Talking Pets: A crate is not cruel, it's a canine safe haven

May 3, 2013 

Some pet owners are aghast when someone mentions they crate train their dogs. Frankly, I used to be one of those people who could not stand the idea of caging an animal.

I have since learned that crate training is not only NOT cruel, it's sometimes necessary for the safety and wellbeing of the pet.

And I learned it the hard way.

When Ella came to live with me, a crate came with her. Her foster mom told me it was really the way to go, because Ella was going to be the new dog in the house and it was for her own protection -- not only from Reba, who might protest her joining the family, but from household hazards like electrical cords that sometimes (don't ask me why) look tasty to a dog.

Ella did not like the crate, and actually managed to escape twice. So, foolishly, I thought she had outgrown it and made plans to wean her

off it.

I reasoned that because she would one day need to be the household guard dog, she should learn to be out in the house where she could do some good.

I started her out slowly, leaving her out for an hour or so while I ran errands. She was doing pretty well, and I was really proud of her. The crate went back to her foster mom for another rescue dog.

The first time I left Ella out for four hours when I went to work, it was a disaster. When I got home on my dinner break, there were bloody paw prints all over the house.

She had found a glass on my night stand and took it to the sun room, where she dropped it and it broke on the uncarpeted floor. The "pawtographs" were made after she cut her paw on the broken glass.

Clearly, leaving her out was dangerous, and I felt guilty for having compromised her safety, so I got a crate out of storage and put it together.

I had mixed emotions when putting her in the crate. And yes, she had to be carried to it because she would not go in on her own.

I hated having to crate her because she hated the crate. But I told her it was for her own good, that it was the only way I could keep her safe.

Eventually, she came to love the crate and would go in there all by herself. It helped that I would fill a Kong with kibble and put it in there to give her something to do to pass the time.

When Ella turned 2, I decided to give her another try at being independent. During her trials, she chewed a rug, destroyed a pillow and ate my book of Yeats.

Back to the crate she went.

About six months later, we gave it another go. This time, she was good as gold and I was able to leave her out to keep Reba company in her old age.

All that I learned with Ella and the crate came to good use when Arlo joined us. He has been crated since Day One -- four months now -- and unlike Ella, he seems to actually like it.

In fact, when it's time to leave for work and the Kongs are filled with kibble, (I still do one for Ella), I can tell him, "Arlo ... go get in your little house," and he will run to the crate, open the door with his nose, and trot right in.

And when I get home after even four hours away, he's sitting there patiently, wagging his tail, waiting for me to let him out.

I may need to get a second crate for Ella, not because she's regressed to being a chewer, but because a couple of times when the door has been wide open, she's gone in there and laid down with a look on her face like, "Hey, this is my crate."

And when you think about it rationally, dogs are den animals and their crate truly is their "little house." So it's not cruel at all to crate them, keeping in mind a few things I've learned.

• I make it comfortable for them. Most crates have a foam pad with a removable cover, but you can use a comfy blanket in place of or in addition to that.

• I fill a Kong with kibble to give them something to do and make it desirable to go in the crate in the first place.

• I never use the crate as punishment. It's their safe place, not a place for scolding.

• I limit time in the crate to four hours. Luckily, I can go home at break time to let Arlo out to run a bit and take care of business.

• I don't put a bowl of food or water in the crate. They have a specific place for eating, and the crate is not it. Also, a bowl of water is just going to get spilled and then they will have to lay on a wet pad.

• If bad weather is coming, I will cover the crate with a towel or small blanket to enhance the den effect.

• If a dog has separation anxiety, try taking a piece of clothing that you've worn and put it in there. It will be comforting for them to be able to smell your scent. I suggested this to a friend who was having trouble crating her poodle mix, and he's doing much better.

I remember what it was like to worry about Ella when I knew she was loose in the house. And I know what it's like to have that peace of mind knowing Arlo is safe in his little house while I am gone.

And that peace of mind comes with the crate.

M.K. Means, Herald copy editor, can be reached at 941-745-7054 or followed on Twitter @BradentonPets.

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