Life without crating

Akira and Nikuya sitting in an open crate, looking at the camera

Written by: Laura

Laura is founder of Easy Peasy Obedience, and works in positive methods based on teamwork and games, and with focus on minimising frustration in the training - for both dog and human.

Published: December 4, 2021

Why I choose not to crate

Over the past few years, I have observed, especially on social media, a growing trend of crating dogs in daily life. The most common recommendations are for puppies, and it appears that raising puppies without crates is impossible these days. Supposedly, the crate can teach your dog not to eliminate in the house, and with that idea, the most common recommendation that follows is that the crate should be just big enough for the dog to stand up in, and to turn around. On its own, this type of recommendation is concerning, but if you connect it to a puppy – who’s barely developed enough to have full bladder control – it means that any accidents that may happen will be very uncomfortable (and with puppies, just like with babies, accidents happen).

So what happened to the ‘old way’ and why did it suddenly go out of fashion? The use of crates in pet homes is a relatively new thing. It’s popped up within the past 10 to 20 years and, from where I stand, appears to be the result of marketing a product to solve a problem that wasn’t necessarily there, to begin with. I live in the tiny nation of Denmark, and even if I think long and hard, I can’t recall having met many regular pet parents who used crates in daily life, and especially not for house training. Truly, I can only recall one instance of a dog being crated often in daily life, and even if it is anecdotal evidence, it’s interesting that this dog did not live to be 2 years old because it was put down for aggression issues aimed towards the owner.
So from a cultural angle, the idea that the average pet parent keeps their dogs in crates in daily life is foreign to me. I’m not suggesting that crates are evil. Quite the opposite. They do have their place in the world for short term management, vet visits, sports and so on, but historically we humans have time and again proven that it’s perfectly possible to have and raise dogs without crates. So why the sudden shift? I may not understand it, but I truly believe that we can return to a place where we don’t need crates if we try.

Is there something to it?

But, if crating is gaining popularity, there must be something to it, right? Maybe. But then again, no. And that brings me to my real purpose with this blog post: I’m often asked why I choose not to crate, and why I don’t believe that daily crating for dogs and puppies in ordinary homes is a good idea. I’ve even been asked how I manage to see my dogs into adulthood without crating – and I will absolutely cover this at the end of the post – but first, I really want to share my concerns about daily crating.
My first concern is the introduction of crates to the general population. Most people simply do not know how to properly introduce a dog to the crate. And even if we have long since rejected the idea that babies need to cry their way to calm, this idea seems to have stuck when it comes to dogs. This is in spite of evidence suggesting that it can cause stress and helplessness. If you have taken a sniff at dog training, or maybe are a dog trainer by trade, you know what learned helplessness is and how it develops. You might also be aware of how stressful it is for a dog to “learn” under these conditions. But, when the general idea amongst the population is still that puppies just need to cry it out, and that us responding to their distress is bad, it results in many new puppy parents bringing their new pups home and placing them in a crate. Then both parties are forced to live through extended periods of stress: a crying puppy who doesn’t understand its new environment and feel lonely, and the humans that are forced to listen and are experiencing their own rising stress levels (stress, because humans are hard-wired to react to distress cries from infants – of any species. And so hearing those cries triggers the stress response within us). Crying puppies are simply not worth it, for any of us.

Another widely accepted method of getting dogs used to crates is the idea that feeding them in the crate creates a positive association. This method is a personal pet peeve of mine. It is recommended for both dogs that willingly enter the crate, and also those that are not comfortable around the crate, at all. I’ve just discussed stress and helplessness, but I think it’s worth repeating, because, you see, when we have a dog that does not want to go into his crate, we are basically presenting them with the option to either go into the crate they do not like or to starve. I do not believe that is a conflict that is fair to put our dogs in. This conflict is similar to the recommendation to not hand feed a shy dog, because the food may force the dog to cross their boundaries without being comfortable with it. Food, and water, are basic needs for dogs, and it is not something we should risk creating conflicts around, especially not in the name of training.
It is, however, a great illustration of how much confusion there really is about what crate training is, and how to do it on the dog’s terms.

Then what is crate training?

