So where does this blog come from?
I don’t use crates in my home. I’ve written about that before. So, this is not what this post is about.
I also don’t tether my dogs in my home. I’ve also covered my concerns about this method in a previous post.
What I have realised I’ve not covered, though, is what I do instead – and why I believe there’s a benefit to raising dogs this way. So here we go.
The world is a big place, and you’ll find that there are easily as many ways to keep dogs as there are countries on our planet. If you’re not already aware, I’m from Denmark and here – for the most part – we raise dogs largely using free roaming in the home. This is how we’ve always done it, and actually, it seems to be working well for the benefit of both dogs and humans. Recently a large insurance company did a survey that showed that 89% of the dog owners surveyed here in Denmark reported that their dog had no issues with being home alone. Of the remaining 11%, only 2% reported that their dog was destructive when home alone. Just 2%! I have not been able to dig out the survey in English yet (I am working on it, I promise), but for reference I’ll put the link to the Danish press release here. On top of that survey, and after taking some time to think about everyone I know who’s been fortunate enough to share their life with a dog, I arrived at the conclusion that I wasn’t really surprised. We are doing well, and it’s time to share.
Free roaming – what is it?
Free roaming is the absence of strict management in the home setting. In my definition, it is a home that is adjusted to be a suitable, safe environment for a dog or puppy. It may include baby gates and (very large) x-pens for small dogs, but for the most part, you’ll find that baby gates and the odd door are the most restrictive items utilised in this method.
Safety – I’m scared my puppy will get hurt!
If you are not used to the idea of free-roaming, what I just described above can sound so incredibly scary. And I get that: modern homes can be dangerous places for curious noses, but this is where management enters the picture. Remember I mentioned that the home must be a suitable, safe environment for dogs and puppies? That is the key. If you have toxic plants, irreplaceable family heirlooms, or crazy expensive designer furniture, you may have to put it away or get creative. Naturally, you can’t put a couch into a cupboard, but did you know that an X-pen fits neatly around a designer couch if you must leave your home? Cables can go in PVC piping, and lots of different chew toys can be made available to cover chewing needs. With just a few manageable adjustments you’re well on your way!
Okay, but it’s easier to crate the dog!
Sure – once you’ve trained the crate skill anyway. But the easy way doesn’t always equal the optimal practice. And there are a few major differences between using the crate vs. using general management. The most prominent one is that you need to train your dog to be comfortable in a crate before you can utilise it as a management tool. This training process can take anything from a few days and up to several months depending on the dog. And even with training, a crate is only appropriate to use for very short periods of time, especially if we want to avoid the risk of creating long-lasting behavioural issues as a side effect. Additionally, the more we restrict the dog from interacting with the environment they’ll be living in, the longer we’ll drag out the process of generalising the entire home as a living space that we all can exist and relax in, which is ultimately the goal.
With general management, you’re ready to go from day one, and learning will happen along the way with no stress. You’ll also shorten the generalisation process as your pup will have plenty of opportunities to use your home to rehearse good behaviour and build habits.
What are the benefits?
Aside from what I mentioned above about generalisation, the puppy will also benefit physically from free roaming. Having the ability to move around freely will help improve their motor skills and general physique, creating a stronger dog that’s well-equipped to use and control their body. Low platforms such as raised dog beds, different floor textures, and navigating the legs of furniture all help this development, as the puppy will have to maneuver around them constantly. Allowing your puppy to roam with you throughout your daily life also fosters the ability to settle down and relax. Dogs are, by nature, social animals, and while they eagerly play together, they also rest together. In fact, if you ask the breeder, they will be able to tell you how their puppies tend to settle and rest in piles. It’s not only super cute, but it also allows the puppies to let their calmness rub off on each other and generate a feeling of safety that lets them sleep peacefully. If we allow our puppy this opportunity to rest with us when we sit down to relax, they’re far more likely to find calmness on their own. We can also utilise this in other settings by providing resting areas where you do calm activities: in the office, the kitchen, and the living room are all good places to encourage calmness by offering spots to rest.
