by Barbara Cannon
Here at Baxter and Bella we often get questions about using electric fences to keep puppies in an unfenced backyard. As we are a fear-free positive dog training platform, we don’t advocate for any kind of device that teaches or corrects your puppy through pain and fear, so we do not support the choice of using an electric fence. Instead, we suggest you try boundary training! Boundary training is useful not only to teach your pup about boundaries in your yard but also to teach your pup about boundaries in your house, With time, consistency, and lots of good rewards, your pup can learn to stay behind any line, whether indoors or outside, without the use of aversive training methods.
To start, you will need a leash and a lot of good treats. For outdoor training, you may consider using a clicker, although if you haven’t used one before, you will need to “load” the clicker so your pup understands that “click” equals something yummy coming. Outdoors you may also want to use several flags to mark the boundary. If you want, you can start using the flags indoors as well, although it is not necessary. See below for more information about using flags.
In order to teach your pup to remain outside a room or area in your house:
Put your pup on a leash, walk him to the boundary and stop just in front of it. Keep the leash short so your pup stays with you.
Immediately reward your pup as he comes to a stop. You do not need to cue a sit or down at this point. Just turn and walk away from the boundary. Repeat this step until your pup begins to stop on his own.
Now cross the boundary. If your pup follows, block him and go back to step 2 for more repetitions. When your dog does stop at the boundary, go back and reward.
Start going further into the “forbidden” area and returning to your pup to reward as long as he stays outside of the boundary.
Now you can start to add the 4 D’s (unit 2.13): duration, distance, distraction and difficulty. Only work on one at a time, and work up from least challenging to most challenging. Start with duration and work up from increments of seconds to minutes.
Teaching your puppy outdoor boundaries can be more challenging because, just like any kind of training, there are far more distractions outdoors than inside. You will want to use a long lead that you can eventually extend to the entire distance of the yard. You will also need a very high value reward in order to keep your dog’s attention. Remember, you are competing with a very stimulating environment so it’s time to bring out the big guns!
You can teach your dog outdoor boundaries in much the same way you teach indoor boundaries by simply walking your dog to the edge of the boundary and rewarding them for staying on the correct side. Here is a suggested plan without using flags.
Walk your dog on leash around the perimeter of your property several times a day for several days. While walking, point to the ground where the boundary exists so your dog can visually see his boundary.
After several days you can stop pointing to a specific place but start showing your dog the entire boundary with a sweeping motion of your arm. Do this daily several times a day. You should begin to stop at the boundary line but do not cross.
After at least a week of showing your dog the boundary line, go to the line with your dog and give some commands. Have your dog SIT at several places along the boundary line.
After a few days, take your dog to the boundary line, put her in a SIT and ask her to STAY. Cross the line as you did with the room barrier and then cross back to your dog. Mark and reward. Do this at several places along the boundary line.
If your dog knows the LEAVE IT cue (Unit 2.9), take your dog on several walks daily while using the LEAVE IT cue along the borderline. If you are just teaching this cue, it may take longer for your dog to connect it to the border line.
Try a treat challenge by tossing a treat across the line and using LEAVE IT to tell your dog not to cross to get the treat. Always have a second treat on you to use as a reward, not the one that you tossed. You can also try tossing the treat and asking your dog to STAY while you go get the treat. Again, reward with a different treat if your dog stays in place.
Using flags to mark a perimeter is especially useful outside. You can also use flags to make an indoor boundary. If you have taught your puppy to target items, you can begin by having your pup target the flags indoors and then return to you. Check out Unit 3.1 on free shaping for ways to help your puppy learn to target objects. Show the puppy the flag and let her become familiar with it. As she touches her nose to it, mark and reward. Repeat this until your dog is deliberately touching the flag for a treat. Step a foot away and let your pup go touch the flag. Mark and reward. Continue by moving farther away and marking/rewarding every time your pup goes to touch the flag and returns to you. If you have a second flag, place it a few feet away from the first flag and have your pup go in between the two flags, marking and rewarding each time she touches her nose to a flag. If you choose you can name the flags something like “border” so later on she will recognize those flags and connect them to the boundary training.
When using flags on an outside boundary, put several flags along the boundary line. Put your dog on a 15-20 foot lead and walk around the yard. If you have practiced inside boundaries your pup will willingly go to the flags and return to you for a treat. Don’t mark or click when the dog targets the flag, mark when they turn back to you. This helps to reinforce the edge of the boundary. Practice this exercise once or twice a day for several months. As your dog gets better at this exercise, start to move farther away so your dog has to go farther to return to you, ideally from a back porch or back door. Eventually, as you did inside, you will want to start adding the 4 D’s - duration, distance, distractions, and difficulty. Start small and then add more excitement. After your dog has been returning to you for several weeks, try letting her off leash in the yard. Mark and reward frequently when she comes back to you or targets the flag and returns. If your dog goes over the boundary, do not punish her. Instead, bring her back into the yard and reward her return. It can be helpful as time goes on to make the yard an exciting place for your dog using toys and fun games.
Please note, there is always a risk when your dog is off leash. We believe in keeping your dog safe through the use of a physical fence, whether it is permanent or temporary; or using a long line to provide a safety net should your dog choose to take off. While boundary training can be effective, especially in situations where you may want to keep your dog out of a flower bed, children's play area or certain rooms of your home, recognize the risks involved with having your dog off leash and do what is safe for your dog. Without a physical fence, we recommend supervising your dog when outdoors at all times and bringing them inside with you when you go in.
Baxter and Bella trainers are available to answer questions and help you with boundary training if you need it. Have fun!