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Summer Living with Fido

Summer Living with Fido - Backyard Etiquette

by Pat Renshaw (originally published in Dogs In Canada magazine)

Summer in Canada is, for all intents and purposes, too short. Enjoying balmy breezes and warm days and evenings around the BBQ in our fantastically manicured yards is the stuff that dreams are made of; or not - if we own a delinquent dog!

Many times, the family dog has the run of the yard. It becomes his domain. It becomes his potty area. It becomes his playground. It becomes a disaster area! Bits of lawn are surrounded by craters that the dog has dug. Flowers and shrubs are a thing of the past. Lawn chairs have become frames with bits of webbing wafting in the breeze. Take back your yard &.. take control!

To make the yard a haven for the human members of the household, we have to understand how the yard became the dogs playground in the first place. In short, he was taught that this was so by his owners. Digging is normal dog behaviour and a great way for your dog to expend energy. Transplanting your prize begonias and pruning your shrubs is fun. A lawn chair is one huge chew toy. At potty time, he was let out in the fenced yard. What could he assume except that he was to use the yard? We have to assume that the dog was not given direction by the owners. Well, not until something went wrong and then, it wasn’t direction; it was scolding. If he was left to his own devices while in the yard he, naturally, did dog things. Perfectly natural and normal dog behaviours. Not appropriate, but normal nonetheless.

So, lets take back control. None of this is magic. It won’t happen without commitment on your part. These behaviours weren’t learned overnight and like any habit, they will not change overnight. Prepare yourself. It will take time.

Potty area
Define the dogs potty area. Make this area clear to the dog. Perhaps roping off an area at the back of the yard. When you put the dog in the yard for potty duty, take him to the roped off area and tell him what you want. Hurry up, or whatever and once he starts to urinate (or whatever), tell him, Hurry up! Good boy!!! What a good boy! Once hes done, give him a treat (piece of cheese, cookie, etc). He’s not stupid. He is likely to repeat the behaviour if there’s something in it for him. The key to him using a specific area of the yard is you. You must be consistent in taking him to the roped area and being sure that he stays in the roped area until he’s done. If you’re consistent in your expectations, he’ll have this new behaviour down pat in no time. (Added bonus; it certainly makes yard clean-up easier!) Abusive corrections, that well-meaning neighbours and family members will suggest, are absolutely non-instructive and ineffective in modifying digging behaviours. As a rule, if you wouldn’t do it to your children, don’t do it to your dog!

Digging & Shrub Pruning
Digging is a normal and natural dog behaviour. It’s fun. It’s inappropriate to dig in your flower beds and your dog has no idea that these flowers and shrubs are important to you. Furthermore, if you haven’t taught him that digging in the flower bed is inappropriate, he can’t possibly understand that it is so. Yelling at him, chasing him and smacking him are not appropriate behaviours from you. If your dog is hard wired (just can’t help himself) for this behaviour, then teach him where he can dig. Build him his very own digging pit. Encourage him to dig in it. Bury toys, cookies, etc. and make it a game with him. Find it, and then help him to dig. Imagine his surprise when he comes up with a reward! Who wouldn’t want to return to this area a second time? A third? Again, consistency is the key and commitment on your part.

Once the dog understands that he has his own digging area, modify his flower bed behaviour. Have a boundary set up (even if it’s only in your mind) and when he approaches the boundary, give him an Uh-uh. No. Once he abandons the thought of climbing in the flower bed; Good boy! and give him something else to do (throw a ball or something the dog enjoys).

If youre distracted and he manages to invade the garden, throw a penny can aimed to land just behind him. (Penny can = pop can with a few pennies in it with the slot taped so the pennies can’t fall out.) Then give your verbal, No. Get out of there! Once he hops out, dont forget to reinforce the correct behaviour (Good boy!)

If your garden is a special place and you have prize flowers and the like in it, perhaps you don’t have the time (and it will take time!) to modify this behaviour. An alternative is an invisible fencing system. You must be sure, however, that the dog is wearing the receiver at all times when in the yard.

Shrub and tree pruning is another great fun activity. Running past a tree with low lying branches, grabbing on to one of them and tearing it off, is bliss! The use of the penny as above can does wonders. You must be vigilant if you want to modify this behaviour.

Pool safety
This is a must! Many, many dogs drown in backyard pools. This is such a tragedy and, with a little forethought, so unnecessary. And, like any behaviours, getting in the pool - or not - is a learned behaviour.

Whether your dog is allowed in the pool or not, teach him how to get out of it. If your pool has a ladder, teach him where the ladder is and how to climb it. If your pool has steps, teach him where the steps are. This is critical! Don’t assume because the dog is not allowed in the pool that he is not, at some point, going to get in when you’re not around. It’s your responsibility to make sure that he can get out.

Once you’ve taught him how to exit the pool, you can teach him when it is appropriate for him to join in the fun... or not. Dogs sometimes become over-excited when children are in the pool flailing about and screeching. Whether it’s their sense of rescue or sense of fun, they can barely contain themselves. And this can be dangerous. Your decision. Just be sure that you’ve clearly taught the dog the rules! Because of the importance of pool safety, if you need help with this, get a trainer to work with you.

