The Great Crate

Three years ago, when my wife, Susan, and I adopted our first dog, Louie, the head of the rescue agency from where we’d adopted him was direct and unflinching in delivering her supreme commandment:

Thou shalt not crate!

We quickly vowed, pet-parent neophytes that we were, that at no time would Louie’s paws cross the metal threshold of “detention.”

I did not have to work hard to trace my revulsion toward crating back to its origins nearly a quarter century ago. I was an unworldly 35-year-old, in love with romancing my high school buddy’s female roommate from half-way across the country. My heart was an uncaged Phoenix, rising free, tethered to nothing.

My buddy, Todd, and his roommate welcomed me heartily when I arrived for a several-day visit. Todd had just returned from running errands when we all converged on his doorstep. From behind the front door, earnest, arrhythmic clicking sounds erupted along with an occasional soft whine. I furrowed my brow.

Todd smiled, unlocked the door and in we walked. Together, we padded into the kitchen where we were greeted by “Max III,” Todd’s latest incarnation of a white, fluffy toy poodle.

Even after we came into view, Max relentlessly pawed the gray metal of his compact crate. My jaw dropped at what I perceived to be Todd’s callousness for imprisoning his pet.

“Ma-a-a-x,” Todd said in a gentle tone that rose and fell like a bell-curve to which Max immediately stopped his crate-pawing and whining.

“Ma-a-a-a-a-a-x,” Todd repeated with identical prosody. Max snapped to attention, eyes fixed on Todd’s. For ten seconds Todd and Max held each other’s gaze in what I took years to understand as friends of different species locked in an almost indescribable presence, a divine dance.

“Good boy!” Todd said, unlatching the crate. Max emerged, the measured cadence of his wagging tail dusting our collective pants legs.  How utterly polite, I thought.

At the time, the profundity of Todd’s interaction with Max completely eluded me. For days I tried to reconcile my historical experience of Todd as a generous and supportive friend with my interpretation of the crate-liberation scene I witnessed that first night.

Worse, I never disclosed my concern to Todd, in effect, betraying his friendship. Instead, I seethed silently toward my friend, the jail-keeper, who had “trained” Max to respond like a machine to the flick of a switch. This was not love, I thought, it was operant conditioning; servitude at a companion animal’s expense.

Living with these presumptions, it turned out, was my OWN prison where I dwelled for decades – until Susan and I adopted Louie. Our sweet boy was a handful for us first-timers. Separation anxiety topped the list of his reactive behaviors. After several failed strategies to ease the pain of our leaving home for even the shortest period of time, we were advised by our dog trainer to try crating.

As soon as those words flew out of her mouth, I unleashed a torrent of my own: “Crating is cruel. It’s how animals are kept on factory farms. Only an ogre who pulls the wings off butterflies would shove a pet in a crate!” Right?!

Wrong. The warehousing of pets, I learned, has NEVER been part of responsible crating. Rather, a crate could be an effective, reliable and HUMANE tool to help our boy acclimate to his new environment. Introduced with patience and furnished with a cozy bed and special toys, the crate could double as a special retreat – a safe house – for our new best friend. Essentially, it could provide the framework for positive behavior and hasten the forging of a deep, interspecies bond.

Susan was quickly swayed by the benefits of crating, but I was a harder sell. After all, I had years of presumptions to defend, not the least of which was my judgment of Todd. For me to relent would mean the collapse of my own false framework – and the need for serious amends.

But my framework was already crumbling under the simple reasoning that love – even between humans and animals – needs structure to survive and thrive. As we soon discovered with Louie, “structure” could be literal (the physical crate representing safety and containment) or symbolic (Louie’s choice to often pad into his open crate whether or not we were home).

Without a framework, there is nothing for love to latch onto and grow; life spirals out into diffuse nothingness. On the other hand, when the framework is wound so tight that no light can penetrate, love cannot take root. As with everything else, the crate is a tool that can be as benevolent – or malevolent – as we choose.

Knowing Todd as I did, I should have known the love he held for Max.

My dear friend, I am so sorry . . .