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Are Dogs Really Den Animals?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Are dogs den animals... and do they really feel safer in crates?

Are dogs den animals... and do they really feel safer in crates?

Are Dogs Truly Den Animals?

We are often told that dogs are den animals, and therefore they should instinctively understand and enjoy being crated, but is there any truth to that? What is the verdict? Are dogs den animals or not?

A good place to start is by evaluating what a den animal truly is and what types of animals engage in denning behaviors. Let's take a look at some authoritative sources and try to shed some light on this subject of controversy.

What Are Den Animals?

From a human perspective, a den is considered a part of a house. Basically, it's a room similar to a living room, but not big enough to be a family room. A human den is depicted as a haven for tranquility and comfort.

In the animal world, a den is a burrow, basically a hole built by ground-dwelling animals. The purpose is to protect the animal from hungry predators and extreme temperatures. Common den animals are moles, groundhogs and gophers. These critters have made the den their primary, permanent residence.

Dogs don't seem to qualify as den animals. Yes, they seem to have an instinct to hide in small places or may enjoy snuggling in the blankets, but dogs don't live year-round in a den nor do they dig to burrow themselves in a tunnel to live for most of the year.

In other words, you won't likely see a dog emerge from its burrow just like a groundhog does in Punxsutawney on February 2nd! Even wolves in the wild don't typically live in a den; rather, they seem to make their beds under conifer trees in areas where they can have unobstructed views of their surroundings.

David Mech, a wildlife research biologist who studied wolves notes that after a kill, wolves seek out open areas to lie down and sleep. If the weather is snowy or windy, they may alternatively seek protected areas under evergreen trees.

Understanding Maternal Dens

So if dogs aren't den animals, why are they often referred to as such, and why do so many people say to crate dogs because crates mimic dens? Well, there is a half-truth about dens not many people are aware of. The correct approach is therefore not to claim that canines are den animals, but to claim that they are animals whose ancestors were once born and raised in maternal dens.

What are maternal dens? A maternity den is simply a place where a mother gives birth and nurtures her young during a vulnerable life stage. Canines are born helpless, deaf, blind and barely crawling so their risks in the outdoor world would be quite risky. The maternal den would, therefore, keep the pups protected from the outside elements and potential predators.

Common animals known for using maternal dens include polar bears, which create maternal dens underground or in a snow cave; African Wild Dogs, whose maternal dens are used by the alpha female and are guarded by her pack members; and red foxes, who create a maternal den after mating by using an old woodchuck burrow.

Wolves, which are considered to be the ancestors of the modern dog, do use maternal dens but for a brief period of time, generally, up until the pups reach 10 to 12 weeks of age.

At this age, the pups start using the den less and instead start using special rendezvous areas which are similar to open-air kindergartens. Dingoes appear to engage in similar behavior, moving the pups away from the dens and up to these areas as early as 8 weeks old.

Let's clarify, though, that Canis familiaris (dogs) are not wolves. Yes, they still share the same chromosomes, but they have been separated by them for a very long time.

Despite that, female dogs in a domestic setting who are nearing birth will engage in "nesting behaviors." That means, they will scratch and dig in the couch or other areas of the home as if they were going to build a den.

If you're wondering whether to crate your dog, read on.

If you're wondering whether to crate your dog, read on.

So Are Crates Considered Dens or Maternal Dens?

The marketing propaganda of crates suggests that crates are like a home and that dogs seek them because they resemble a den. Well, if dogs aren't den animals in the real sense of the word, then there is no reason for them to see it from that romantic perspective.

You can think that crates resemble maternal dens, since they are snug and repaired, but then most dogs are introduced to crates right when in nature, pups would come out of the den and explore their open-air rendezvous areas! This would be similar to putting a toddler, who has started to enjoy the exhilarating sensation of walking around and exploring, back into a crib.

So what are crates then? According to the Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols by Steven R. Lindsay, "The crate would not be a home, nor would it be a den, but more appropriately would simply be a 'place for confinement.'"

Most dogs indeed require coaxing and positive associations when you start introducing a crate. If crates were so natural, dogs would be lured to them like magnets.

