A call recently came through to my dog training business. A dog owner needed help. His dog was chasing cars and not staying home. The dog took long treks across the countryside, and had even been seen at farms that were miles away. The owner wanted the dog to learn. The kids love the dog, he told me. So the dog needs to stay safe. And to stay safe, he needs to learn, I was told. The dog needs to learn that leaving the farm is wrong. “Lots of other dogs stay home”, this harried dog owner said. So this dog just needed to learn to be more like those dogs.
Dogs are variable creatures, aren’t they? I’m not just talking about all the different breeds, either, although…how baffling is it that both Yorkies and Mastiffs are the same species? Some dogs are energetic, some affable and easy going. Some love snuggles. Some dogs enjoy ‘me’ time. Some dogs are bright, and some, well…some are less so. Some dogs—for whatever reason—stay home, even without fences. Most dogs, however, given the opportunity to roam, will delightedly do so. A few of my own crew of sled dogs are the stay-at-home types, much to my amazement. Sled dogs are a breed known to enjoy long, long treks across the wilderness, a trait which is compounded by their rather fiendish escape capabilities: they climb over, they dig under, and they also find and then worry at any breach in the fence until it’s big enough to slip though. Fence repair duty is ongoing.
It would be delicious if we could simply ask them why. Why do you stay home, stay-at-home dog? Tell us what we need to know to get all the dogs staying home. Dogs can’t talk, of course, so we have no access to their thoughts. This means that any guesses about why dogs do what they do (outside of well-constructed and tested arguments coming out of academic disciplines like evolutionary psychology and ethology) are…well, conjecture. Ten minutes in the Dog section of any bookstore will fill you with more conjecture-stated-as-fact than most people can reasonably handle in a lifetime. But luckily, when it comes to dogs, we don’t need to know why (even though in a roaming dog’s case, we do have some good ideas, thanks to those same academic disciplines). We just need to get to work.
“Some farm dogs do stay home”, my caller reminded me. Yes, some do. But was there learning involved? Maybe there was—and we’ll talk about that in a bit. But more likely, they are simply the stay-at-home types. Are the stay-at-homers safer than the roamers? Absolutely. The stay-at-home types are just less likely to be out on the road. Statistics alone are on that dog’s side: they’re not on the road, or not on the road nearly as often, so they are much less likely to be harmed in a traffic accident. Are they perfectly safe, though? Does any dog stay at home all the time, with no fence? This is unlikely. Even the most homeward-oriented dog is occasionally interested in a squirrel, a fun new scent, or—heavens be—another dog wandering by.
It’s tempting to moralize about dogs in these scenarios. “She should stay home because it’s the right thing to do.” When dogs do stuff we really wish they wouldn’t, or don’t do something we really wish they would, it feels like an affront. But dogs don’t share our morals, and expecting them to is at the root of so much abusive behaviour that many dog trainers have developed a bit of an aversion to the word “should”. But my dog should stay home. Dog trainers ‘round the world shout out why? Is there something good at home? Is there a reason for him not to follow his nose and track that grouse or moose or feather? Is he safely contained in a fence? Dogs can be compared (poorly, but still usefully) to a human baby. “This baby should not reach out and grab the dirty lollipop on the floor and put it in her mouth”. Well, OK, sure…that makes sense to us, but no one would expect the baby to listen, nod wisely, and refrain from reaching out with that perfect little baby hand. The baby sees the lollipop, the baby thinks “mine, nom nom”. So instead of unreasonable expectations, we pick up and toss out the lollipop, put special closures on the cabinets, lift the baby up into our arms, and distract them with a silly song. Dogs aren’t babies, of course. But like babies, they aren’t grown-up people, either.
Training a Dog to Refrain from Doing Something
It is much more difficult than you’d guess to train a dog to stop doing something, especially something which the dog naturally enjoys, or something which has yielded results in the past. In most scenarios where people want this (“get my dog to stop jumping up”), dog trainers rely on a lovely switcheroo: do this instead. When the dog wants friendly face-time and jumps up? We train the dog to sit, instead. Dog pesters guests to get patting? We train the dog to stay on a mat for a few minutes, instead. Dog pulls hard to get from point A to point B? We teach the dog that the only way to get from point A to B is to walk without slamming into the end of the leash, instead. These are all much easier propositions than “training dog to stop doing X”.
So back to our roaming dog. Does this dog naturally enjoy roaming? Almost certainly. Roaming is a human-free walk. They get to sniff around, stretch their legs, and moooooove. Does roaming ever yield goodies? Almost certainly. The ground is the catchment zone for the gross domestic product of each and every member of the deer family…say no more. So we have a dog doing something they naturally like, and something which is being reinforced. How hard will it be to stop this dog from roaming?
The dog trainer’s credo of “do something else instead” is less useful in this scenario. Roaming usually happens when a human isn’t there. The odd dog can be trained to stay home instead, but like all “obedience” behaviours, the dog will only keep doing it as long as there is reinforcement. (See paragraph about “should”, above, if you find yourself thinking well they should. Lollipop. Baby.) Most dogs will learn to stay home when the human is around, and then as soon as they’re gone, recognize that the time to roam is neigh.
