Getting Your Dog to Stay in the Yard

Keeping Your Dog in Your Yard at Home

Why do they leave the yard? What can pet owners do to manage it?

What are practical steps that can be taken?

Claudeen E. Mc Auliffe, PhD, CDBC

A person I know well (and one who really should know better!) fails regularly to keep her dogs in her yard at home.  This is blamed variously on over-confidence (don’t need a leash if I have food), laziness (leashes are bothersome and catch on things), neighbor malicious negligence (leaves garbage in the field across the road which has a magnetic effect on dogs “regardless of much training”), roommate negligence (“They really should listen to me: just because I say so.”).

The passerby who must deflect the off-leash dog doesn’t care about why the dog is out of the yard.  The well-meaning daytripper driving down the road is quick to stop and call the humane officer who whisks the dog away to the pound.  The motorist traveling at speed is unprepared to stop for animals in the road.  You know how that can end.

So why do our dogs leave the yard?  Curiosity is a big motivator.  The intelligence of most dogs is equivalent to about a 3-4 year old child.  Kids this age are very curious, and their control of impulsive behavior has not yet developed.  They make poor choices, take risks, and ignore boundaries when they think they can get away with it.  Owner negligence/laziness is a huge contributor: The dog CAN leave the yard, therefore IT DOES LEAVE the yard.  Lack of training is a consideration but not as much as you may think.  Many dogs are bred to be independent and ignore boundaries and consequences.  Huskies (run away from the human standing on the back of the sled), setters (go away from hunter to find birds) and hounds (run away from human at top speed to chase stuff up trees) are examples.  Some breeds are designed to strictly adhere to and protect boundaries, such as German shepherds.  But to bring out this ability, quite a lot of training is usually needed.  And an awful lot of folks don’t care to do, or don’t have time for, the intense training needed for a fail-safe recall.

Now add in the temperament of the individual dog.  Some dogs are extremely biddable.  That means they keep their eyes on you, just waiting for you to tell them what to do so they can do it.  There are shy dogs who are easily startled and run when they are scared; they are unable to hear or respond to your recall.  There are bold dogs who are independent, form loose attachments to humans, and just get more satisfaction out of following their own agenda.  The latter two categories can be trained, but it’s a whole lot of work.  Start that training when they’re babies and keep working at it.

So what can pet owners do to manage this problem of not staying in the yard?

Let’s see what my friend did.  Unfortunately, the neighbor sustained a bite, which forced the issue.

A shock collar was suggested.  This device, which sadly does work with some dogs, in this particular sensitive dog, probably increased her fear of men.  This dog has a history of abusive treatment, including force-based training with a male trainer using a shock collar inappropriately.  Bottom line: Can make fear and aggression worse.

A cage (chain link kennel) was suggested.  Better than a shock collar, but may present a new set of challenges.  Dogs can dig under the fence if it doesn’t have a concrete floor; or bark excessively with the frustration of confinement.  Too expensive on several levels, but may be appropriate in some situations for short periods of time.

Euthanasia was suggested.  Oh, dear!  Quite a high price for the dog to pay for the indiscretion of the owner.

What about a fence?  Type of fence is very important here.  Most dogs are athletic enough to scale a 4-foot or higher chain link fence.  Electric underground wire?  Some dogs will go right through the shock if they see something they want badly enough, or are frightened enough.  Most of the more attractive fences have a lot of space between vertical and horizontal components so we can see through, but then so can the dog who may learn to run along the fence and bark, and become conditioned to wait for the next moving thing to “chase.”  These are also real easy and attractive for people to stick their hands and fingers through to engage the dog, who may bite them.

Is your dog 100% reliable in responding to a recall cue or honoring your property boundary when faced with a distraction like tasty garbage across the road or a neighbor walking by?  Even professional trainers and handlers use leashes to prevent mistakes.

The best fence, if you wish to use one, is a solid span, no holes, with a gate that locks securely, preferably from the inside.  These are very expensive.  And any fence needs to be checked very frequently for holes that may be dug under it by either the dog or other animals.  A dog can dig a hole big enough to crawl through in about 30 seconds.

With all the hazards of the environment, and expense of various fencing options, my friend decided that the cheapest, best and simplest option (though not the easiest!) was putting a leash on the dog before leaving the house, and keeping the leash on the dog (AND holding the end of the leash) until back in the house.  Not easy because it involves a human behavior change that must be 100% failsafe, and humans often gamble that just this once we can get away without using a leash.  Do you want to gamble with your dog’s life?

Hang the leash on a hook right next to the door, or on the door handle, so it’s convenient.  You’ll see it every time you go out, and seeing it will remind you to use it.  This is what my friend did 6 weeks ago.  She hasn’t taken her dog outside one single time without the leash being attached to the dog before the door was opened, and the leash stayed on until  the dog was safely back in the house with the door closed.  A+++!  An unexpected benefit of this diligence is that the tension in the home has decreased.  No more uncertainty about the outcome when the dogs go outside.  Everyone is calmer.

And in case you’re wondering: The “friend” is me.

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