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Dog den instinct

Dog den instinct

When talking about reasons to crate train dogs, many well-meaning dog lovers refer to dogs’ “natural den instinct.” Because we humans are so strongly connected to our personal space and sense of shelter, we assume that other creatures must be too. Images in various media also give the impression that wolves naturally live in dens. This provides a biological rationale for crate training—a simple fulfillment of a dog’s instinct to have an enclosed space to call its own. However, as we shall see, this particular notion is unfounded.

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. Wolves in the wild certainly do not “live” in dens. On the contrary, they roam vast territories, sometimes more than a thousand square miles, in search of food. The only time wolves use dens is for breeding. Wolves are born blind and helpless and need time to develop before being exposed to the harsh world. Before giving birth, the wolf pack digs or finds a suitable burrow. This is where the mother will give birth and for the next four weeks the cubs will stay in or near the den. Even during this time, the mother wolf does not necessarily live in the den – she may go out hunting, leaving another member of the pack to look after the cubs. As soon as they are able to 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 this den for the birth of the next litter, they may just as easily abandon it altogether.

So if wolves don’t live in dens and dogs are as close as possible to wolves, it seems unlikely that dogs have any “den instinct”. So why are dog crates so popular and valuable as training tools? The answer is simply that dogs are (in this case, unlike wolves) docile, trainable animals. They have been bred for thousands of years to accept easy conditioning by humans and to accept the conditions we put them in. This could mean anything from Paris Hilton’s high-fashion dog-in-a-bag lifestyle to the desperate and brutal life in the pit of fighting dogs. Dogs have no more instinct to live in a crate than humans have to drive a car – but in both cases, education trumps biology. Crate training is helpful because a dog crate is an easy way to limit a dog’s access to inappropriate objects or areas. Also, dogs develop an instinctive desire not to soil themselves with their own waste – therefore, confining them to a small area teaches them to “hold” and aids the littering process.

The purpose of this article is simply to show that approaches to dog training do not need a false “natural” justification. The reasons to use dog crates as part of a training regimen are good enough on their own without making up behavioral elements that don’t exist. Dogs, like humans, are intelligent and adaptable, and nurture will generally win out over nature. So ignore the talk of “den instinct” and focus on “den education”.

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