A lively Arlington List discussion about cats on leashes this week got me thinking about pet containment options in general. Whether people believe it’s right to allow them to or not, cats currently have the privilege of roaming free if their families choose to allow them to.
Dogs, however, may only do so at certain times and locations around town and according to a strict set of rules, so pet containment options at all other times are a must for them. Every pet containment option I can think of has its pros and cons. The trick is to choose the combination of methods that yield more good than harm for your specific dog and situation.
Perhaps the simplest and most common option is the good, old leash. They come in a variety of lengths from just a foot long up to 50 feet long. Although Arlington leash law stipulates that a dog should be kept on a leash six feet or shorter in public (outside of legal off-leash program hours and locations), a longer leash may be useful for exercising your pet in your own yard if it is unfenced.
I often advise students in such situations to use a 20 or 30 foot training leash to safely provide their dog with cardiovascular exercise by playing ping pong dog (making a game of calling the dog back and forth between people) or tossing toys for their dog to chase first one direction and then another.
Extreme caution must be exercised, though, not to let the dog’s legs get tangled and not to allow the dog enough leash to reach the street. People should wear protective gloves and long pants to avoid the possibility of rope burn, especially when working with all but small breed dogs.
Along the same lines as leashing are containment methods like the use of a pet tether (aka “tie out”) or a zip line. Both of these options present similar tangling dangers to those of a long leash. In addition, they leave your dog a “sitting duck” in the event that a stray dog or wild animal like a coyote enters your yard. I’ll admit that I often let my dog, Tatsu, enjoy our unfenced yard on a tie-out when I’m indoors by an open window. He’s a mellow fellow these days, so the chance of him getting tangled seems low, and I can quickly get to him in the event of any trouble.
Safer and more effective at keeping dogs from roaming, though, are fences. As the old saying goes, “good fences make good neighbors.” A fenced yard is a wonderful asset to dog owners! My strong preference is for physical fences over electronic fences, but both types have their benefits and drawbacks.
Electronic (aka “hidden” or “invisible”) fences are popular with some families because they are relatively cost-effective (when compared with physical fences). In addition, they can’t be seen, which is more appealing to some and also makes them an option for homes that may not erect a traditional fence because of legal reasons. Yet they can have extremely negative effects on a dog from behavioral standpoint in the absence of adequate training and supervision.
For one thing, invisible fences may do a great job of keep your dog in, but won’t keep other dogs, humans or wildlife out. Another danger is that, a friendly, curious dog may approach the boundary of its invisible fence to greet dogs or people passing by and get a “correction” for getting too close. Over time, this friendly dog can develop negative associations with people or dogs passing by and develop fear-based aggressive behaviors towards those triggers.
Still, if a physical fence is not an option, an invisible fence is better than no fence—although I strongly encourage families with such systems not to leave their dogs outside unattended. Damage from such dangers can be limited when a person is in the yard to act as their dog’s advocate should such a situation arise.
This is not to say that a physical fence is always a completely safe option. Sometimes dogs are able to dig under or jump over a fence. Sometimes they find a breach in the fence to wriggle through.
I’ll never forget the day that Tatsu (then an adolescent), managed to squeak through what seemed a tiny gap in a gate at a home we once lived in. Luckily for us, some very kind people detained him before he could make it to a street.
Another drawback is that people with reliable fences (physical or invisible) are sometimes tempted to leave their dogs out unattended without proper training to prevent such undesirable behaviors as nuisance barking or destructive chewing and digging.
Finally, there are some people who feel that their dog has had adequate training to be trusted outside in their yard without any sort of leashing of fencing. I’m a professional trainer, and although my dogs have had enough training that they almost never stray from our yard without permission, I’m very cautious about letting them out of my sight while off-leash in our yard.
Dogs are living creatures, not machines, and as such, their behavior is never 100% reliable. Even if there is a mere 1% chance of them straying, that could be enough of an opportunity for a devastating accident to take place. And even if I can count on my dog’s training, I can’t prevent my neighbor’s dog from coming into our yard when he escapes from his home (which has happened twice in the past month!).
In the end, I can’t say that any of these pet containment options is never a good idea, but I can’t say that any of them is foolproof, either. It comes down to understanding your own dog, providing appropriate training for your dog, and finally, weighing the risks and benefits of the various pet containment methods that are possible in your situation to choose the method (or combination of methods) that suits your family’s needs the best.