05 August 2012

On the Subject of Crates

    I recently read this article on the PETA website: "Animal Rights Uncompromised: Crating Dogs." The author writes, "a dog crate is just a box with holes in it, and putting dogs in crates is just a way to ignore and warehouse them until you get around to taking care of them properly."
    This is an interesting way to put it, and I'm not sure I can totally disagree with what the author says, as is. But I would prefer to say, from my own experience, that a crate is a place to keep your dog safe while you are away, a place of calm and security when you are at home, and a powerful method to ensure a stronger bond between guardian and animal.
     For instance, here is a photo I took this morning of Jasper just hanging out in his crate. He goes in there often, of his own accord.
     When Jasper first came to us (a few weeks ago), because he was a mature dog, we tried leaving him out of his crate while we were at work.
      The PETA author writes, "Crating is a popular 'convenience practice' that is often used on adult dogs. It deprives dogs of the opportunity to fulfill some of their most basic needs, such as the freedom to walk around, the opportunity to relieve themselves, and the ability to stretch out and relax."
     Not a good idea in this household. Jasper indeed fulfilled one of his basic needs — he peed in several places, including on some important documents. He used his "freedom to walk around" and surfed the counter, and, worst of all, broke some glasses while doing so. What if he had cut himself on the shards? What if he had eaten something poisonous (not that we have anything like that, unless you count dish detergent and Windex)?
     No, the best thing is to leave him in his crate. He's safe there, and calm. And I am calm while at work, knowing he is OK. Regarding being able to "stretch out and relax" — have a look at the size of his crate. We have two crates this size in our living room — the dogs have more room to stretch out and relax than we do!
    Note: We do not have a yard, and even if we did, we would not leave the dogs outside all day. Jasper is a HUSKY, which means "escape artist" in all languages. He could hop a fence just as easily as he can the kitchen counter.
    The PETA author writes, "Forcing dogs to spend extended periods of time confined and isolated simply to accommodate their guardians' schedules is unacceptable."
    Yes, I agree. But what does the author mean by "extended periods of time"?
    Dogs can be considered confined and isolated in many ways. You my say a leash is confining, yet you would never endanger your dog by walking it off-leash in a busy neighborhood or along the city streets. Isolation could mean a dog that is never taken on a walk or otherwise allowed to interact with others, both human and canine.
    Dogs that are at home alone during the day could be also called "isolated," but that is the nature of the modern human-dog bond. Sometimes dogs have to be left alone. We humans must work in order to pay for kibble, treats, vet bills, and sundries. I would prefer to know my dog is safe. And some dogs very much prefer their crates, which function as sort of a "den" in which they are protected. Finally, most dogs do not require constant attention. That in itself can make a dog unhappy.
   We built a cave-like crate for our last dog, Blue Aroo, who was so afraid of loud noises, thunder, and fireworks that he would run from room to room and even try to break out the windows (we don't know why; we adopted him when he was 11 — some dogs are just very sensitive). His dark, insulated crate was his safe zone. In the summer, he also liked to sleep in the bathtub, which really could be considered more confining than his crate. But that's what he liked.
    Gem, the golden retriever pup we brought home at 8 weeks old, and who has often been the subject of this blog, started out life in a "confining" whelping box (which was big enough for four adults to kneel in to pet the pups). When he came home, I made sure he had a large, comfy crate, as well as a play pen.
    Having Gem run loose in the house, and therefore able to pee and poop and chew wherever and whenever he liked, would not have been good for our bonding process, not to mention his health and well-being. As the PETA writer notes, dogs do not like soiling their home environment; this includes the entire house, not just their crate.
    I had a dog (Acia) that was incontinent — no matter what we did for her — meds, pee pads, long walks, extra excursions outdoors — she still peed frequently and heavily in the house. And she was miserable. No dog wants to wake up in her own pee (I agree with the PETA writer here), and she did often, even though she was on her dog bed next to my bed (and not crated).
