Curing Those Backyard Blues
Many people believe that you shouldn’t even consider owning a dog unless you have a fenced-in yard. While this opinion may be extreme, it’s no argument that a backyard makes dog ownership simpler: Housetraining can begin outdoors from the start and pace is readily accessible for exercise and exploration – even before leash manners are taught.
In fact, the backyard is so handy, some dog owners even use it in place of training (not a very wise move). Got company coming over? No problem – toss Sparky out into the yard to prevent exuberant greetings and bring him back when all the visitors have settled in – or wait until they’ve all gone home. Hey, how about installing a pet door so you don’t even need to get up to let the dog in or out?
Convenient? Yes, Smart? Not At All
Unfortunately, this relinquishment of supervision and control can lead to backyard mayhem and the creation of an independent thinker – a dog that has little desire to please its human caretaker!
Dogs are social creations, and given their druthers, most would choose to keep company with their human family and canine friends. When shipped out to the backyard alone, they become bored and lonely. They entertain themselves by digging holes, tearing out plants and shrubbery, and escaping under or over the fence in search of companionship. Some bark their butts off in an attempt to call their clan together or exchange vocalizations with other yard-bound dogs.
Social isolation isn’t the only reason dogs dig, bark and destroy the backyard, but it plays a major role. After all, if a supervised dog is about to do the wrong thing, its owner is on the spot to give it a warning and redirect its attention to someone preferable, such as fetching a toy or performing an obedience command.
When the dog does the right thing, its owner is able to immediately reward the good behavior with play, praise or a tasty treat; and as we know from psychologists, rewarded behavior increases in frequency.
Think of your backyard as the dog’s home gym. It’s a great place for exercise and stress reduction, but not meant to be the dog’s exclusive home 24/7. A dog isolated in the backyard cannot learn house manners, protect the residents and contents of the home, or build respectful relationships with its people.
If your adolescent dog is too rambunctious to leave home all day then either hire a dog walker, drop it off at a doggie daycare, or install a dog door in the utility room so your dog has access to the yard and one or two well dog-proofed areas of the home. Do one or several of these things until it’s well-behaved enough to earn full run of the house.
Curing Those Backyard Blues
Does your yard resemble the moon’s surface, riddled with craters everywhere? When resolving a digging problem, it helps to know why your dog digs. Reasons for digging are many: to relieve boredom, to hunt vermin, to create cooling pits, to escape under fences and to underneath buried treasures, the list goes on…
A dog left in the yard to exercise alone may choose digging as an entertaining way to burn up excess energy. If the soil has been recently tilled to ready it for planting, it’s softer and more enjoyable to dig in than dry, hard-packed soil.
Prevent dogs from digging in newly tilled or freshly planted sections by fencing off your garden patches, laying chicken wire on top of plant beds, or accompanying your puppy on its outings and directing its play toward more wholesome pursuits, such as fetch or hide-and-seek.
Terriers and Dachshunds were bred to hunt vermin, a task that includes dashing down holes to dispatch them. If your lawn is beset by moles, voles, groundhogs or other small mammals, your Parson and Jack Russell, Cairn, Westie or other earth-dog breed will embark on an extermination mission.
The genetic urge to catch and kill these pesky critters is so strong in these breeds that walking them on-leash while they’re in the yard may be the only way to control the digging until you can clear your yard of these interlopers.
During hot summer months, some dogs, particularly the heavily coated northern spitz-type dogs (such as Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds and Alaskan Malamutes, to name a few) frequently cool themselves by digging pits in shady areas to unearth moister ground. Plastic wading pools filled with a few inches of cold water can serve the same purpose while saving your sod. Keeping your pup inside the air-conditioned home during the hottest parts of the day is also wise.
Is Your Pup Digging For Sport?
