When we share our homes with our dogs there are inevitable issues that arise. One of the most common experiences I discuss with clients and for me personally as a dog mom is the backyard. It makes sense, right? Our dogs are most animal-like when they are in nature. There is room to run, play, bark, get overstimulated, claim a stick, dig, chew, be reactive to all outside has to offer and just be dogs.
This is really a non-issue with most single dog homes. However, when we start adding the number of dogs we share our home with the neighbors dog, a loose dog that comes up to your fence line, a squirrel, maybe even the UPS truck can get our dogs going and when instincts are in full drive mode and there are several dogs in a shared space that can lead to some pretty serious altercations.
"Our backyard should be a space we interact, engage and work with our dogs, not just a place they go to practice unwanted behaviors."
So what's a dog parent to do?
Start at the Back Door: Our dogs are already excited before they even get to be outside. This anticipation can lead to increased energy that explodes at the door or on the way outside, sometimes the outward manifestation of over-arousal causes them to even turn on each other. You can teach each dog to place on their respective rugs, releasing each one individually. You can emply and environmental strategy of letting one out at a time instead of all together. You can do a sit and wait collectively helping to calm where their head is out and then releasing. Like all behavioral work find out what works best for you and your dogs and then stick with it!
Be Present: If we are always letting our dogs outside without ever being in that space with them then we are setting up our dogs to fail. Walk around outside with your dogs working on recall. Praise each dog when they come to you. Scoop poop and while you are cleaning up ask each dog to look, helping them practice focusing on you. Take treats and do training sessions in the backyard working on all their basic communication cues. This is a wonderful way to help your dogs experience the backyard as an environment that is an extension of inside; meaning we are generalizing the connection and their ability to work for you just as well as they do inside when least distracted.
Toys: If your dogs are able to share toys then use play as a way to have a meaningful relationship with your dog in the backyard. If Fido is incredibly driven to play then we are praciticing his attention being on you and not any other sights and sounds that are going on around the yard. If toys are a trigger for your dogs, simply remove them. You can work on teaching your dogs to share and play nicely with a behavioral expert. But if you know that toys are an issue and cause fights among your dogs then there is no benefit to having them in the backyard.
Leash-work: We all know how much our dogs love to go for a walk? Have you ever walked your dog in your own backyard? Probably not, seems a little weird. Putting your dog on a leash, even a long lead is an excellent way for them to experience the back yard as a place that you have boundaries, structure and help create desired behaviors in place of more instinctual ones. For instance, instead of getting to run off and chase that squirrel you are able to do the "step back technique" adding distance to what has your dog(s) over threshold and request a sit or look. Doing this repeatedly can even help your dog learn that the squirrel is predictive of a check-in with mom or dad. How about loose-leash walking and heel? Your backyard is the perfect environment to practice in before you head out to the big wide world with other dogs, people and bicycles. When we add leash work to the backyard we are saying to our dogs, "Lets work together, lets be together" as opposed to the backyard being a set-up for your dog to dog a little too intensely and condition him self for behaviors that cause an imbalance in our pack.
De-Escalate Play: I call this being a positive interrupter. We all love to see our dogs play and how great to get that energy out with constructive canine outlets. However, we have all been there when play becomes too intense, perhaps even unfair; several dogs on one, or one dog is playing a bit too rough. Whatever the specifics are, we want to be able to bring the energy back down. Several ways you can be a positive interrupter is by 1) Getting the attention of the most well-trained dog, then the next, and usually dogs will follow suit and the energy will dissipate or at least what was 4 dogs playing too rough is now a more manageable number for you to intervene. 2) Have an "attention" word or sound. An attention word is one that you have created a lot of value with. This word is only used when there is a jackpot reward so that when your dogs hear it they know it means a handful of chicken for example and that conditioning is more rewarding than play. A sound can be a loud rolling of the tongue, loud clapping, a kiss noise, a bell whatever you chose for the sound to be make sure it has been associated with feel good feelings. The point is to get their attention followed by your dogs coming to you. 3) Use those basic communication cues: If the dogs know leave it or come these are fantastic cues to incorporate into play. Say one dog is being too rough then give the verbal correction eh-eh, leave it and then come. Or one dog starts to join in then that is a leave it and then start to rehearse cues he/she know like touch, look and sit.
Place arena: Create a small place arena where you are working on the cue place with your dogs. A towel, a bench, a dog bed, even a yoga mat. This can help your dogs work on impulse control and having a calm mindset when in the backyard. We are often very busy teaching our dogs in action-oriented ways that we forget how important it is for them to learn "observe-and-chill" mindsets.
Balance is everything: Of course we are going to let our dogs out in the backyard and not always be back there with them. We all know there are advantages to dogs being around other dogs. But it is also important that we reflect on what our dogs are learning when they are in the back yard alone, what communications are building among each other that we may be missing, and how we can improve the backyard for our dogs to have an optimal relationship with each other and ourselves. You can rotate these ideas, you can again find what helps your dogs the most and above all have balance. Always leaving our dogs outside alone isn't going to be the best way to develop healthy minds and healthy behaviors.
Meet the Behaviorist, Jennifer Caves, M.Psy, CGC:
Welcome dog lovers and all dogs! I am the founder and Canine-Human Educator for REAL Animal Behavioral Solutions. We consider our work to be rooted in science and driven by ethics. Our passion meets purpose mission is unique in that we empower and educate people with a lifelong skill set to help any dog they share their life with currently or in the future. Dogs are incredibly resilient and intelligent and when the humans in their life know the how, why and successful implementation of behavioral principles- our dogs become happy, healthy and healed.
I have my Masters in Psychology and Canine Good Citizen Certification through the AKC. I have literally been rescuing animals since I was 16 years old with 15 years of behavioral experience. I consider it a privilege to work with you and your dog!
Real Animal Behavioral Solutions provides a holistic whole body-whole brain scientific approach to training using positive reinforcement and relationship building principles. Our one of a kind dog-psychology encompasses the mind and body connections that are inherently at work in dog behavior.