Crate training is described by the general population as keeping your puppy or dog in a crate when you cannot supervise them and between potty trips. This is not training. This is crating, without any training aspect.
What crate training really is, or should be, is the process of getting your dog comfortable with crates, done for small increments of time, in a comfortable and safe environment. This needs to be done on the dog’s terms, not the human’s, for the best results. The process surrounding crate training alone is enough reason for me to never recommend crating as an aid in raising dogs. It is often far faster and more gentle on the pup to teach them how to navigate our homes than it is to properly introduce a crate. Still, in the name of informing people, I have constructed this handy little flow chart to clear up the confusion about terminology.

This brings me to my concerns about using crates for house training. I will even go as far as to say that using crates for this can work against us. The idea is that dogs will not eliminate where they sleep, and even if they don’t want to do that, it’s simply not realistic with puppies who have not developed full control over their bowels. Another important part of house training is to teach the puppy that the house is not a toilet, but when we limit their exposure to the environment they need to be house trained in, we drag out the process. In serious cases, the dog may even get to a point where it simply associates the crate with a no toilet zone, but not the rest of the house. Furthermore, we limit their natural behaviour surrounding elimination, and in turn, limit our chances to learn how to read our dogs. One of the most common questions I see from new pet parents is how to teach their dogs to “tell” when they need to go. What they are missing is that the dog is already telling, but by crating, we limit our chances to see it. All dogs develop a natural, individual behaviour when they need to potty, and we can easily reinforce this behaviour, providing the dog has space to show it. This chance is highly reduced the moment we place the dog in a crate. As an example, all my dogs have successfully taught me that when they go out into the hallway, it’s time to get going. So even if we have our dogs on a schedule, our schedule won’t necessarily fit the needs of the dog and at the end of the day, we’re humans: we forget things, and that’s why I will always recommend not to crate the puppy, to give it the chance to get our attention instead of peeing on their beds.

My concerns about house training aren’t limited to just puppies, by the way. As humans, we see it as a basic right to be able to use a toilet when we need it. As a person with a gastrointestinal condition, I am very fond of this right and even the thought of sitting in a room without access to a toilet freaks me out. I can’t possibly think of a reason to put my animals through that, especially when they already have limited control over their daily lives. I don’t think it’s worth it to put them through the stress of being forced to sit next to their own mess in a crate. Personally, I would also much rather clean my floor, than clean a dog who’s been stressing around in their own waste, and while I know we shouldn’t anthropomorphise our animals, I still choose to believe they share that preference with me. But what does that have to do with adult dogs, one might be tempted to ask. And I get that. Adult dogs are generally house trained, but they can get sick. For example, I’ve just had a dog with acute diarrhoea. She was completely unable to hold it while I was at work and it was clear that both she and my puppy were affected by the smell in the room when I got home, even if the poop was in the furthest corner of the living room. Of course, I immediately arranged for a dog sitter and proper treatment so she could get well again, but at no point, I felt like a crate would have helped in that situation. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it would have made it far worse if she had been forced to sit next to it in a crate and maybe even have stepped in it. Dogs of all ages can get acute diarrhoea, UITs and other conditions that affect their ability to be house clean, and the least we can do for a sick dog is allow them space to get away from their own waste.

Crates are also recommended to limit destruction in the homes, but it comes with the same problems I have mentioned above. Of course, it puts certain demands on how our homes are put together, but the majority of homes can be puppy-proofed easily and affordably. If we choose the crate instead, we limit the dog’s ability to learn to properly navigate the environment they’re supposed to be living in for the rest of their lives. We limit them in interacting with their environment, something that’s a very important part of growing up. It’s also a very important part of training a puppy, to provide them with the ability to make good choices, while we limit their ability to make “bad” choices. When we place them in crates, their choice is taken away and they cannot make any decisions at all. In short, there is no learning happening during a lot of the hours of the day. Last, but not least, we limit our ability to see and reinforce good choices during the day.

The use of crates during longer periods of time, like a full night or workday, also goes against the natural sleeping pattern of dogs. It’s not unusual that people defend night crating and during work hours with the claim that the dogs sleep anyway. It’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. This is because dogs have a polyphasic sleep pattern, meaning that they sleep for several short sessions during the day and not a long, single sleep session like we humans do. A study done in Perth, Australia, in 1992, showed that dogs had an average pattern of 3 sleep cycles of about 21 minutes an hour, of which 5 minutes of each cycle the dog was awake and doing some form of activity. The activity could be anything from activities directly on their bed, activities outside camera range, but also activities in a range of a full-body length around the dog’s bed. I have yet to see a crate that provides that range of movement, unless you place a Chihuahua in a Great Dane crate, of course. Most people do choose a crate their dog can stand, turn and lie down in, but not much bigger. That means that the dog is severely restricted from performing natural behaviour for a large part of the day, and by that, restricted from meeting basic needs. Speaking of basic needs, a lot of dogs are confined in crates without water, which would likely be OK if the dogs were actually just sleeping all the time, but the reality is that they don’t. It’s worth mentioning that we don’t even need a study from Perth to know this. All you need is to record your dogs at night. I have observed these sleeping patterns through many sleepless nights where I could hear my dogs putter about, and most dog owners will have experienced the same every now and then during similar nights.