Fence fighting
Dogs will often fence fight when they are separated by a fence and play when they are together. Other dogs truly mean business. Be it the neighbours dog or yours, with fence fighting, it takes two to tango so lets not lay blame with the neighbours dog who always starts it. It doesn’t matter who starts it. What does matter is that we have control of our dog. We have to modify our dogs reaction to the stimuli.

To do this, we need the co-operation of our neighbour. How you approach them about this is up to you. However, I would suggest that you couch it in such a way that its clear that you want to suppress the behaviour in your dog. That way, you’ll probably be more likely to get their co-operation. The bonus is, youll also modify the neighbour-dogs behaviour. Once there is no reaction from your dog, there won’t be much point in neighbour-dog continuing the game.

Whether your neighbour accompanies his dog outdoors is inconsequential. However, when the neighbour dog is outdoors, snatch the opportunity and take your dog into the yard. Have your penny can with you and when your dog approaches the fence, say Uh-uh. No!! and if he doesn’t respond immediately - and I mean immediately - toss your penny can. His attention will immediately be averted from the neighbour dog and that’s your opportunity to tell him to Leave it! As he responds, offer a treat (something really delectable... filet’s good). We are going for a major behaviour modification so the ante (what’s in it for me) has to be worth it to the dog. Do this consistently. Do not allow your dog to be in the yard without you until the fence fighting behaviour is extinguished. Once your dog is not reacting to the stimuli (neighbour dog barking and snarling at the fence) there will be no reward and neighbour-dog will quickly stop baiting your dog.

Whether it’s because he delights in the sound of his own voice or he is warning of sundry demons and imaginary intruders, non-stop barking is simply nerve-racking! If your dog is guilty of this behaviour, stop him. A woof to let you know that someone is at your door is one thing. Non-stop barking, while in the yard, is quite another.

To modify non-stop barking, like any other behaviour modification, requires consistency on your part. If you want to modify the behaviour, you will. If you approach it in a half-hearted manner, you won’t.

With your trusty penny cans at the ready (you’ll need several!), release the dog to the yard. If he’s a barker, he’ll start barking the nano-second his toe nails touch sod. Tell him No! and toss the penny can. He’ll immediately stop barking so tell him, Good boy! Quiet. Close the door. You know in your heart of hearts that he’ll start barking as soon as the door closes. Repeat the penny can toss, etc. Do this as many times as it takes until he’s quiet for a few seconds. Open the door and invite him back in the house. Be consistent. You can’t do a half-hearted modification here. You’re in for the long haul or you’re not. Your choice.

The same holds true for a dog that stands at the door and barks like a fool until you arrive to open it and let him in. He’s trained you. He’s demanding that you comply. Turn the tables; surprise him by opening the door and shaking the penny can at him and telling him No! Quiet! Close the door and wait a few seconds. If he’s quiet, allow him to come in. If not, repeat until he is. Just ask for quiet for a few seconds at first and then extend the time he must be quiet until the door opens and he’s allowed to pass. He’ll soon get the idea. A small woof and quiet, he’ll get what he wants.

Stealing food
What’s worse than setting a table for an outdoor BBQ and having the dog steal the food from the table or BBQ grill? One of the best commands you can teach your dog is Leave it! This command has universal meaning. It doesn’t matter what it is; one of the kids sneakers, one of the dogs toys that you don’t want him to have at the moment, something that one of the neighbour kids has thrown in to your yard; Leave it!

If your dog is a thief, you need to set him up. In a controlled space, put a coveted object on the floor. As your dog approaches, tell him to Leave it! At the sound of your voice, he’ll look up. Praise him and repeat Leave it! Good boy! Give him a treat and remove the object to another place in the room. Wait for your dog to approach and repeat, Leave it! Good boy! Repeat a couple of times and you’ll find that your dog starts to ignore the object. Now find something else that your dog covets and repeat the process. Once he’s consistent at complying on toys, etc. try food. This is going to be much more difficult for the dog, so be ready. Once you can place a hot dog on the floor and tell you dog to Leave it! and he does, you’re on the road to success! Tip: don’t allow the dog to have the hot dog. For a treat, call the dog to you and give him a piece of cheese. Don’t release him to be rewarded with the hot dog that you’ve just told him to leave alone! Major confusion for the dog.

Once he’ll leave the hot dog on the floor, move bits of food to other areas (coffee table, picnic table, BBQ grill (not fired up!). To truly know that youve conquered the food stealing behaviour, drop bits of food near him when he least expects it and tell him to Leave it! as you bend down to retrieve it. Once you can drop bits of food in front of him and he ignores it, you’ve won! Congratulations.

This method also applies to things being flung over the fence into your yard. Set him up. Have a family member stand on the other side of the fence and fling something into the yard. As your dog approaches the object, you tell him to Leave it!. Reward correct behaviour. Continue until he consistently ignores anything being flung over the fence. You’ve won!

All behaviour is learned. If the behaviour is inappropriate, it can be unlearned. It takes time, patience and commitment. If your dog is exhibiting a behaviour that you find obnoxious and you don’t know where to start to modify it, employ a trainer to help you. It will be money well spent and will enhance your relationship with your best friend.

© Pat Renshaw

Last modified: June 14, 2005