A dog’s den instinct

When discussing reasons to crate train dogs, many well-intentioned dog lovers refer to the “natural den instinct” of canines. Since we humans are so intensely connected to our private space and sense of refuge, we assume that other creatures must be too. Depictions in various media have also created the impression that wolves naturally reside in dens. This provides a biological rationale for crate training: a simple fulfillment of a canine instinct to have an enclosed space to call its own. However, as we shall see, this particular notion is ill-founded.

Dogs are direct descendants of gray wolves (Canis lupus) and are almost genetically identical: only 0.2% of their genetic code differs from each other. Wild wolves certainly don’t “live” in burrows. Quite the contrary, they roam large territories, sometimes more than a thousand square miles wide, in search of food. The only time wolves use burrows is to breed. Wolf pups are born blind and helpless, and must have time to develop before they are exposed to the rigors of the rest of the world. Before birth, the wolf pack will dig or find a suitable hollow space. This is where the mother will give birth, and for the next four weeks the pups will remain in or near the den. Even during this time, the mother wolf does not necessarily live in the dense jungle where she can go hunting, leaving another member of the pack behind to care for the pups. As soon as they can do so safely, the cubs leave the den to begin traveling and hunting with the rest of the pack. Although the pack may return to that den for the birth of the next litter, they may just as easily abandon it entirely.

So if wolves don’t live in dens, and dogs are the closest thing to wolves you can get, it seems unlikely that dogs have any “den instincts”. Why then are dog crates so popular and valuable as training tools? The answer is simply that dogs are (in this case, unlike wolves) towable and trainable animals. They have been bred for thousands of years to readily accept human conditioning and accept the conditions we place them in. That can mean anything from the couture lifestyle of a Paris Hilton “mail dog” to the desperate and brutal lives of fighting dogs. Dogs have no more instinct to live in a cage than humans do to drive a car, but in both cases, education trumps biology. Crate training is useful because a dog crate is an easy way to restrict a dog’s access to inappropriate items or areas. Additionally, dogs develop an instinctive desire not to soil themselves with their own waste; therefore, confining them to a small area teaches them to “suck it up” and aids in the housebreaking process.

The purpose of this article is simply to demonstrate that approaches to dog training do not need a spurious “natural” rationale. The reasons for using dog crates as part of a training regimen are good enough on their own without fabricating nonexistent behavioral elements. Dogs, like people, are intelligent and adaptable, and nurture will usually win out over nature. So stop talking about “den instinct” and focus on “den education.”

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