I can’t think of any behavior modification tool that causes my clients more consternation than the “crate.” It seems the human brain frequently equates any small, confined space with a box or a jail cell, both understandably uncomfortable images to subject your best friend to.
What most people fail to realize is that crates can actually offer a significant therapeutic benefit to dogs, because in most urban settings, they’re the closest thing to a “den” we can offer them.
Dogs are den animals. They feel safest when they can press the back of their neck, their spine, and their hindquarters against something solid, preferably under a low ceiling. Instinct tells them they cannot be attacked unexpectedly in that environment, and thus are able to experience deeper relaxation and sleep than is otherwise possible. That’s why many dogs will hide under a bed, in a closet, or behind a couch during thunderstorms or fireworks, or whenever they feel overwhelmed. I equate it to how the average human feels in their car, versus how we might feel in a movie theater or auditorium. In a nutshell, close, confined spaces make dogs feel more secure and less vulnerable.
Regardless, many guardians feel “guilty” for crating their dogs, or tell me there’s “no way” their pooch would tolerate a crate. If I can convince them to give it a try, and they introduce it in a canine-conscious way (never close a dog in a crate without a gradual introduction), most people discover their dog will happily volunteer to spend time in their crate, even when they’re home!
During a recent consultation in West Los Angeles, I recommended unrestricted crate access for an anxious, 5 year-old Staffordshire terrier mix named Daisy, as a way of lessening her overall anxiety. Her human’s immediate, incredulous reaction: “You want me to CRATE MY DOG?” While I explained the reasoning behind my suggestion, the husband pulled out the wire crate they’d used for house training, several years earlier. At my recommendation, he tossed a blanket inside, draped a large towel over the top (to make the open wire feel more den-like), and walked away. Daisy immediately sniffed the front, walked in, and plopped down! That was all the explanation necessary to convince her people to give this a try.
I recently learned they’ve since gotten her a plastic “airline” crate (far more den-like than wire crates) and an appropriately-sized bolster bed for Daisy to snuggle up against. For the last 2 weeks, their increasingly calmer girl has slept in her crate at night (her choice), and they’ve seen no evidence of her visiting the adjacent couch. Daisy’s never been permitted on the furniture, but several times a week for several years they’ve either found her asleep there, when they woke up in the morning, or saw evidence of her having been on the couch while home alone. This battle of wills wasted a lot of time and energy, and led her people to believe she was stubborn and intentionally misbehaving. In reality, all Daisy ever wanted was the security she’d been experiencing when pressed into a corner of the sofa. Now that she has access to her very own soft, secure space, she’s happy to sleep there instead.
In my opinion, the benefit dogs experience from access to a crate greatly outweighs any negative association humans might have with the concept. The type of crate used, where you place it, the type of bed you put inside, and how you go about introducing your dog to the crate can make a huge difference in how they react to the experience, Do your research or consult a professional for the best way to go about this.
Equally important is how you feel about your dog being in the crate. If you’re anxious, nervous, or feel guilty every time you place your dog inside, that unstable, weak energy can influence your dog, and create a needless negative association with what that could be their sanctuary.