"I Just Rescued My First Dog, Is It OK to Crate Her?"
There's no simple or general answer to this common question about crating.
Posted Jul 19, 2018
This afternoon, while working with Dr. Jessica Pierce (please also see) on our forthcoming book called Unleashing Your Dog that will be published in March 2019 by New World Library, we talked about whether or not dogs should be crated. We know it's a controversial question, some people emphatically saying "no," others saying "maybe" with reservations, and some saying "yes, as long as it's done right." Of course, how one answers the general question of whether or not dogs should be crated hangs on what "crating" means.
My chat with Pierce reminded me of an email I received while writing Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, namely, "I just rescued my first dog, is it okay to crate her?" I remember when I received this email I immediately went to the web and found a lot of information that could be used to answer this question. Because people still ask questions of this sort and some seem confused by the mixed messages that are online, here I simply want to provide some guidelines that I hope will help people along. Let me say right off that there isn't an easy or simple "no" or "yes" answer as far I can tell, and I hope what I write below is useful to people pondering using crates to train or to restrain their dog. It's difficult to list these questions in order of "importance," so here are a few suggestions and variables to consider.
1. Know your dog. It's essential to know your dog as an individual and to know how she or he will respond to being crated. Some dogs don't seem to mind being confined, whereas others don't like it at all. So, do some testing, see how they respond, and use this as a guide as to whether or not crating is a good idea in the first place, and whether it will be aversive and cause stress and anxiety. There is no "the dog," so looking for a simple answer is useless.
2. What do you mean by "crate"? The word "crate" means different things to different people. People who have written to me or spoken with me have different ideas of what a crate should look like. Some want to use a small crate that'll restrain their dog to the point that they can't easily stand or turn around. My answer to them: "Nope, that isn't a good idea—your dog needs to be comfortable when they're constrained—which really means trapped." Some people ask about using a large crate, in one case one that was 4 feet x 4 feet by 4 feet for a 15 pound dog who was totally free to move about. Of course, this crate would provide adequate space if the dog doesn't mind being confined.
In a few discussions I talked about "functional equivalents" of crates. What I simply mean is putting up a gate and confining a dog to an area where he can move about freely and if he has to pee or poop, they can do it without fear of being punished. For one dog whom I rescued, the thought of putting him in a totally enclosed crate didn't sit well with me and surely didn't sit well with him. However, when I put a gate across a room where he could move about freely and, if he happened to pee or poop, it would be okay. There also was a window where he could look out, and before I left him at most for an hour or two, I made sure he was relaxed and comfortable. Before I left him in the room and left home, I put him there and pretended to leave. When I checked on him he either was sleeping or resting comfortably. So, he was "roomed," if you will, rather than crated, and we both were content.
In this case, the gated room was a functional equivalent of a crate and all was well. He was never left there for more than an hour or two, and before I left him I took him on a walk or a run during which he usually could romp and zoom around with a canine friend. I gave him a treat and there was ample water, some food if it was mealtime, and a toy with which he could play, and he was fine. After a while, when we came home from his walk or run and he saw my backpack by the door or otherwise knew I was leaving, he'd run into the room and lie down. I've heard similar stories, including how one dog would go right to her crate when her human was leaving her.
3. How long can a dog be left in a crate? This is a common question and, of course, the answer about crating depends on the "crate" that's being used and the individual dog. What I gleaned from reading many entries on the Web: the maximum time a dog should be crated is around four hours, and most people who have written about crating limit it to two-four hours. I really don't think there is a single answer to this question because it all depends on the personality of the dog. I know there are some dogs for whom two-four hours would work just fine, and I've also known some for whom two-four seconds were aversive and nerve-racking for both dog and human. In the latter situation, the answer to the question of whether this particular dog should be crated is "no." So, if your dog adapts well to a crate or functional equivalent, my take on how long they can be left is around two-four hours, depending on the dog. Less time is better, and while I know some people will say that four hours is too long, my advice is to do some tests and find out what works for your dog. It's a very good way to learn more about your dog and what she expects and needs from you.
So, when people ask me how long it's okay to crate a dog, I say: "Take the time to know your dog, what he likes and dislikes, and pay careful attention to how he responds to being crated or left confined in a room alone." Becoming fluent in John, Fido, Mary, or Harriet—or whoever your dog is—is essential to answering questions about being crated.
Crating is not a substitute for caring for and loving your dog
I hope it's clear that crating a dog in a real crate or in a gated room is not a substitute for caring for and loving her and giving her the best life possible. If she doesn't like being confined, don't do it. If you try to ease her into a crate or gated room over time, be sure this is so by confining her, fake leaving her alone, and checking on her after she thinks you've left. And, before leaving her and when you return, give her all the love you can.
If you're not willing or able to change your daily rhythm and are planning to use a crate because of an inflexible lifestyle or for any other reason, please think twice about bringing a dog into your life regardless of your intentions to give him the best life possible. Some dogs might be okay, whereas for others it would be the worst thing that could happen. Perhaps after he gets to know you and feels comfortable in your home, some form of crating might work, but there's always the chance that it won't and he will suffer from the inability to adapt to a crate for any length of time, even for a few minutes, no less an hour or two. Some dogs look at their crate as their place to rest or to sleep, and go into them voluntarily because they feel safe and at peace there. If they resist, crating should not be on the agenda.
Assuming that most people want their dog to feel happy and content rather than on edge and filled with fear and anxiety, working with them is the best thing to do, but there's always the chance that crating is not going to work, and forcing her to be confined is not part of the game plan for coexisting with her. It's also a good idea for shelters and breeders to give some guidelines on crating for individual dogs, and some might already do so. For one dog I rescued I was told that he would not like being crated, and I took this advice to heart. He wound up being "roomed," as I wrote above.
I know that some of what I write above seems to be down-home common sense. However, given the huge number of dogs who wind up in people's homes with humans living vastly different lifestyles, having extremely different ideas of what a good life for a dog is, and perhaps having only a rudimentary knowledge of dog behavior, a few general guidelines can go a long way (for more discussion about how important it is to become "fluent in dog," please see "Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?"). There isn't a simple "yes" or "no" answer to questions such as "Is it OK to hug my dog?", "Is it OK to play tug-of-war with my dog?", or "Is it OK to get down and dirty with my dog?" And there isn't a simple "yes" or "no" answer to questions about crating.
I hope these guidelines and suggestions make sense. I imagine some readers might take issue with some of what I write, but because many dogs don't get what they need from their human companions, it's essential to do all we can for them and to have open discussions about what's OK and what's not.
Just because something works for us doesn't mean it works for all. When we take care of our canine companions and they feel comfortable and safe and "at home" with us, it's a win-win for everyone. We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are fortunate to have us in their lives, too.