Fence Fighting Frenzy
“I love that my dog gets so much exercise running back and forth along the fence!”
“My dog’s job is to guard the property, so I like that they bark at all the people and dogs that pass by.”
“My dogs are on my own property, and they aren’t hurting anyone, so I don’t care if they are barking and running the fence line.”
“I’ve tried to stop my dogs from constantly barking and running the fence line, but they don’t listen, so I’ve given up.”
Do any of these sound familiar? Can you relate to them? Have you said any of these things out loud or even just in your own head? I sure empathize with them! When a dog rarely leaves their yard, they may, in fact, get the majority of their exercise running the fence line, and as a single woman living alone in the woods (and in an urban environment prior to now), I’ve always valued having a big, scary dog that would let strangers know I and my home are well protected. I also know exactly what changing that behavior entails, so I understand why people either don’t know how or don’t want to go to the effort to do it, especially when they feel there are some positive aspects of the behavior.
But what if I told you that allowing the behavior is actually quite harmful, both to your own dogs and to your neighbors’ dogs?
To understand that, we need to also understand why our dogs are running the fence line in the first place. In most cases, the reason for it is the perception of threat. That means that your dog is afraid, and their response to feeling fear is to try to be as scary as possible to make whatever they are afraid of go away. If this only happened occasionally, it might not be that big of a deal, but what ends up happening is that the dog perceives a threat over and over every day, indicative by their constant aggression at the fence, and as a result, they never have the chance for their stress hormones to regulate. They live in a constant state of increased adrenaline and cortisol. Just like with us humans, this excessive stress not only compromises their mental health, but it also causes physical damage to their bodies, causing them to be more susceptible to cancer, heart disease, injury, allergies, infection, endocrine issues, and a host of other physical conditions. Allowing a dog to live in constant stress is physically harmful to the dog.
Some dogs may not feel threatened, but they have a heightened chase drive, so they attempt to chase and catch everything that goes by. However, the frustration caused by never having access to that thing they are chasing with minimal alternative enrichment and boredom causes a compulsive behavior of running the fence line not unlike dogs that compulsively spin, chase light and shadow, chew themselves, or other behaviors that can become dangerous. Dogs that perform these compulsive behaviors are generally living in a heightened state of arousal and stress, and when something approaches as they are performing these repetitive behaviors, they are more inclined to redirect, that is, to lash out and bite, whatever comes near, not necessarily with awareness of what they are doing. Additionally, if the fence is ever compromised for any reason, that heightened state of arousal will make the dog much more likely to do real harm to whatever they were chasing from behind the fence, even if they are completely friendly to anyone when there are no fences involved. And again, that stress they are constantly experiencing is physically unhealthy.
How about the neighbors’ dogs? How do you feel your dog’s behavior affects them?
I personally have dogs on both sides of my property that will bark aggressively any time my dogs are outside. One is across the street. One borders my acre of land, but I’ve placed an additional fence to contain my dog a full 100 feet away from that dog. The dogs still bark at my dogs. This means that my dogs cannot exist peacefully in their own yard. They must remain vigilant to ensure that the dogs threatening their lives daily do not have access to their space. I’ve taught my dogs to come running inside any time they are being harassed by the neighbor dogs, but it really isn’t fair to them that they cannot enjoy peace and safety on their own property. If this is true for my dogs for whom I’ve built fences many feet away from neighboring fences in order to create more distance, think how much more true it is for people living in urban environments where fences are necessarily shared and space is limited.
Imagine if you were taking advantage of the beautiful spring weather to plant a garden in your yard, and suddenly, your neighbor appears at the fence wielding a giant knife and shouting, “One of these days, I’m gonna get through this fence and slit your throat! I hate you, and you deserve to die!!!” That would kind of put a damper on your gardening, right? You probably wouldn’t really want to spend time outside in your yard anymore, especially if that happened every single time you went outside. The dog being harassed in their own yard is suffering the exact same thing.
Similarly, walking dogs past homes where dogs are allowed to bark and run the fence is challenging at best. Even my dog that doesn’t respond aggressively toward other dogs threatening her hates it. I watch her body tense up and her tail lower. I see her pupils dilate as she tries to decide how best to avoid while simultaneously keeping her eye on the perceived danger. Even though we remain on the opposite side of the street, she cannot enjoy a peaceful walk in public spaces because she perceives danger all around her. Other dogs I work with, in various stages of training, may not even be able to pass by a house with a dog barking at the fence line without becoming so distressed that they feel they need to defend themselves, lunging and barking in return. There is not enough distance available to allow them to feel safe enough to pass, and so we cannot even go for a walk. And this is quite unfair to them as they could easily learn to tolerate passing a dog that wasn’t threatening their lives.
Again, think of it in human terms. You are trying to go for a walk, either for exercise or simply to enjoy the weather and spring flowers. But no matter where you walk, you have to pass some house with a person hanging their arms through the fence, wielding that giant knife, and screaming, “I HATE YOU. YOU SHOULD DIE! I’M GOING TO BUST THROUGH THIS FENCE AND CUT YOU INTO TINY PIECES!!!” Wouldn’t you be terrified that the fence might someday be compromised and the killer would come after you? You might be too scared to pass that house, and since there are many houses with knife-wielding psychos just like it, you might be too scared to go for walks at all anymore. Or maybe, you have a more defensive disposition, so you are inclined to start packing bigger and scarier weaponry while yelling threats back at the potential killers in an attempt to intimidate them. Your dog doesn’t get to call the police about the death threats, so they have to deal with it themselves. Avoidance, freezing in fear, or fighting back are their only options. What a horrible position we’ve put them in.
In truth, most cities and towns have noise ordinances prohibiting nuisance barking or excessive noise in a neighborhood, and incessant barking in a yard while a dog threatens every dog it sees is a violation of these ordinances. However, this is rarely enforced. So if obeying the law isn’t a concern to you personally, I’d challenge you to consider the welfare of your own dog and to perhaps think about how your dog’s behavior is affecting the welfare of others.
We can train a dog to call off the fence and even to not run the fence line at all. There are a host of physically and mentally healthier ways to exercise our dogs both in and out of our yards. And dogs that do not run the fence line still provide adequate deterrent from burglars and other people with nefarious intentions. So please be considerate of all involved and prevent your dogs from running the fence line while yelling death threats to all who pass by. And if you find that easier said than done and need a little help from a professional trainer, you are in good company, and I and all of my colleagues would be honored to assist.