    So a puppy's best chance as success, at not soiling his home, is to be given less freedom than you would give an older dog. Gem had a large crate and his play pen, where he played and slept while I cooked dinner or otherwise couldn't keep both eyes on him.
    Another reason Gem's crate worked out so well for both of us — the more tired he got, the more cranky he got, and the more of a hellion he would be. Any parent of a two-year-old knows this. Would a good parent just let his or her child wander about the house, getting into this and that, growing more agitated by the minute? No; a wise parent would gently but firmly put the child down for a nap, preferably in a crib, to keep the child safe.
    Gem would NOT go to sleep on his own. He wasn't the type of puppy that would play, play, play and then just stop and drop. He had to be put to bed — either in his crate or in his playpen (see my posts from last year for pictures of him there). Once in is crate or playpen, Gem would plop down with a big sigh, stretch out, and finally go to sleep.
    This was not a matter of convenience for me; it was a necessity for him.
    Gem does sleep upstairs with us at night now (as does Jasper), but when we are all downstairs watching TV, he'll still go into his crate to nap. And now that we have two dogs who aren't good friends yet (they get along OK, but aren't the best of pals; Jasper is 7 an Gem is 17 months old, so they have a bit of a generation gap, as well as very different personalities), crating them during the day also guarantees they don't fight and that Gem doesn't pester Jasper into exasperation.
    The PETA author writes, "Studies have shown that long-term confinement is detrimental to the physical and psychological well-being of animals. Animals caged for extended periods can develop eating disorders and anti-social and/or aggressive behaviors. They can also become withdrawn, hyperactive, or severely depressed."
    I find several things wrong with this. First: what "studies"? Citing studies without providing the references is the first sign of a weak argument. The second fault I find with this entry is that I am not sure to what animals the author is referring. I know there have been classic (and very, very sad) studies done with rhesus monkeys (i.e., "Harlow's Monkeys") that show the devastating effects of isolation. But I don't know of a dog study like this (and wouldn't want to see one done).
    It's not that I disagree with the author on this point: Isolating dogs is wrong. Caging an animal for long periods can be very harmful, both physically and psychologically. But what kind of "extended periods" are we talking about? Should humane societies and animal rescue kennels be disbanded? Should they let the dogs wander about, have "the freedom to walk around"?
    No, of course not. In this situation, the dogs would be a danger to themselves and others, and might indeed become "hyperactive," "aggressive," "withdrawn," and "depressed" in the process.
    A few more details: In the winter, our dogs have "proper bedding." But in the summer, they prefer the cold plastic floor of their crates (they'll push the bedding aside or even push under it, so we just take it out). Our dogs receive four or five walks per day: twice in the morning before we leave for work (one very short walk, one longer walk), once when I come home from work at lunchtime, once or twice in the evening before we settle down for dinner and TV or blogging, and then once at 9 o'clock — a mile-long loop around the neighborhood before bed.
    They are crated, but they are neither isolated nor neglected. They don't have the freedom to wander about the house all day, but they are safe and secure, and, indeed, content. When I pop in at lunchtime, they wake up and stare at me out of their crates as if wondering why I have disturbed them. Before we leave for work, it's almost the most exciting thing in the world for them to go into their crates ("kennel up"), settle down, and get a treat for doing so. They have unspillable water bowls, and in the summer, a fan gently blows on them.
    Some might find it cruel to leave an animal alone in a house all day, or to confine it to the back yard (this is where a lot of dogs tend to get into trouble; our last dog, Blue Aroo, also a husky [mix], would have been over the fence in a heartbeat), or to feed the dog only kibble, or to force it to wait until the humans have eaten before they get their food.
    No one answer is the right answer. Rigid positions like that provided by PETA make things harder on the majority of caring pet owners who use crates. We don't do it because of ignorance or neglectfulness, or for our convenience, much less out of cruelty. We do it because that's what works best for all of us — humans and dogs.

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