mean we should be throwing it out with the proverbial bath water. 

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