From time to time people ask me how to cope with a dog that is displaying unwanted behaviours in a situation where the dog is completely unsupervised.
One example is the dog that is left alone outdoors, in a large unfenced garden or yard, with easy access to the world outside.
Another example is the dog that is left unsupervised in an area that may be fenced on the perimeter, but which but which contains interesting distractions such as free-range chickens.
Then there are dogs left in kitchens with food lying around on the table or counters. Or with a bin that is easily tipped over.
The training solution
What the owner of the dog usually wants, is a ‘training’ solution to their problem. A way for example to impose controls over the dog that is running away or chasing their poor hens around the garden all day.
“I can’t be watching him all the time!” is a common complaint. And of course it is true, you can’t be watching your dog all the time.
So it is natural to want to create some kind of training programme that guides the dog into choosing better behaviours by himself.
Crossing the boundaries
Leaving dogs outside in unfenced gardens and expecting them to stay there is quite common in very rural areas where the nearest road may be some distance away.
For some dogs this doesn’t cause a problem, and they will remain close to the house for long periods of time.
Many dogs however, will at some point, start wandering off and getting into mischief if given this kind of freedom
I get a dozen or so emails each year from people that want me to help them solve this problem with a training technique.
Getting up to mischief
One that cropped up again recently, is a dog that is harassing the free range chickens on his owner’s smallholding.
The dog’s owner does not want to shut the dog in, but is looking for a way of training the dog to relax around the property and ignore the birds.
So how can we deal with problems like roaming, or getting up to mischief, in dogs that misbehave while their owners are busy elsewhere? Let’s take roaming first.
Trying to prevent roaming through training is really not a good option. People don’t want to hear this because fencing a large property is breathtakingly expensive. And I do sympathise.
But the truth is, it is almost impossible to train a dog to represent an invisible boundary do this with any degree of reliability.
Reliable behaviours are built using reinforcement or punishment. And if you are not there to reinforce desired behaviour or to punish undesirable behaviour, over time, the chances of the dog choosing alternative behaviours will only increase.
What about remote controlled punishment?
Some people attempt to contain dogs using a remote controlled form of punishment. For example, electric posts placed at intervals along a boundary, that trigger a shock on a dog’s collar
Apart from the ethical issues, these systems often fail because if the dog is motivated enough to cross (he is in full chase after a rabbit for example) he won’t notice the shock until he has passed the boundary. And then he won’t be able to get back in.
But some dogs stay home without fences!
Yes, there are dogs that won’t wander off or that will seem to be trained not to cross a boundary.
But what you are essentially asking from the dog, is a very long duration behaviour (remaining within an invisible boundary for long periods of time without any reinforcement), and it’s one over which you simply have no control.
The solution to roaming is therefore almost always a physical barrier of some kind.
If your garden is too large to fence without bankrupting your family, you need to build a small fenced area within it, to contain your dog. Or to supervise him when he is outside.
The roaming issue is a good example of the limitations of training. But these limitations also apply to other situations, such as our chicken chaser or the bin raider. Chasing and eating rubbish are highly attractive activities to most dogs.
The limitations of training
Training is a wonderful thing. It can teach a dog to carry out a wide range of activities, some of them very useful and productive, others essential in order for the dog to be a pleasant canine citizen that is welcome wherever he goes.
However, training is not the answer to every problem that arises in the course of caring for a dog. And it is rarely the first priority. Management or supervising dogs to some degree, almost always comes first
Management before training
There are exceptions, but for the most part, management of your dog and his access to rewards, is an essential precursor to training.
The secret to successfully training a dog to a high standard lies in the extent to which you maintain control over the outcome of his behaviour.
This means you cannot allow him to rehearse undesirable behaviours like chasing chickens or roaming beyond some ‘invisible’ boundary and still get the result that you want.
The management solution
Managing your dog includes supervising him when he is unrestrained, and restraining him in some way when he is unsupervised.
That restraint may simply mean placing the dog in a safe room in the house, or a fenced area in your garden.
In some situations it may mean crating the dog for short periods of time. This is especially relevant to dogs that destroy fabrics and furnishings when left alone.
Training is hugely important but you cannot and should not try, to train your way out of every situation.
If the dog is raiding the bin, move the bin, or get a locking bin. If he is chasing chickens, you need come up with a barrier to place between him and the birds, or use a physical restraint such as putting him on a lead.
Don’t go to war with your dog. Trying to train a dog immense self control for long periods where he is unsupervised is for most dogs, incredibly time consuming. Life is too short.
Stay friends with your dog, set him up to win, keep powerful temptations out of reach, and life will be much more relaxing for both of you.