Many dogs I have fostered were very hesitant of crates, since they perhaps resembled a trap, a small place with no exit, and after being confined in a shelter that's probably the last place they would go. Even puppies are quite skeptical of crates when they first see them. You'll have to toss treats and put toys.

However, through positive associations, most dogs learn to accept these places as confinement just like they learn to accept leashes and collars, and may even voluntarily seek them out when they want to be cozy and get away from it all.

Just to clarify: This article is not against crates. Actually, when introduced properly, crates can be quite effective management tools in certain circumstances. Some older/rescue dogs seem to do better with play-pens but I still introduce crates to puppies and crate my dogs when they are in the car (it's the law in some places).

This article is simply to debunk the over-inflated notion that dogs see them as dens because they are den animals by nature.

So what about the so-called denning instinct? You know, that innate desire dogs seem to have and that makes them want to stay in small places?

Well, it looks like part of those instincts may stem from an animal's normal instinct to hide when they start getting overwhelmed. You may notice how Scruffy goes under the bed when the kids are too much to handle, or how Rover goes under the table when he sees you with the nail clipper.

For the sake of comparison, even your cat will seek out secretive spaces in drawers or under a coach, but we never think of them as den animals! Even we humans tend to curl up in a ball in a fetal position to protect ourselves or seek comfort when scared or cold.

Yes, it's true that dogs in the wild used to make their own bed by stepping on the grass, flattening it and scaring off critters such as spiders and snakes. Yes, it's true that they often dug a hole to keep cool in the hot, summer months. But these doggie beds were a far cry from a crate. There were not made of plastic and most of all, they did not have a door that closed them for indefinite periods of time.

So are dog den animals? Conclusions seem to suggest they are not, yet the myth of the denning instinct seems to persist and may never end.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 18, 2019:

Jeffrey, you are missing the point of the article. It was never said that dogs do not dig into things and spend time there. It was just said that dogs are not long-term den animals like moles, groundhogs and gophers and that they may use maternal dens but for a limited time.

Unless your dogs spend all the time in those straw bales and have developed small eyes from living in darkness, then they are not denning animals by definition.

This article was written to debunk the myth that dogs are den animals and therefore should naturally enjoy being crated without much conditioning involved.

Jeffrey on March 22, 2019:

Bs , I grew up on a farm!! Dogs would find the tightest smallest places!! Would dig into a straw bale instead of their big house!! If they had pups even smaller!! You don’t know shit!!

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on August 31, 2014:

They are border collies after all - lol

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 31, 2014:

Sounds like the bitches are building maternal dens and then the pups seek them out to cool off during the warm seasons. Smart pups!

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on August 31, 2014:

My border collie bitches dig dens, and intend to have their puppies in them.

The first den they dug would hold 3 adult females comfortably underground. Eventually it collapsed, and they dug another one on the side of the house. In the spring and summer, the puppies will go into the den to sleep or cool off when it is hot outside.

Luna will not have puppies in her whelping box unless it is covered with a dark comforter to block out the light. I have den animals lol.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 16, 2013:

Yes, it's true that dogs seem to seek the crate as security just as I mentioned in the article, they by instinct will go under a bed to hide or snooze under a chair, but so do cats, and we don't think of cats as den animals! But I'm not too fast to think it's instinctive. You should see how fosters dogs and shelter dogs react to a crate. Try to put a pup who has never been in a crate and close it; the pup will likely whine and try to find a way out.. If it was so ingrained, all these dogs would immediately recognize the crate as a normal place to be, instead, 99% of them feel trapped and need to be conditioned to them, just as collars and leashes as you mention. Some dogs I fostered never found security in the crate, unless I left the crate always open, many dogs unfortunately have started associating the crate with social isolation (every time they're locked up the owners leave) and that's the last place they want to be!

Melissa A Smith from New York on January 15, 2013:

Dogs aren't wolves, they are neotenic wolves...also known as 'juvenile wolves'. Essentially, their psychology is closer to that of wolf pups, so I wonder if this is why they tend to accept crate training better than other animals. I don't think anyone claims that crates are 'natural' but that they play on an instinct, that of the animal's security. They still require training so that the animal knows what's expected of them, similar to a leash in which the dog's natural instincts of learning from people is utilized so that the dog understands a leash to be a guiding tool. Many people enjoy the use of crates as a calming factor when it's properly used.

