I was more than a little surprised to find that there is an active campaign being pursued to ban the use of kennel crates for dogs. This has resulted in a number of articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines, as well as vigorous lobbying attempts to get the use of kennel crates for dogs classified as a form of animal abuse.
There are some methods of restraining and confining dogs which have problems. Tying out dogs on chains or ropes for excessive amounts of time has been shown to have negative effects. Obviously tying a dog out for long periods without access to adequate shelter from the elements can be harmful to a dog's health. However there are also psychological problems that result from this practice, the major one being that it increases the level of aggression in dogs. The reason for this is that a dog's first response to anything that it interprets as a threat is to run away from the situation. Restraining a dog on a short tether prevents him from fleeing, and therefore, the dog self protectively chooses to attack whoever he sees as a potential danger before they get a chance to harm him. This aggressive attack behavior soon becomes habitual — a fact that has been recognized for a long time. There is even a manuscript recovered from the ruins of Pompeii which describes the procedure for turning a dog into an effective guard dog, and its major recommendation is to tether the dog on a short lead near the door of the home or other premise that needs to be protected.
Contrary to the information on the use of tie outs, I knew of no evidence suggesting that the judicious use of kennel crates can cause problems for dogs. In fact, there is a reasonable consensus among dog behaviorists which suggests that the use of a kennel crate is extremely helpful in many ways. A lot of evidence indicates that it is much easier to housebreak a puppy if it is taken out to eliminate before bedtime, placed in a kennel crate overnight, and then taken out again to eliminate first thing in the morning. Use of the kennel crate can also prevent destructive habits from developing, since if the dog is placed in a kennel crate when one is out of the house for short times the puppy never has the opportunity to learn about the pleasures of chewing on your furniture.
Many of the negative attitudes toward the kennel crate seem to arise from people anthropomorphizing. Obviously a human being would not like to have their freedom curtailed and to be confined to a small space. Indeed, one of the ways that was used by the North Vietnamese to attempt to psychologically break prisoners of war was to keep them in small confined cages. However dogs are not people. The major progenitor of dogs was the wolf, and wolves spend a good deal of their day in a den. Dens are simply small caves, or burrows that the wolf had dug out. These often provide just enough space for the animal to stand up and turn around. The den is viewed by these canines as a place of safety and our domestic dogs seem to have inherited that behavioral predisposition. A kennel crate can serve as an artificial den for our pet dogs and when provided with a pad or a towel to rest on, and perhaps a chew toy, it can become a place of comfort and security. Most dogs that have grown up in houses where a crate is available will tend to seek it out as their private place to calmly rest from the bustle of activity around them. For this reason I keep a kennel crate in a corner near our living room with its door propped open. At almost any time during the day I am apt to find one or another of my dogs comfortably snoozing away in the crate. When the house is invaded by our flock of small grandchildren this kennel becomes a refuge from little hands, especially since the kids have already been instructed that they are not to disturb the dog when he is in "his house."
Thinking, perhaps, that I had missed some new scientific data against the advisability of crating dogs I reviewed the current research literature on crating and found nothing negative, however I did encounter what appears to be one of the sources of this new negative attitude toward kennel crates. Apparently, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) recently began an ad campaign condemning the use of crates for dogs, under any circumstances. Thus a recent half page ad in the Wall Street Journal has the heading "Be an Angel for Animals" and goes on to say "Don't ever crate or chain them."
I therefore decided to check the PETA website to see what their arguments against crating were. Instead of finding any data I found only polemics, with statements like "No matter what a pet shop owner or dog trainer might say, 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."
As I paged through the various articles on their website, it became quite clear to me that PETA is not against the practice of crating, but it is actually against the practice of pet ownership. Thus they state "we believe that it would have been in the animals' best interests if the institution of 'pet keeping'-i.e., breeding animals to be kept and regarded as 'pets'-never existed." They also go on to say, "This selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them causes immeasurable suffering".
The crux of their argument against pet keeping seems to be that we are "depriving them of the opportunity to engage in their natural behavior. They are restricted to human homes, where they must obey commands and can only eat, drink, and even urinate when humans allow them to." I must admit that I found this to be particularly puzzling and unsatisfying. My wife and I have raised five children, and have nine grandchildren, and when they were young they were taught to obey simple commands and requests as part of their socialization. Our children were only given the opportunity to eat and drink according to our scheduling, and certainly were not allowed to urinate anytime and anywhere that they chose during the period of their toilet training. We certainly did not feel that we were engaging in child abuse by utilizing these basic child-rearing practices. To treat a dog in much the same way that we treat our own children, including providing the love and support that they need, does not appear to me to constitute animal abuse, or an argument against the keeping of pets.
I believe that PETA really has no scientific evidence to support the complete abolishment of the use of the kennel crate. It seems to me that their actual desire for banning crating is that in so doing they would make keeping dogs in the house more difficult and the housebreaking of puppies less reliable. This advances their anti-pet agenda by taking away some of the pleasure of pet keeping and in that way it would further their programme aimed at denying us the companionship of our dogs and cats.
Unfortunately they have been having a modicum of success. Because of such misleading publicity and lobbying campaigns there are a number of venues that have passed laws against tying dogs out. This is sensible if we were dealing with tethering dogs for long periods of time, or without adequate shelter, but some of the legislation has been as extreme as the ad campaigns used by PETA which incorporate words like "don't ever". Thus here in my hometown of Vancouver, a woman was recently fined $250 because she tied her dog's leash to a bicycle rack while she ducked into a grocery store to pick up a couple of items. The dog was tied out for less than 10 minutes, and could easily be seen by its owner through the store's window. Tying a dog out for a few minutes on a shopping trip does not constitute dog abuse, but legislating against such a common practice could discourage people from having dogs since it would mean they could not take their pets with them when they move around town. This appears to be the kind of thing that PETA really wants to advance — to bring about an end to the keeping of dogs and cats as pets — not the protection of animals.
Stanley Coren Ph.D., F.R.S.C., Canine Corner