The GREAT outdoors?
By Elisabeth Catalano, CPDT, CDBC
One of the fundamental rules of owning a dog, specifically an untrained one, is that they must be supervised all of the time. I can’t say that clearly enough, S U P E R V I S I O N A L L O F T H E T I M E! True, once dogs are trained to understand the rules in your home, they require less and less oversight, but young dogs or newly added dogs, require some upfront work. This supervision rule extends to the one place people never think it applies: the great outdoors. Most people think that the dog needs to be outside and should be able to do so without human intervention. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Dogs that are left outdoors unattended become increasingly independent. That works great for wolves and coyotes, but it is detrimental to the family dog. A family dog should be attached to his people, social and friendly with strangers, fun to be with and easy to train. Independent dogs are not social, they don’t really care if they get human attention or not because they have found that the world can be fun without it. Independent dogs often do not feel the need to be handled by humans either. This makes grooming, vet visits and even petting difficult. Finally, because they have been reinforced by their environment (i.e., chasing squirrels, barking at passersby, etc.) it is hard to get their attention, because they have been getting better and better at giving their attention to things that really matter to them (i.e., birds, poop, other dogs, etc.) but have little or nothing to do with you. This translates into major training challenges.
Independent dogs are more likely to run away. These are dogs that are getting all the fun things they like (and need) to do, outside of the family unit and so they are more apt to seek them out. There is more motivation to be outside than inside the human-dog relationship. Dogs need more than food and a warm bed to keep them at home. They need a mental connection to what is important to them. Where is your dog’s mental connection? Who meets HIS most important need/priority? If it is a squirrel across the street or the dog down the road, then that is where you’ll find him.
One of the first things I teach my dog is to pay attention to me, because anything worth having is going to come from me anyway. They learn early on that I am fun to be with. I have all the things they love and I produce those things at random. (Secret: I spend a fair amount of time helping them learn to love the stuff I have by fostering their desire for games like tug and fetch.) These are things that many dogs enjoy, so I just make sure I’m the one who gives it to them. This is how you build a relationship. The quickest way to destroy a relationship, however, is with independence, letting your dog find out how much fun he can have – without you.
One of my clients brought a dog to me for destructive issues. It seems this one-year-old Lab had not only eaten the siding off the house, but also two deck chairs and the top to their convertible. It was pretty obvious to do that kind of damage; he must have been outside for quite some time. Boredom is a big problem with dogs that spend too much time alone. Whether inside or outside, an untrained dog left alone with nothing to do will amuse himself.
Most people put their dogs outside to ‘exercise’. Unfortunately, dogs don’t go outside with the intention of ‘doing a few laps to keep in shape’. Instead, they often can be found lolling around on the deck watching the neighbor’s cat. They need a good, sustained and structured romp to burn energy and stave off boredom. Most dog owners are surprised that after spending a few hours outside (“getting tired, ahem”), the dogs come back in the house crazier then they went out. This is because all that time spent outside has denied them the valuable lessons of how to behave in the house. After they’ve been laying under a tree, watching birds for an hour or two, getting a second wind, they are back inside and looking for something stimulating to do. They have their indoor/outdoor behaviors confused.
From day one, my dogs learn: outside is for play and inside is for rest. I teach this by taking them out first thing in the morning and playing until they are tired. We then come back inside and after their breakfast, they fall asleep. Depending on the age or need of the dog, this may be repeated once or twice more during the day. After awhile, they see the yard as the place to run and the house as the place to be calm. Nice arrangement if you ask me.
Just about everyone wants a dog that is reliable off-leash (i.e., they don’t run away, they come when you call, no matter what). Unfortunately, having a dog that is outdoors alone and one that is reliable off-leash, are mutually exclusive. If you want the outdoors to be great, you need to invest in your relationship with your dog. Spend quality time, do things together, train him. Your dog needs to build a relationship with you and be taught what you expect from him, everywhere.
Elizabeth Catalano, CPDT, CDBC, is the owner and Director of Behavior and Training of The Coventry School for Dogs and Their People, Inc. www.thecoventryschool.com. You can email Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org.