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on January 14, 2013:

I have always questioned crating an animal. Would you want to be in a box all day.

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on January 01, 2013:

Great info! I always wondered why people crated their dogs--all day long. I couldn't do it to mine--never did. Great article--I found it linked to Dr. Mark's hub. Voted up and more!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 29, 2012:

ktrapp, I was raised in Europe for most of my childhood and crates were hardly known there. It seems that crates have become a part of modern commodity, a place to park a dog when the owners are too busy. When I got my first dogs here in the States, a trainer told me to use a crate and I had the same results as yours. Now, when I foster pups, I do still use crates, not to crate them but to get them used to them just in case the new owners want to use the crates in the future. I introduce them through lots of positive associations. But my preferred potty technique now is to use a play pen/or section of house where there are tiles/easy washable surfaces with food and toys and water bowls in one area and pee pads in the other. Thanks for stopping by!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 29, 2012:

DrMark, it's not natural and that's my point of the article. I want to debunk this big myth. I have looked for many years for good evidence and now that I am studying to become a behavior consultant Steven Lindsey's Handbook once and for all gave me the proof I was looking for. My point of the article wasn't though to make them sound like prison cells or heavenly homes. That's perhaps a good argument for another article. I tried to stay out of the subject as it's controversial as you know. I personally rather use play pens-baby gates than crates when I have the option. But when I board and train and they provide me a dog that has been used to be crated from puppyhood I abide to their requests to crate, especially when used as a management tool and when dealing with dogs who put themselves in peril when left at home (eating/chewing stuff). I personally don't crate my dogs but they crate themselves. In other words, I have these big dogs crates ALWAYS left open and they voluntarily go there to take a nap. My fosters-as seen in the picture-love them when they are always open. My male goes there everyday and that's were he gets his Kong. Unfortunately, crates are often misused, and the myth of them being dens will persist and this is what makes them problematic.

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on December 29, 2012:

I must admit I have always been confused by the crate/den concept or the idea of crating a dog. When I was a kid everyone seemed to have dogs and there were no crates. The first puppy I ever got was two years ago and so I got a crate because I read that was the best way to housebreak a dog. It didn't work at all. As a matter of fact she had accidents in the middle of the night, every night in that crate and I had read that they never would do that in their "den." As soon as I said forget the crate for sleeping at night, and let her sleep with one of the kids, the accidents stopped. She has free roam of the house and her crate is just a nice bed that she goes in when she feels like it, with the door always fully open. Thanks for the information, especially about how denning is really something that mothers and newborns puppies use; that helps clear up the misconception for me.

Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on December 29, 2012:

Although you state that this article is not against crating, in my opinion it should be. Incarcerating dogs is wrong. I have been around a lot of feral dogs here and when I lived in North Africa, and the only time a dog uses a den is when she is about to give birth.

I get so tired of hearing all these "experts" telling new dog owners that it is okay, it is natural. It is not natural. Hiding under the bed and table are not similar to locking a dog up in a cage.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 28, 2012:

Lol, Larry! Who knows if those hiding instincts were taking over so you could feel protected by the average bear who would lick your toes in the middle of the night?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 28, 2012:

Hi midget38, thanks for stopping by, I agree that terriers love to burrow(even in blankets) but I believe this is more because of their past use for hunting burrowing animals more than living in a "den" in the real sense of the word as groundhogs do.

Larry Fields from Northern California on December 28, 2012:

Hi alexadry,

I remember from California childhood family reunions, that I sometimes felt more comfortable sitting under the kitchen table. Ditto for some other kids. When backpacking, I sometimes prefer sleeping in a lightweight tent--even when the sleeping bag is plenty warm, and I know that it's not going to rain. Am I a denning animal, a caveman, or what?

Voted up and interesting.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on December 28, 2012:

Hi Alexandry. I enjoyed this read very much! My take on it is the breed of dog...some dogs like terriers are den inclined because of being bred for burrowing. My dog loves hiding under the sofa. You are spot on in saying that, though they love their dens, the purpose for why they are being used makes the difference. A dog crate is indeed useful when he barks too much at night, for example. Thanks for sharing! Be back to read more!