If so, then you had better choose an out-of-the-way spot in the yard in which to establish a doggie digging pit, because this sporting habit is not likely to change. It doesn’t have to be huge – a square 1½ to 2 times your dog’s body length should do it. Put some sort of visual boundary around it – flat, light-colored stones would be just fine.
Till or aerate the soil, and add a little sand so it’s more pleasant to dig in the pit than elsewhere in the yard. To make it even more appealing, toss in a few biscuits or chewies and call your dog over to dig them out.
When you catch your puppy digging in another part of the yard, interrupt it and direct it to the digging pit. When you catch your pup digging in the pit, reward the behavior. Now you’re well on your way to a pothole-free yard!
Curing Those Backyard Blues
Does your dog try to make the great escape from your backyard every chance it gets, working to tunnel his way out beneath the fence? Ask yourself why it feels the need to leave the premises.
An unneutered male will seek out females in heat, so sterilization may put an end to this desire to roam. Social pups, such as Siberian Huskies and Irish Setters, dig out to seek company.
Either refrain from putting this type of dog out in the yard unless you can join it, or consider getting a second dog for company – especially if you’re frequently gone long hours. These breeds are terrific candidates for doggie daycare, because they’re unusually dog-friendly and have energy to burn.
If you don’t have a doggie daycare available in your area, consider leaving your dog with a relative or neighbor who works from home, or hiring a dog-walker to come in midday to give your dog a romp.
Is your scenthound (such as a Beagle, Bassett Hound or coonhound) digging out to chase prey or track down smelly goodies from the street buffet? A genetic predisposition makes this behavior difficult to combat.
First, only let these breeds out in the yard with supervision. Second, prepare a distracting food-dispensing toy ahead of time and hide it in the yard. Now the dog will see its yard as a rewarding place and have less desire to seek food elsewhere.
Third, reinforce the bottom of your fence line. This may entail pouring a 6 to 12 inch cement trough beneath the fence line or burying additional wire fencing in an L-formation 6 to 12 inches underground, and extending 2 to 3 feet into the yard. Railroad ties, concrete blocks or large boulders laid against the base of the fence may also inhibit digging to escape.
Not every puppy bent on escape chooses to tunnel out; some climb or jump out. You can prevent climbing by choosing fencing that doesn’t offer footholds, like chain-link does. Prevent over-the-top escapes by choosing a fence that is taller than your dog is able to jump. Or try landscaping the fence line so the area is difficult to clear. Attach brackets to the fence top that angle in toward the yard from which to hang taut wire or loose wire mesh netting as a further deterrent to jumping.
Teach your pup to respect barriers to prevent it from scaling your fence in an attempt to escape. Start training in the house by blocking a doorway with a pet or baby gate. Visit with the puppy while standing on the other side of the gate. If the puppy sits or stands quietly, reward the good behavior with touch, treats, praise or play. As your pup is about to put its feet on the gate, issue a verbal warning, such as “Uh-Uh!” or “Get Off!”
Curing Those Backyard Blues
Your neighbor’s 10-year-old boy appears at your back gate, ready to enter your yard to retrieve a baseball that inadvertently flew over your fence. Before the boy can make a move, your pup flies toward him with hackles up, furiously barking. The child flees, figuring nobody needs a ball badly enough to take on Cujo!
The dog’s behavior has just been rewarded by the child’s hasty retreat. Without training intervention, this nasty response will become an ingrained habit – one sure to make your home insurance carrier quite unhappy one day.
In the beginning, young puppies either boldly approach strangers in a friendly, investigative manner or timidly shrink back, taking a wait-and-see attitude. As they get older, their repertoire may expand to include alarm barking, charging and possibly even aggression.
For some, it’s their genetic birthright and their property. German Shepherd Dogs, Rottweilers, Akitas, Belgian Sheepdogs and Doberman Pinchers are a few of the breeds created to have heightened guarding instincts. Between 8 and 18 months of age, these protective instincts begin to emerge.
