Boundary Battlefields: Dogs, Yards and Walks

Photo courtesy of Dawn Goehring

Every responsible dog parent who walks their dog(s) in their own neighborhood has a mental list of houses that they strive to avoid. Either because a dog is alone in a fenced in yard barking like a fiend or because a dog is often loose (and unsupervised) in an unfenced or Invisible “Fenced” yard. Either way, this type of scenario can be like a minefield to both the dog and the dog parent, creating far more stress than either is interested in dealing with. Conversely, this is also a minefield to the dog left unsupervised in each described scenario. With these dogs, boundaries are either confusing or non-existent and emotional safety is low.

These situations are enough to make dog parents not walk their dogs at all, which is a tragedy. Environmental enrichment is so important. Walks are not about physical exercise, they are about mental enrichment such as sniffing and information gathering. Sniffing walks will tire your dog out far more than power-walking ever will. Most dogs like to keep up with neighborhood happenings. For more on that, read here.

There are definitely dogs that need to have the option to be taken somewhere quieter and less eventful to be walked so that they can have a better feeling of emotional safety. Dogs that enter the outdoors with the clear look of defensiveness or offensiveness fit in that category. You should know if you have one. And you should be working with a behavior professional to help your dog, if so. But this article is for the dogs that can be comfortably be walked in typical neighborhoods, if normal emotional safety is provided. Know which type of dog you have.

If your dog can do a neighborhood walk, then don’t give up. Just prepare yourself with safety in mind and in addition to teaching your dog that you will handle all of the scary things on a walk, use distance, such as crossing streets, etc. to help your dog ignore the perceived threats and carry some Spray Shield, available here:

Also, here is a great article on what to do if you are approached by a loose dog.

If your dogs are nonchalant about dogs barking at them from inside of yards and you feel safe with the security of the boundary in question, then Rachel, a fantastic dog trainer in Cleveland, has a unique solution. She stops at the place that the barking begins and waits until barking ceases and then moves along. She states that this solution requires initial patience on the human’s part and obviously, you need to feel safe that the dog doing the barking, will not be exiting the yard or that you are stressing your own dog too much. It also needs to be said that you should not deliberately be stressing the barking dog either. But this is a great solution for those who these particular perimeters apply to.

Boundaries are important to dogs. Confusing boundaries don’t provide safety. Neither do a lack of boundaries. For both the dog in the confusing or non-existent boundary and the dog passing by either option, emotional (and often physical) safety is sorely lacking. The dog without borders (dog loose in unfenced yard while unsupervised) is left to create his own safety, creating the need to extend the boundary of his area to be proactive. These dogs often cross the blurry boundary of their yards because they feel that they have to. This creates fear in both the human and the dog passing by such a scenario.  Situations like this can have tragic consequences. All it takes is one time for a dog to leave the yard to ward off (or even attempt to greet) a passing dog. I cannot even count how many times I have heard “He never left the yard before!”. If your neighborhood requires that your dog be leashed, then do everyone a favor and do so.

Many people get Invisible Fences with the mistaken impression that they can allow their dog outside unsupervised at any time. While this may make a rural dog parent’s life easier and the dog in question’s life marginally safer, the pitfalls are more common than you would imagine, from several standpoints. From the point of view of the fearful city or suburban dog inside the IF, he knows that anyone and anything passing by can enter his “safe” area. But he also knows that he cannot exit without repercussions. This places delivery people at a distinct disadvantage when trying to do their job, with an unsupervised, fearful of human strangers, dog in such a yard. For the dog wary dog, “containment” in an IF will result in “fence” running when someone walks by with their own dog. This will then result in a fearful feeling in the passing dog, which has no understanding of what an IF entails and doesn’t realize that the dog threatening their every movement cannot exit his “boundary”. For one take on this type of boundary threat, read here.

Another type of situation that can create a feeling of danger in both parties is when a dog is tied out unsupervised, in front of a house in an active neighborhood. A dog in this situation is left with no place to go, so he will become very proactive about his safety, barking at everything passing by, with the goal that he be left alone. These are the dogs who are most likely to bite if approached. The flight part of the equation has been removed as an option, with fight the only recourse left. Do your dog a favor and if you tie them out to do their business, then supervise this activity to provide emotional safety. If your dog is barking when tied out unsupervised, he is not enjoying his outdoor time. Don’t tell yourself he needs this kind of outdoor alone time. His preference is to be with you. After all, isn’t that why you got a dog?

Boundaries that are blurry don’t always belong to others. I imagine that you got a fenced in yard with the goal of doing your dog a great favor by providing this option for him. And that certainly should be the case. Yet when you are in your own yard with your dog, there are people who want to walk their dogs right up to your fence-line, sure that their dog “wants to say hi” to your dog. It’s also common for a passing human sans dog to want to greet an unsupervised dog in a yard. Dogs like this are especially targeted by children. Your dog, quite normally then feels encroached upon and tells the intruder off.  This can then give the other party the mistaken impression that your dog is aggressive, when that could not be further from the truth. What is really happening here is that a boundary has been crossed. Your dog feels threatened and rightly so.

For the perpetrators of this scenario, your dog doesn’t need or even likely want to say hi to that other dog. Nor do you have the right to bother that dog when you are not a friend. He doesn’t know you and he is not your friend. After all, do you walk up to every human that you see with the goal of greeting them? Or would you walk up to strangers enjoying their own yard recreationally? I didn’t think so.  For more on this subject and those related to it, read here.

And here.

Yet another concerning scenario is when neighbor’s yards abut one another and both parties have dogs. When these dogs do not get along, this creates a huge lack of emotional and even physical safety. Dogs can fight through the fence and if one has a distinct size advantage over the other, there can be tragic consequences. Take these situations seriously and put a plan into action.  For this scenario, if both parties are amenable, then you can devise a signage signal so that you can both have your dogs in your own yards without interference by the neighboring dog.  Cooperation works best but doesn’t always happen. If despite having attempted to talk to your neighbor to try and prevent a repeat performance/create a harmonious agreement, the situation remains status quo, then you are frustrated at best. You have my sympathy but you do still need to make amendments to the situation in order to keep your dog safe and prevent future legal trouble.

The first order of the day is supervise, supervise, supervise! In addition to this most important solution, you have some other options. If you have a chain link fence, you can consider the strips that you glide through the links to provide a barrier for both parties. You also have the option of the roll out bamboo fencing that you can secure to the chain link, if the height is allowable in your neighborhood. Another option is to plant tall shrubbery to block nosy neighbors. One past client of mine had to sadly resort to spending a large sum of money to switch to six foot privacy fencing. It’s unfortunate but her dog’s safety and not having a lawsuit in her future made that the best solution.  Be careful about your signage. It is in yours and your dog’s best interest that you not place a sign on your fence that states “beware of dog”. A better option would be a sign with a benign message such as “dog in yard”. The legalities of the former vary with location but there is never going to be a problem with the latter.

None of these situations are ever going to be ideally dealt with without the cooperation of both sides of the equation but if you are prepared for your part, that certainly makes dealing with the situation without cooperation much easier. It’s important to enjoy the outdoors with your dog. Don’t let other's inappropriate behavior and actions detract from your time with your dog. You got this!

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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