While we’re on the subject of rest, it would only be appropriate to touch down on sleeping, and how free roaming will benefit your puppy in that department. Puppies do need a lot of sleep, and even though the old saying of 20+ hours is a myth, there’s still a smidge of truth to the claim that puppies sleep a lot. Puppies need an average of 10-12 hours of sleep during a 24-hour period. Attempting to force more sleep in may backfire and cause a lot of frustration for both parties. Of course, the above number is an average, so if your puppy naturally sleeps more, then let your puppy sleep. But puppies don’t just need sleep, they need good species appropriate sleep. Dogs are polyphasic sleepers by nature, which means they sleep in short sessions as opposed to us humans who naturally sleep in a single long session. Allowing your puppy to free roam supports the natural development of the polyphasic sleeping pattern and ensures a higher quality of sleep, leading to a more balanced daily life for the puppy.
The free roaming way to raise a puppy also generates a dog that will be very capable and comfortable in making choices, simply because they are presented with a lot more options throughout the day. Not only will they have a lot of choice in when to rest and when to play, but they will also have a lot of choice in choosing when to explore and build confidence in the world around them; confidence in picking out the right items to chew or not chew; confidence in choosing company or taking a moment of peace and solitude. A rule in my household is that when the dog walks away, we respect their space. This is necessary for the dog to learn that simply disengaging from people and activity can bring about peace and quiet, no matter where they choose to go. I do this both to help the dog develop a feeling of being in control of situations – which builds confidence – and to help them learn that any place they pick in the house is safe to go to if they need a rest or a moment of peace. A handy side effect of this practice is that I have dogs that can relax in any room of my house, even if there’s activity.
But I think that the most considerable benefit we get from letting our puppies roam with us is that we as humans set ourselves up with a prime opportunity to learn to read and communicate with our dogs. We’ll be able to observe when they typically play, rest, and – super important to house training – when they have to go. All of this is because we can observe all the behaviour leading up to the event. You’ll build the ability to be proactive in managing your puppy and set them up with proper activities to prevent frustrations. In short, letting your puppy roam with you strengthens the bond between you and fosters a solid foundation for communication. You will also have the perfect setting for impromptu training sessions at the exact moment you realise there’s something you want to train because you’re right there with your dog when you need it. For example, I have been able to work on invisible boundaries with my dogs from day one, as they have just toddled around after me, and waiting for the tea water to boil is prime time for teaching them to stay out of the kitchen.
Generally, the development of communication between us is my top reason to choose the free-roaming lifestyle. Your puppy will be enabled to use their natural preferred communication to get your attention, simply because you’re available. This way they learn to communicate with you faster, simply because they do not have to reinvent the wheel and must engage in potentially problematic behaviours, like vocalising, to get in touch with you. I have yet to have a dog in my home who has vocalised to get my attention: they have all preferred to come to me and mostly just watch me with the intensity of a thousand suns until I managed to guess what they wanted. Then when I got up, they would generally lead me to what they wanted – often the door or the fridge. In time, these communications would morph and shape into specific requests I can act on, or shape into different behaviours if they were inconvenient. I’ve written a blog on how to shape mands, if you’ve become curious about the process.
Of course, free-roaming does require more effort on our part. We will have to pay more attention, and that will slip from time to time, creating a puddle here and there, but overall, I have found that the benefits of letting my puppies roam and be part of my daily life vastly outweigh the downsides, and I can’t imagine raising puppies any other way. Sometimes we will need some stricter management – that is to be expected, as ‘free roaming’ as a rule does not mean ‘free for all’. Naturally, it will not be safe to let the puppy follow around if there are workers in the home, for example, but providing them with an opening to watch the show while being able to leave if they feel insecure is a great way for them to feel safe at home, even if there are strangers about. A baby gate in a doorway is a very useful option and, in my experience, puppies are often too busy watching the show to get into any trouble while you briefly interact with the workers. Otherwise, a Kong – or another activity toy – can go a long way.
If you’ve grown interested in the concept, I encourage you to try it. If you have questions, drop them below: I’m here to support you all the way.
You’ve got this!