To crate or not to crate?
I think crates are great… for the most part. The part where crates are not great? When they are used in place of relationship-building and training. Let me explain.
Using a crate to restrict a puppy that you can’t watch, or to housetrain a puppy, that’s great. Using a crate to provide a safe place for your dog to rest, that’s great too. Using a crate to protect your dog, or others, is okay. But using a crate to restrict your dog because you can’t be bothered training him is definitely not okay.
Years ago, when I first got into agility, I would take my yellow Lab, Shiloh, to competitions. He wasn’t a skilled competitor and I wasn’t a skilled handler, but I loved going to the competitions because it meant I would be spending a day or a weekend with him. I didn’t have to think about anything else – not work, not household responsibilities, not my other animals – I just got to be with him and enjoy being with him. At the trial sites, and at the campsites (I loved camping with him), I took him everywhere. He was with me 24/7. Even into the shower and the porta potty!
What always surprised and disappointed me was how few other people did the same thing. Most of the dogs were crated. They would be crated until shortly before their turn to run the course. At that point they’d be taken out of their crates, taken for a short on-leash run to pee and/or poop, and then taken into the ring to run the course. Once that was over they would get a short play and then put back into their crates. And ignored, while their owners socialized.
Now, maybe some of those dogs preferred to be in the safe surroundings of their crate but the only way to really know that is to spend time with your dog. As you move your dog towards the crate, the question you have to ask is … “Why am I crating my dog? Is it for him or for me?”
Many owners tell themselves it’s better for the dog, it gives them a safe place to destress. But I think that many of them would actually enjoy having the attention of their owners, either playing or learning something new or just hanging out together. You know, doing relationship stuff.
Hanging around in between agility runs – either at trials or in classes – is a great time to have some useful fun with your dog. It was at agility trials that I taught Shiloh to have a brilliant stay. While I walked the course to determine my handling options, Shiloh was by himself, ringside, in a down-stay, watching me. He became absolutely rock solid. Despite all the activity around him, he never moved.
Some dogs have trouble focussing, so in between agility runs is a great time to engage a dog in focus games. If a dog gets over-excited in busy venues, locking him in a crate won’t fix that, but learning to read him, providing some engagement games to occupy his mind, and teaching him self-control, will. Some dogs need to shake off the stress of competing, so a calm walk with their owner, followed by a relaxed down beside the owner’s chair can relieve the anxiety. When the dog knows his owner is there for him, advocating for him, he rarely needs to be locked up.
Crating a dog is sometimes necessary, but it shouldn’t become a crutch. The time we have with our dogs is short enough; I think we should make the most of every moment.