Having a backyard with a dog is such a luxury! We are always so excited about the fact that we don't have to deal with hallways, elevators, lobbies, and endless leash-walks. Backyards provide our dogs with a space to run and relax. They provide us with a space to relax and entertain. Now, try combining all of these! It never turns out the way we expect!
It's easy to forget that dogs are animals and animals do animal-things, like running, digging, barking, climbing, fence-fighting with the neighbour's dog, chasing the neighbourhood cat, stalking the squirrels on the top of the fence, and create their own de-forestation projects by foraging in the garden or ripping branches off trees.
We find ourselves standing at the back door in our pyjamas, trying to whisper-yell our dog's non-existent recall in a way that gets them back but doesn't garner attention from the neighbours. I hear you. I've been there and done that more times than I'd care to admit.
Here's the thing. We have to start out on the right paw by teaching our dogs what we want them to do in this environment, rather than leaving it to them to figure out. If you leave it to them, all the normal dog behaviours that I listed above are almost guaranteed to happen, even if you don't see these things in the early days. They will develop naturally if you do not actively prevent them.
Start now. Not in a few weeks, or when you notice problems arising. Now. It's never too late and it's definitely never too early.
Management / Prevention:
Prevention is 90% of training. If your dog rehearses the unwanted behaviour, they're getting better and better at performing it. For the next three weeks, we're going to follow this strict protocol, so get your whole family on board now!
- When it's time for potty breaks, you're going to walk your dog on leash to their designated potty area in the yard and reward them handsomely with food when they do their business there. You'll thank me for this later when you don't have a backyard full of doggie-doo landmines.
- Do not allow your dog unsupervised backyard time. Not even for one second. Plant a pair of "yard shoes", a collar/harness and a leash at the back door and in crummy weather, a jacket/umbrella. This is not forever and it's worth the effort. I promise.
- At the back door, have an extra treat pouch filled with dried liver/chicken/fish or something that is high-value and not perishable. This is your "quick-grab bag" for reinforcing behaviour. For planned yard-time you can grab a higher-value treat from the fridge, like boiled chicken, Rollover, meatloaf, cheese, etc... Don't forget the poop bags. You will need to pick up after your dog immediately (yes, even in your own yard) for these three weeks at the very least.
Picking up promptly after your dog prevents coprophagia (eating their own poop), prevents rats (they love dog poop!), and even prevents the bacteria and parasites from making their way into your water system (mmmmm drinkable tap water!).
Playtime in the Yard:
When it's time for backyard play, you're going to attach a long line every time your dog goes out in the yard. You'll also go with them to supervise and coach them on what you want them to do. Arm yourself with fantastic, high-value treats and a few novel toys that are designated for backyard play. This might be a couple of Chuck-it balls, a tug toy, and a flirt pole. Tuck these away any other time so that your dog knows these are only for play in the yard.
A few fun games that are great for engaging your dog in the yard are:
- Fetch, alternating with training "drop it" and relaxation so you don't build arousal and endurance
- Food-scatter or "sniffari"
- Flirt pole chase in exchange for polite behaviours (sit, down, touch, eye contact, etc...)
- Enriched mealtime (via food-dispensing toy or raw meaty bone on a tarp)
Training in the Yard:
When it's time for backyard training, you're going to keep up with the habit of attaching a long line every time. Arm yourself with fantastic, high-value treats and whatever gear is appropriate for the activity you're about to work on.
A few training activities that are great for teaching your dog what you want them to do in the yard are:
Independence in the Yard:
Eventually you want your dog to be able to go out on their own, do their business in a spot that doesn't create a doggie-doo landmine for when your kids want to play on the slip n'slide, and just hang out without barking at and chasing everything that moves, or digging up your herb garden. This is the end goal, so once you've done all the work and you can see that your dog is developing good habits, you can start this part of the program...but don't rush it! If you do this too early, they learn the wrong skills and you have to go back to the start. Un-training and then re-training takes longer than just doing it right the first time.
What does independence in the yard look like? Here are the levels - don't skip any!
- Still on a long-line, take your dog to the potty area for a bio-break and then once done, let the long line drag. You're now going to hang out in the yard in a more passive way. Sit in a lawn chair and be armed with the good food, but leave a few durable chew toys lying around to offer some good choices for your dog to choose from.
- Observe your dog as they do their thing. They might sniff around, they might find their own play with the toys, or they might try to engage with you. You don't have to ignore them! You can chat with them, pet them, encourage them to play with their toys a little more independently, etc. but stay in your chair and focus on observing.
- If your dog makes a good choice, mark it with a "yes!!" and feed a piece of food (I toss from the chair!).
- If a neighbour or their dog makes a noise, create a positive association by immediately tossing a piece of food. (This is called a Bark Bonus but can be used for human-noises too!)
- If your dog chooses to relax nearby and watch the world go by, intermittently reward them with a piece of food. This might be every 5-10 seconds to start, gradually increasing the length of time between reinforcements to once every 60-90 seconds, for example.
- Call it a day - this is a great level 1! Short and sweet does the trick! Repeat this for a week.
- Still on a long-line, walk your dog halfway to the potty area for a bio-break and let them go ahead to do their business. If they go to that area, wait until they're done, praise and reward with food and then let the long line drag. You're now going to hang out in the yard in a more passive way. Be armed with the good food, but leave a few durable chew toys lying around to offer some good choices for your dog to choose from. This level is the same as level 1 except that you're going to be hanging out closer to the back door now, rather than in the middle of the excitement. You'll be engaging in an activity that doesn't involve your dog OR require your full, undivided attention. You need to still be able to observe your dog and reinforce good choices. This might be tending to your garden, cleaning the barbecue, organising the outdoor storage, or skimming through a magazine. Continue following all the prompts above for reinforcing good choices, Bark Bonuses, and keep it short and sweet. Repeat this for a week.
- Still on a long-line, you're going to let it drag. Walk your dog a quarter of the way to the potty area for a bio-break and let them go ahead to do their business. If they go to that area, wait until they're done, praise and reward with food (make a BIG deal - this is hard!) and leave a few durable chew toys lying around to offer some good choices for your dog to choose from. This level is the same as level 2 except that you're going to be engaging in a low-arousal activity with another person from your household. So...not lawn darts or badminton - having a drink at the patio table, grilling some veggies, basically the start of a very quiet, low-key barbecue with one person max. You need to still be able to observe your dog and reinforce good choices. Continue following all the prompts above for reinforcing good choices, Bark Bonuses, and keep it short and sweet. Repeat this for a week.
- You're getting there!! Start adding tiny distractions after the bio-break, like adding another household member, maybe a visitor (if this isn't stressful for your dog), etc.
- Over time, you can remove the long line and be ready to reinforce good choices more heavily. You can alternate with passive yard visits, playtime, and standing in the door to supervise as they go out on their own. The trust will build from here so that you can hit your goal!
If you find your dog is struggling with something, remember that this is not their failure - this is simply information for YOU to find an easier level to master before testing them with this level of difficulty.
Also consider the fact that if you get into the habit of always sending your dog out alone and not spending time engaging with them out there, or playing with them, they will resort to finding their own fun. This is where regressions happen, so don't devalue your presence in the yard for the sake of convenience!
Some typical challenges that come up in a backyard are: