Soliciting Advice: Time Perception in Dogs, or, Another Dang Post About the Crate

Crate Picture UprightSo Shiva has this crate. I might have written about it once before. It’s hard to remember. This singular item has been a gigantic focus of drama and contention in my life for so long that I have no idea what I have said and to whom. Considering how much I loathe the dang thing, I know I have spent a terrible amount of time defending it.

The thing is, I will always defend it. This bothers me. One of the reasons I hate it so much is the fact that so many people have their own opinions on the subject and each believes she is right. There are a lot of areas in dog training that are factious. The use of the crate is right up there with prong collars and raw food. I don’t like that I automatically leap to the defensive side when it is mentioned. My shoulders tense, my forehead wrinkles, and I feel my lower lip slide into a pout. I like to think I am the kind of person who is open, who questions her assumptions, and who can listen to alternative points of view. When it comes to the crate, the arguments become personal. Thus, my mind remains closed.

No doubt you have your own ideas of the what the crate represents. Some of you may use it with your dogs without question and some of you may look upon it has a cage of horror. You are both correct. Because if I have learned anything during this enterprise of dog ownership, it is that success has more to do with the actions and feelings of the human than it does with right and wrong. There is no perfect way to get things done that works for all dogs. But if you feel like crap about something, your dog will too.

But I digress. I feel like I am repeating myself. Another philosophical discussion is not the purpose of today’s blathering.

As I say, Shiva has this crate. Shiva also has separation anxiety. This same metal box has been an intrinsic part of the formula for keeping her safe for the last five years. Whether you agree or disagree with its use in this situation is irrelevant. We’ve used it, Shiva knows what it means, and we can all earn our pay cheques without worrying she is hanging herself on the blinds. Even though the crate has enabled us to move on, I still hate it. I hate putting her in there every morning. Always have. I made peace with it, yes, but I have never liked it. Not because I think crate training is bad but because it is not the ideal way for Shiva to spend an afternoon. It is one of my biggest personal failures that we are still using this thing after five years.

I feel like I should underline that.

There has been some headway.

The crate is currently located in our bedroom, not because she sleeps in it at night but because it is a room in which she feels safe and comfortable. The light is low and we can close the door to prevent our jerkwad cat from harassing her. She has her blanket and her Kong and her water and she trusts that we will return. She knows that her only job is to lick peanut butter and sleep. Recently, with my heart in her indelicate paws, when we have gone out for only short periods of time, such as to the grocery store on weekend afternoons, I have taken the chance of leaving the door to the crate open.

Crate picture landscape

The routine is just the same. I take her outside for a potty break. I prepare her Kong of deliciousness. I refresh her water bowl and straighten her blanket. Shiva dashes inside the crate like it is the answer to all her hopes and dreams. I wait for her to lay down and then I give her the toy. She forgets I exist and dives in to her snack. On a typical day I would then close the crate, turn out the light, and then shut the door of the bedroom. But now, on the occasional short jaunt, I have been skipping the step with the crate lock.

So far, we have seen very positive success. Not only has she not hurt herself, but she behaves in just the same way she does as if the crate door was closed. With one significant difference: when we return home she is not locked in the small space but she is lying on our bed. It is a much happier sight, let me tell you. She is not relaxed, I wouldn’t say that, but her location cozied up to our pillows looks so much more… Natural?

I would love to give this a try for slightly longer stretches of time but am so scared of what could happen. We have done this before – experimented, played with the process, attempted to give her more freedom – and it never worked out. She just couldn’t handle it. Having free reign of even one room proved to be too stressful.

Is she ready now?

I guess there is only one way to know. But is it worth risking her safety? Should we just continue on as we are? Is it better to give up on my dream of one day walking out the front door with Shiva snoozing on the sofa?

The big question I am hoping you can help me answer is: how do dogs perceive time? 

Is leaving Shiva alone in the house for one hour the same as leaving her alone for three? Do you think she knows the difference? If she can handle 60 minutes without being in the crate, is it possible she could deal with four times that?

I’d love to know what you think. In all of your observations of dogs, in all your tremendous amounts of reading, do you think they perceive time the way humans do? Do you think it feels longer to them or shorter?

Please, if you have any thoughts on this subject, no matter how obscure, I’d be so grateful if you would share them.

15 thoughts on “Soliciting Advice: Time Perception in Dogs, or, Another Dang Post About the Crate

  1. I once had a dog that insisted on being locked in her crate at night. She did this on her own as we would have let her sleep anywhere she wanted. She would come and get me when she was ready to go to bed (every night about 10pm). If I didn’t shut the crate door she would bark right away. If I only shut the door and didn’t lock it, she would come and get me after a while. I tried it one night about 10 times before I gave up and locked the kennel door.

    My current dogs taught themselves to run into their kennels when someone knocks or rings the doorbell. They prefer that to being locked in the bedroom.

    I’m not sure how dogs tell time. Mine seem to be aware of schedules, e.g. feeding time, walking time, when I come home from work. I think the thing with leaving Shiva out of the crate is that even if she isn’t aware of the time, she will eventually think of something to get into. So leaving her out for longer periods just increases the chance that she will think of something.


  2. I’m fairly confident that this won’t be a helpful answer, but here goes. 🙂 When we were dealing with Emmett’s separation anxiety a trainer told us that (unless something crazy happens like a thunderstorm, knock at the door, whatever) the bulk of his distress will occur immediately after our departure. That seemed to be true for him, so once we built him up to short durations – and that took ages and ages – it was a single leap to longer periods of time. I’m not sure if I’m explaining it clearly, but once he was fine being out in the kitchen for 5 min, then 10, then 20, until about an hour, we were able to think skip ahead to a whole 3 hours or afternoon or whatever. I’m not sure it has anything to do with a perception of time, but rather an acuteness and then waning of anxiety.


  3. Well, I’ll try again…when I tried to publish a comment from my iPod, I kept getting an error message about a spam bot. I think my connection just didn’t want to cooperate.

    I was going to suggest getting one of those webcam apps for your smartphone so you could watch her from a few houses away. But then I thought I remembered that you have an “old-fashioned” cellphone like me. So scratch that idea.

    Do dogs have any perception of time? I have no idea. I know that when Callie and Shadow were younger, they always seemed to know what time I’d be home from work. Now that they’re older, they just take naps when I’m not home. And Ducky chews on her Nylabone barbell, or takes a nap, in her crate. Sometimes, when I get home from having a long lunch with friends or running errands, all three of the dogs will be sacked out when I walk in the house and not hear me until I say “who wants to go out?”

    I hear ya about the crate; but I’ve come to accept it as a useful tool. I used to associate crates with the kennels in pet stores back home. As in cruel and inhumane “prisons”. But when I got my own dog, she needed to be in a safe place during the day while I was working. Her breeder strongly suggested a crate, so I bit the bullet. And I was always glad that I did because she felt safe in it. And she was safe. At the time Callie and Shadow were puppies, we didn’t have room for a crate. We should have made room somehow, but at least I had time to come home at lunchtime to take care of them. And Ducky spent most of the first five months of her life in a crate/kennel at the shelter before we adopted her. She feels safe in her crate, and it’s her place to get away from her big sisters when I’m not home.


  4. Of course I don’t have the answer. But I will give you my thoughts. I get a far different greeting when I am gone for a couple of hours, than if say I run out to the store. Usually if I’m gone less than an hour I’m not even sure my dogs notice. After two or three hours I get a similar greeting to the one I get when I come home.

    As for the crate I used to be one of those people who thought they were horrible. I don’t remember ever having crates for our dogs growing up, but then again different training methods were also used when I was a kid. 😦

    My thought is this. What if you gave her free run of the house and she still chose the crate? Would you feel badly about that? I ask because my dogs usually have free run of the house (Sampson is currently confined to one room due to his surgery) and even with full run, they still gravitate to the same spots.

    If she feels safe there, I think that’s a good thing. 🙂


  5. I think it is a bit different with greyhounds, they either come with the idea that the crate means security, or they hate it with a passion. Mouse still goes into her crate on her own volition when she needs time out or needs to be away from something scary (like the vacuum cleaner). She sleeps in her crate too. I sometimes crate her if I am taking other dogs out but leaving her behind because it stops her from trying to escape out the front door and barking at the window as we walk past. She was crated during the day when I was at work too, because her previous adopter told so many tales about the things she destroyed when left to her own devices. Thing is, when we let her free in the house for short time periods, we came back to everything intact. I just took the leap and left her at home all day free in the house with the others. She was fine! The only things destroyed so far have been a few cheap dog beds…. from too much ‘nesting’. Being able to crate her means that she is happier when she has to be crated at the vet, or in the future, waiting for her turn at lure coursing, or maybe even agility trials (big MAYBE!)…. so if you do manage to give up the ‘workday crate’ routine, I would still put her in there from time to time. I think it’s a useful skill to keep them safe and happy in more different situations.


  6. How do dogs perceive time? Ha!
    I have no freaking clue.
    But it must be gradient in some way because we were slowly able to wean Alma out of her crate by starting with short bursts and increasing it.
    This isn’t because we thought the crate was something awful she should be free of, we just want her to be flexible and anxiety-free without a crutch.
    But I’ll get defensive too. Actually, I’ll be a complete shit-distuber on it. Once had a coworker start ranting about how she thought crates were cruel (she truly hadn’t fully considered the issue), so I immediately piped up that Alma was crated while we were at work, and purposefully left out that we’d weaned her off just to be a jerk like that. Fun to watch people back-pedal. …I can be such an ass.


  7. I wish I could advise about how dogs view time and I can completely understand where you are coming from. I hated with a passion leaving BD as I went to work every morning – it broke my heart and I felt guilty as I walked out the door and for at least half the morning.

    I have to ask, if Shiva is coping with the crate and although not loving it, isn’t as bad as she has been and a routine has been set why do you feel the need to change this? I know it isn’t ideal but if it is working for her, especially now she has the freedom of the bedroom, Why not leave well enough alone? Are you getting hung up on your ideals and portraying your feelings onto Shiva? I see you mention she couldn’t cope with feeling she had to protect the whole house while you were out so unless she is missing something major i’d be tempted to let sleeping dogs lie…. on the bed!!


  8. When I tell someone that I crate my dogs while I’m at work during the day I normally get the same mixed looks you get. But until they get a dog that will eat their house while away, they just don’t get the idea. My first dog had terrible separation anxiety and it took a long time to get her to love her crate like Shiva does, when I go to agility trials she still won’t even look at food while crated. What worked was trying out some of Susan Garrett’s “Crate Games”, made the crate much more fun for everyone!

    Once I started getting confident that I can leave her for an hour or two, I started expanding the “safe zone”. Our safe zone included the kitchen (nothing on counter tops) blocked by baby gates and Xpens (4 foot high). I haven’t gotten confident enough that I won’t come home and find my bills shredded or pillows ripped apart, so they will probably stay in their current safe area for a long time more (for ever?).

    In terms of time, don’t know how but they sure know when people should get home! They know exactly when my husband gets home and will go from sound asleep to barking at every little noise within the 30 minutes around when he should be home. Time probably relies around hunger, daylight, sounds (roads get busier at the end of the day).

    Good luck!