For other dogs, these behaviors aren’t protectiveness, they’re manifestations of fear. By observing canine body language, it’s easy to tell the fearful from the bold. The fearful dog carries its ears back and its tail low. This pup is uncomfortable with direct eye contact and carries its weight over its rear legs. In contrast, the confident protector dog’s tail is held high and the ears are tilted forward. Its weight is more heavily distributed over its front feet.
Either of these types of dogs can bite. The fearful dog is most likely to bite if cornered and not allowed to escape the situation. The bold, protective dog can bite when it feels its property is being encroached upon.
Whether your puppy was obtained with family security in mind or not, it’s imperative to socialize it to people of all ages, colors and sizes – beginning at an early age. Bring your pup out to greet the gas company’s meter reader, mailman and pool caretaker with dog treats in hand.
Invite neighborhood children to come toss a toy for your new puppy, whether you have kids of your own or not. A puppy has to learn that the herky-jerky movements and high-pitched shrieks of toddlers and kids are normal behaviors and nothing to fear.
Widen open your pup’s horizons by going on expeditions to shopping malls so it can observe humanity at its most diverse – always rewarding friendly, appropriate encounters with food treats, play, touch and praise.
By exposing your canine youngster to a wide range of normal human behaviors, while at the same time making it fun and rewarding, you create a stable dog, one that will keep you out of the trouble of dealing with angry neighbors or possible injury to children hopping over your fence, not to mention the legal troubles that come along with it.
Curing Those Backyard Blues
Who hasn’t heard the plaintive barks and howls of dogs left home alone? Nuisance barking is one of the most frequent complaints phoned in to urban and suburban quality-of-life hotlines.
What are these dogs trying to say? Several things, actually. Dogs bark to sound an alarm that they’ve spied a stranger. The bark may ratchet up from alarm bark to defensive bark if they feel challenged by the intruder. An energized dog barks or bays in excitement when it is on a scent while hunting, or as an invitation to play. An isolated dog also may bark or howl as a call to reunite its pack.
To avoid noise pollution citations and war with your neighbors, be mindful of our puppy’s vocalizing while it’s in the yard. Track what events set your pup off by staying home one day and monitoring it. Or videotape the events if you can’t stay home.
Take steps to minimize exposure to whatever sets your dog off. If there are certain times of the day when your pup appears to bark non-stop – perhaps when the school next door lets out for the day – keep it inside at those times.
Barking to alert you to the presence of a deliver person or other stranger on your property is the dog’s job. Unfortunately, some dogs don’t know when to stop. After a half-dozen woofs, thank the dog for its warning and request silence. If your dog is still barking, ask it for a down-stay. Few dogs will continue to bark when their chests are resting on the ground.
If your dog is still in a barking frenzy and cannot process an obedience cue, you may need to use some sort of sensory interrupter, such as a spritz of canned citronella spray, water from a water pistol or the blast of a whistle. When you’re not home to guide the dog’s behavior, keep the dog in the house so as not to inconvenience your neighbors with your dog’s vocal warnings.
A dog that gets plenty of opportunity to practice misbehaviors will only get better at them so don’t put your pup in the yard unless you’re there to supervise. Erect a solid fence or wall if normal neighborhood activities repeatedly send your dog into a barking frenzy. Teach it to limit its warning barks to a half dozen woofs, then say “enough” and redirect its attention to another behavior, such as “go to bed” or “lie down.”
Reward with a high-value, tasty treat when the pup complies. Dog’s don’t continue to bark when lying down; it’s just not comfortable! Plus, it’s hard to bark and eat a treat at the same time.
Just remember, the backyard can be a special place for your dog to romp off-leash, to nap in a sunny patch of grass, and to enjoy time with family and friends. With supervision, some training and an adept eye toward puppy-proofing, your backyard can be a peaceful haven for the entire family.
The information shared on this site is for information only. It does not take the place of professional advice from your pet’s healthcare provider.