Are Dogs Really Den Animals?
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 less the den 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 are separated by them from 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.
So Are Crates Considered Dens, Maternal Dens, or What?
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 world, 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 a quite skeptic 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 for 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 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 us 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