Problem Behaviour

Problem Behaviour can be a lot of things, but for dogs displaying problem behaviour in the home, the first part of a diagnosis is often to check if their basic needs are being met. If you take a look at what I have described above, crating almost seems like a recipe for disaster. Just the concerns about their sleeping patterns is enough to cause issues. I imagine you know how it feels to have periods where your natural sleep pattern is disrupted for one reason or another. It’s not nice, and tired humans are not nice to be with, so do we really want our dogs to go through that? So if we disrupt the sleeping pattern at night with crating, and then disrupt it again with crating during the day, a large part of the natural sleeping pattern of a 24 hour period will be very disrupted. It can result in us coming home or waking up to over aroused dogs – something a lot of humans don’t really appreciate, especially not after a long day at work. It can easily spin into a routine of getting home, out to potty, then back in the crate because the dog is simply too energetic to function. And I get it. And if it’s you I’m describing here, please know that you are not a bad person. But please know that there are other ways too. Because when we cover basic needs, most problem behaviours tend to solve themselves, and a very easy way to cover a large part of their basic needs, is to ensure that there’s room for them to sleep naturally. Of course, it’s not impossible to make up for uncovered needs if you crate, but for most average families with a busy schedule, it would be crazy hard work. So is it really fair to recommend crating to people when it raises the requirements for the hours un-crated? It’s hard work to raise puppies, so do we really have to make it more difficult by promoting unnecessary use of crates in homes?

Now that you’ve made it this far, I would like to point out that the above is about the unnecessary use of crates in homes. If your dog has a medical or behavioural diagnosis that requires crating, and you’re working with a professional to reduce crate time or to make up for all the unmet needs crates create, it is a different situation. But in general, normal, healthy dogs don’t need to be crated.

So, I should never use crates?

Does all the above mean that my dogs are not crate trained? Absolutely not. They are. Well, Shorty was not, but that was a size issue. Our vets never even bothered with crates whenever she would end up there, and now we’re on the subject of vets, I’d like to talk a bit about another major reason people seem to believe that makes daily crating necessary: dogs should be used to crates in case they end up at a vet to reduce stress. Well, maybe. Maybe not. I really don’t buy it. You see, dogs are a species that has such a hard time generalising that if you teach Fido to sit, in the kitchen, in front of the fridge, that is where Fido can sit. In short, you will have to re-teach the skill once you move to the living room. Surely it will go faster because the dog has a general understanding of the concept, but it still takes work on your end to help him generalise the behaviour in the living room and the kitchen and really just about everywhere. For this reason, I am willing to claim that a dog who knows crates at home, will not necessarily make the connection at the vet’s office when he sees a crate. There’s also a lot of other factors in play at the vet’s. Firstly, the dog might be sick, in pain or stressed otherwise. It can also smell all the uncomfortable things a vet clinic smells like. And when the dog gets out of treatment, it is likely on strong painkillers and only just coming round from the anaesthetics, so the chance that the crate itself even makes a difference to the dog at that point is just so incredibly small. I’m not saying that prior crate training can’t have any impact, but I wouldn’t put it as the main reason for crating a dog on a daily basis. My own dogs are crate trained for transportation and training purposes.

The last thing I’m going to say about my concerns about crates is the argument that crates are the dog’s safe space because dogs are den animals. Firstly, dogs are not denning animals: dogs, and other members of the Canis family, use dens and caves to raise their young, but not as permanent residences. So what we are basically doing is that when they would normally leave the den at around 8 weeks, we put them in a crate – another den-like place. Another trait of dens and caves is that they do not have doors, the animal is in full control of when they want to enter or exit the space. Our dogs do not have that choice, so this comparison has no relevance in real life.