  9. When it comes to time – I think it is a crap shoot. Kita reacts the same whether I am gone for 5 minutes or 5 days. Same with Ken. Kita reacts to the sound of the air brakes more than the return of “that guy”. When Ken gets home after 10 days away, she remains completely calm until she hears the air brakes come on – then she goes nuts. Funny thing is – if Ken runs the truck when he is home – she is calm – but if Kita hears the air brakes – even if Ken has only been out in the driveway for 10 minutes – she goes into the he’s home crazy dance. So maybe the dogs reacts to the sounds off us returning rather than the time we are gone.
    As for the crate – I have never had one – nor used one – so therefore I cannot judge whether it is right or wrong to use it. Our dogs have always had the run of the house. However Shiva is accustomed to her crate – and removing it completely might be more stressful than having her contained. Having the crate in the bedroom – and the bedroom door closed is probably a good compromise. As long as the shoes are well hidden.


  10. You know, your description sounds like Shiva doesn’t mind her crate at all. Why fight it? I don’t crate Silas when I’m away from home, but I wouldn’t feel guilty about it if I needed to. He sleeps all day and rarely moves more than a few feet, even with the run of the whole house. YOU don’t like the crate, but Shiva sounds okay with it.


  11. Our Tess is the same way – she cannot handle the stress of having the house to herself. But she’s gotten okay with her crate (only in our house, no where else though). I don’t think dogs really perceive time. When we leave Tess out of her crate, she poops and pees in the house. She does this whether we are gone for 5 minutes or 5 hours. And on the few occasions we have left her our for a few hours, she’s no more relaxed when we get home. When we crate her, on the other hand, she’s definitely not relaxed, but much less stressed than when left in the house.


  12. I think dogs perceive time. The theory that a minute is the same as 10 hours to dogs doesn’t make sense to me. Kelly is fine when I’m gone for a few hours, but gets stressed if we’re away for a week (with proper caregivers of course.) Have you tried the CD “Though a Dogs Ear?” I swear, it worked like a miracle when Ike was stressed. We put it on every time we left the house. He calmed down and fell asleep almost as soon as the music started. I am not being paid to say this!!


  13. I think it’s been pretty thoroughly covered in the rest of the comments, but I think it sounds like you guys are doing good by Shiva with crating her. It also sounds like you could probably try leaving her out for longer, but that continuing with your usual routine for putting her in there (minus locked door) sounds like a good way to avoid getting her anxious.
    Gwynn is pretty insistent on his door being closed at night, and he definitely uses it to retreat to when the house is too hectic/anxiety-inducing. I haven’t day-crated him since he was about a year and a half, but he never had separation anxiety. I still reward him before I go to work with a treat in his crate, though.


  14. Wow, what an interesting post with great comments. There’s a lot of chew on here.

    I have no idea how dogs perceive time. But I felt sure Patricia McConnell would.

    Nope, apparently she doesn’t either.

    You wrote that when you came home to find Shiva on the bed, she looked more “natural” but not necessarily relaxed. What does that mean? And how does she look in her crate when you come home? Is she relaxed then?

    I’m guessing that what you want more than anything else is a relaxed and comfortable Shiva. If it’s important to you to have her adapt to live outside the crate, the only answer is to experiment on the weekends by being away gradually longer times and seeing how she does.

    But I know some “vigilant” dogs feel a great responsibility when they’re free to move around. Which creates the anxiety we’re trying to avoid.

    When we took Agatha and Christie to a hotel, they were a mess when they had the run of the room. Every time someone walked by in the hall, they ran to the door barking. Even though we were right there.

    But once we confined them with furniture on one side of the bed (well away from the door), they settled down.

    Regardless of how Shiva perceives time, you may just want to experiment with what “den” area gives her the maximum amount of room without causing her to get overstimulated or worried by your absence.

    I think you have another 5 blog posts on this topic. And I’m curious to see what you end up doing. Please report back.


  15. To me this sounds like it’s much more about you than Shiva. If having free reign stresses her out, and there are no other issues with the crate, the only reason to force the issue is to make yourself feel better.

    “Even though the crate has enabled us to move on, I still hate it. I hate putting her in there every morning. Always have. I made peace with it, yes, but I have never liked it”

    “It is a much happier sight, let me tell you. She is not relaxed, I wouldn’t say that, but her location cozied up to our pillows looks so much more… Natural?”


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