Reducing Behaviour through Punishment
This seems to leave dog owners and trainers with one option: punishment. Punishment comes in two flavours: the nice kind, and the painful kind. The nice kind is when you take away something the dog likes for a short time, like a time-out away from the dog’s favourite people. The painful kind is the bailiwick of old-time trainers, and includes hurting and scaring dogs with various kind of collars, or by yelling or striking.
Time-outs: a Useful Solution?
Although using time-outs can be exceptionally useful for some dog training, they aren’t a good fit for roaming dogs. Even if you could catch the dog as they leave your property line and give them a brief time-out inside, they would almost certainly learn to stay home when the human is around, and roam freely when the human is not. This is not because they are morally corrupt, of course. They’ve just learned when it works to leave, and when it doesn’t. (See paragraph about “should”, above, if you find yourself thinking well they should. Lollipop. Baby.)
Since time-outs are not useful here, this leaves the final training option, the so-called corrections: painful or scary punishment. This type of punishment absolutely changes a dog’s behaviour. Dogs, like all animals, will work to avoid being scared or harmed. And in fact, shock collars, including shock collar ‘fences’, have been the usual go-to for training dogs to stop roaming. So why didn’t I just make a recommendation to my caller to hurry up and buy one of these devices?
I had a good reason, I promise. Shock collars have side-effects. Any training that relies on the use of scary or painful corrections does. You can probably guess what happens if you regularly hurt or scare a dog, of course: they become fearful. And dogs, like all animals, have a relatively limited suite of behaviours they can pull out when they’re feeling scared: freezing (hunkering down in one spot), flight (running away), and fight (aggression, such as growling, snarling, and biting).
So training with painful or scary corrections has two important side-effects. First of all, the dog will get scared. Maybe he’ll just be scared of leaving the yard. But maybe he’ll be scared of being outside, or scared of trees, or scared of you. Being scared is a welfare issue—living with fear is just an awful way to be. But just as importantly, these training techniques can make a dog more dangerous. Aggression is one of the standard behavioural responses to fear. A dog trainer’s heart does a nervous flip-flop when we hear that a dog who is around children is regularly being shocked.
We can set aside the argument that it doesn’t really hurt, too. If it didn’t really hurt, then the dog would not stop the behaviour. If it didn’t really hurt, this dog wouldn’t stop roaming. You may read that “it’s just a tingle”. Well, if my neck got tingled every time I reached for a piece of pizza, I would continue to eat pizza. If you wanted to change my behaviour, that tingle ain’t going to do it. If that baby’s neck tingled every time she reached for the dirty lollipop…it doesn’t really bear thinking, does it? If you want to stop a dog from doing something they naturally enjoy and something which has a long history of delivering goodies, a tingle isn’t going to do anything. It must register as painful. And as soon as we’re into painful territory, we have those side-effects.
Because of both the welfare issue and the aggression possibility, modern dog trainers do not recommend painful corrections. What can we do with the friendly neighbourhood car chaser and roaming roamer, then?
Dogs Need Our Time
Roaming dogs can be safely contained by fences, a most wonderful invention for the dog owner. In some cases, however, fences cannot be built, due to cost or neighbourhood rules. And furthermore, fences aren’t (and can’t be) the whole answer here. A dog who had the freedom to run for hours and miles was getting both the exercise and enrichment he needed. So fencing a roaming dog without any compensation for that loss will mean an unhappy, bored and frustrated dog.
So what’s the answer for my rather desperate caller? It was a bit unpalatable to a busy working father, I’m afraid. He needed to give his dog the one thing that so many dogs are in desperate need of, and yet is in such short supply in today’s world.
As my caller wasn’t able to build a fence, he needed to wrench open the wallet stuffed with his daily allotment of hours and just dole more out to his dog. A dog with less freedom to roam onto busy roads is much safer, but must be given something in return: exercise and enrichment. Exercise and enrichment are the meat and potatoes of a dog’s happy life. They are the very things we give dogs, above a bed and a bowl of grub, to keep them happy, healthy, content, and active members of our family.
Most dogs naturally roam, and that is in no way an excuse to harm them with outdated training techniques. They need the opportunity to roam safely, which is what walks are. And walks…loose or leashed, through town or park…take nothing but time.
My prescription for my erstwhile caller was both simple and surprisingly intensive, and I recognize that. His beautiful and well-loved dog needed to spend more time safely ensconced in the house, perhaps napping on the couch, and also more time out on leash or loose walks, more time chewing stuffed bones which take time to prepare, more time playing fetch, more time at playdates, more time in a basic obedience class learning manners, more time, more time, more time. A dog is not a cat (although cats also benefit from exercise and enrichment, by the way!). A dog is not a stuffed animal. A dog is a commitment of time, above and beyond anything else. Nothing matters as much as time. Time is both free and the most valuable commodity we have and can give those lovely and magic canines in our midst.
This idea, this vision of a dog roaming happily around an acreage all alone, with no real human input except a bowl of kibble, but who then delightedly plays the part of the good family house-pet for a few hours in the evening…that’s a myth. A unicorn. And my caller almost certainly had a dog, not a unicorn. I hope I was able to convince him to accept the inconvenient truth of the matter: dogs need time. But they are wonderfully giving in return, I promise. They give us joy, they give us exercise, they give us love, they give us laughs, and they give us a shoulder (however furry) to cry on. Maybe, just maybe, I got my message across: a bit of time is a small price to pay for all the good stuff that dogs give us.
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