A scary experience and year at home during the pandemic showed a dog owner why crating their dog while out of the house is vitally important
It was a scene that no dog owner ever wants to come home to witness.
There were a few torn papers by the door, hinting at a trail of clues that led to the epicenter of the destruction. My brain refused to process what my eyes were reporting: one gluttonous dog lay, panting, in the remains of a 5-pound box of dog treats; a box of miscellaneous household items was ripped apart, including—inexplicably—freshly shattered lightbulbs; the young dog stood tentatively at the edge of the war zone, a mix of pride and remorse on her face. Then my breath caught in my throat when I saw it: a bottle of flavored anti-inflammatory medicine with the top chewed off. My hands trembled as I fumbled with my phone to dial the emergency vet.
“We need to see the dog immediately,” I said.
But which one? I stared at both dogs, imploring them to ‘fess up. I sniffed their breath, hoping for a whiff of medicine, but all I smelled was peanut butter cookie. Half of the bottle was missing and I had no idea which dog needed life-saving treatment. That meant both were heading for the emergency room.
Veterinary hospitals don’t offer 2-for-1 deals, so the cost of the emergency was doubled. The emotional cost was also doubled as my sweet old dog and promising new pup were both purged, flushed, and monitored for signs of liver failure. Both dogs revealed plenty of foreign objects in their stomachs, but 24 hours of lab tests revealed which dog was really in danger. It turned out to be the bossy older dog whose liver values spiked—it would’ve been my guess, too, but I was unwilling to risk the life of the puppy to save a few dollars—and earned the week-long stay at the hospital while we desperately hoped for her survival.
Guilt overcame me while I waited for positive news from the vet. I’d only just started leaving the young dog out of her crate while we were away at work for the day. She’d proven trustworthy and I felt better about giving her some space to move around. I’ll never know exactly what happened that day, but something triggered her to climb a bookshelf, knock the cookies and the medicine to the ground, and rummage through boxes normally out of her reach. It was all out of character for her, but none of that mattered. What mattered was that I’d allowed her to find trouble and risk the lives of both of my dogs.
Both dogs survived the incident, though it was expensive and traumatic and left our older dog with permanent liver damage. The experience caused me to reexamine my guilt around crating a dog for extended periods. Was I projecting my human perspective onto the dogs? Was it really better for the dogs to be crated during the day?
Dogs sleep a lot
Working from home during 2020 opened my eyes to the daily habits of our dogs. You know what they do all day? They sleep. They don’t wander around, they don’t take in the view out the back window, and they don’t flip on the TV to catch up on soaps. They sleep. A lot. And when they are awake, they lounge. It’s a good life.
This makes sense when you consider the typical life of a predator in the wild. Where prey animals are typically grazing or browsing for long periods of time while they attempt to extract every possible calorie out of a leaf, predator lifestyles are characterized by bursts of hunting energy followed by a protein- and fat-rich meal. Our dogs may be far removed from their wild ancestors, but they still have the preprogrammed lifestyle of a predator.
Dogs require physical and mental exercise
That’s not to say that you can just lock your dog in a crate for 40 hours a week and expect her to be physically and mentally fulfilled. Even though they sleep and rest a lot, a predator’s waking hours are extremely active and expend a lot of energy. The same is true for our dogs—while an individual dog’s exercise needs vary based on breed, age, and genetics, the need for physical and mental exercise is always there.
If you are away from home at a full-time job, be sure to schedule regular exercise for your dog during the week. For many dogs, especially hunting breeds, this must include mental exercise in addition to just working their muscles. Backyard training, an off-leash walk through the forest; there are many options that can work their brains as well as their bodies.
Safety is critical
As I learned the hard way, the safety of my dogs is far more important than my perception of their freedom. Dog-proofing your house is difficult and an unsupervised dog can surprise you with their behavior, especially if it’s triggered by an unexpected event. Even though I thought that I’d stored the medicine and household items in a safe, out-of-reach location, it was no match for a determined, athletic dog.
There are many ways to confine your dog in a safe location where they cannot hurt themselves or put themselves in danger. For example, you can use an outdoor kennel with a comfortable shelter. You can use gates or doors to confine your dog to a safe area of your house—but be warned that a determined dog can probably jump or climb a gate if they get especially worked up. An appropriately-sized crate is perhaps the safest and most mistake-proof option for keeping your unsupervised dog out of trouble.
And let go of the guilt around confining your dog for the day. If properly crate-trained and exposed to the crate in a positive way, the dog already views her crate as a safe den where she can relax comfortably. As long as she’s properly exercised at other times of the day, the sleeping and lounging hours can easily take place within the safety and comfort of her kennel.