About the crate being a safe space, I would say any comfy bed of the dog’s preference can do that job. Most dogs walk away when they want peace anyway, and it is our job as humans to respect that. It should not need to hide in a crate to get some peace. If your dog prefers a little crate-cave, so be it, but it is extremely important that we offer them the option to freely choose, either by taking the door off, or securing it so it can’t close by accident.

But, what do I do instead?

I’m going to start this section with a little story. Once upon a long time ago, I had a young dog who got hold of my birth control. My bad. 100%. I was young myself and I instantly called the vet, because I was worried about my pooch. What the vet told me has stuck with me ever since, because after he reassured me that my dog would be just fine (and she was and grew up to be 11 years old), he told me that he did not want another one of these calls from me, because from now on it was my job to make my home fit for a young dog. They were wise words, and he was absolutely right.

The solution was to put my pills, and other loose stuff on my bedside table, into a drawer, clear the surfaces and put shoes into the closet. Simply put, it came down to regular organising of my home, at that point we had already secured cables, just for safety reasons. This young dog was Shorty, a Great Dane-Doberman mix at about 40 kilos at that time, so even if I had known about crates, it simply wouldn’t have been possible for me to fit one at the appropriate size into my home. Shorty grew up to be a well-balanced dog. During the first two years, we did lose a headset or a shoe here and there, but overall we managed with the simple organisation of the home, along with providing proper chewing outlets in the form of bones and toys and giving her age-appropriate exercise. Aside from that, it turned out that there was a pattern to the few things she took. She only stole stuff if we had been home briefly and then left again shortly after the day before. A tiny detail, that provided us with an opportunity to work with the problem, rather than masking it.

Our next puppy, Akira, we got when Shorty was around 9 years old. Before we brought her home we went through the areas she would have access to and sealed off cables with strips and boards. Our staircase was closed off in a similar way, to prevent her from falling down, since she was just a wee thing of 2 kilos when we got her. It didn’t take her long to remind us why shoes should be in the closet. For a period of time, all my shoes seemed to be missing the aglet at the end of the laces… my bad. But, Akira navigates the home well now, she even did well before the age of 1.

Nikuya is our most recent addition to the household, and so far, she has been the most interesting. She actually began to chew at one of our door frames. This was new to us, but we blocked off the door frame, which had the desired effect. But it wasn’t all we did. Because just as I mentioned with Shorty’s thieving tendencies, there was a pattern to be spotted, because it was very specifically the door frame that led to our front door that she had chewed. Not the easily accessible door frame by her bed, table legs or other furniture. No, it was the door frame that was right where she could see the door and the way to the potty place. This lead us to check her for a UTI, and just as suspected, she had a bladder infection and the door frame paid for her frustrations of being unable to get outside. We got her proper treatment and a friend to let her out during the day, in case she needed to pee. Of course, a crate would have saved my door frame, no doubt, but on the other hand, it would have made my way to diagnosing the actual problem much harder, if I even had figured it out. And furthermore, it would have left me with a dog that had a high chance of spending half a day in her own pee, even if it had saved my door frame.

Of course, Nikuya has also stolen a thing here and there, but what all those things have had in common is that I didn’t put them away. Another thing Nikuya has found highly entertaining while she’s home alone is flipping my rugs over in order to chew the backside of them. It was easily fixed with a strategically placed chair and toys scattered around. If it hadn’t worked, we would simply have moved Nikuya to a different room or removed the rugs for a brief period, to prevent self-reinforcing. It’s creative, yes; it puts a certain demand on my skills to manage my home, also true; but on the other hand, I get dogs that I can trust in my home rather fast – Nikuya is currently less than a year old and has already gotten a firm grip on handling the home well. But honestly, with the demands we put on our dogs every day, I find it completely fair that their comfort places some demands on us too – we do have to live together, after all. What I get in return are dogs that are easy to handle after a long day and dogs that have been able to exercise natural behaviour freely while I get a chance to spot changes in behaviour real quick, all because they’re not masked by a crate. And if you ask me, the creativity and the demands are prices worth paying for the comfort of my dogs.

If you feel like you’re ready to embrace a crate-less future, you should know that I am here for you and willing to support you on your journey. If you’re not yet convinced, that’s quite all right too, but I do think that you should do yourself and your dog the favour of introducing the crate properly. In the video below, you can learn how to do that correctly, on your dog’s terms.

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