Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

Jan 17, 2018 | Animal Behavior, Training

My back door opens onto an elevated wooden porch. There are ten steps down to the yard. The top of the steps provides a view into the neighbor’s yard, which can be a very interesting place. Clara runs there when anything might be happening, primed to react. In the picture above she is watching a guest dog at the neighbor’s house. You can see that that’s not a friendly look, right? Tight commissures (corners of the mouth) with the muscles bunched and pushing forward. Direct gaze with a fairly hard eye. Stiff neck with weight pushing forward. And yes, she’s foaming at the mouth, probably from barking. The neighbors are retired and have a large family with three generations of offspring. Their home is the meeting place for the whole family. They put up their grandkids frequently, and often dog-sit over a weekend or holiday. The most frequent canine visitor is a big, affable goldendoodle. Affable or not, all three of my dogs get up in arms about him, but especially Clara. The other two sound the alarm, then go about their business. But Clara is offended by him and has a hard time letting go. There are also cats from another house that come into that yard. Luckily Clara can watch them with relative calm. She doesn’t get fixated. Zani gets overly excited, though. And there is a huge tree that is a squirrel hangout, and sometimes there’s a cats and squirrels show. I have known for a while that having this reactivity platform was not good for Clara. So last year I planted some native bushes that grow very tall (wax myrtles) at the critical area of the fence. My plan was that they would eventually create a visual barrier and block that perfect view from the top of the steps. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it through when I bought the bushes. They were expensive, so I bought the two-foot young bushes instead of the eight-foot ultra-pricey ones. Uh, so that means they may block the view in about three years, probably more like five. I also didn’t think about how slowly they would grow at first. They are planted in a shady channel between the house and the fence. They’ll only get as much sun as they need after they get significantly taller. You can tell from both of the pictures above that Clara is aroused. She is developing a habit–hell, I’ll be honest. She has already developed a habit of charging out the door when released and taking her stance at the top of the steps to see what she can get excited about. She does this just about every time she goes out the back door. (Much of the rest of the time she charges down the steps to see what she can get excited about at the bottom of the yard.) Much as I want my dog to have an interesting life, I have learned that this is not the way to go about it. Dogs can pick up habits of over-arousal so fast. Looking for things to get upset about is interesting, perhaps. Wholesome, no. Do I really want Clara to develop such an aggressive response to “strange dog”?  Do I want her to practice territorial aggression? It’s a repeat of what Summer and Cricket used to do indoors when they could look out a big window and bark at the pedestrians and animals on the street in front of my house. I fixed that with window film. 

Prompted to Action

My neighbors have been dog-sitting a new dog, a male shih tzu mix. He seems like a nice fellow to me but that doesn’t matter to Clara. She is quite upset about him. I was chatting with the neighbors yesterday and they mentioned that he would be staying for three weeks. Oh-oh. We usually cope with the presence of the doodle by staying inside a lot. I don’t want to do that for three weeks. I decided that even a temporary barrier would be helpful. So I got out some cardboard and my staple gun and ran the cardboard up the side of the steps. I stapled it to the railing. The cardboard barrier that blocks the dogs' view into the neighbors' yard is surprisingly effective This flimsy, makeshift barrier has made a big difference. I should have done something like it years ago. I do feel a little mean. Really mean. Nah, not really. Because this afternoon Clara was able to play ball with me and play in her pool while the shih tzu guy was out in his yard. She ran to the fence a few times and got a sniff and perhaps a glimpse, but not enough to prompt the fixation. Not being able to stand and watch his every move made a world of difference.

Breaking the Behavior Pattern

I’m not posting this as some kind of exemplary do-it-yourself project. The barrier is flimsy. It’s cardboard. It rains here in the summer, so it will probably last only about as long as the neighbor dog is here. I need a more permanent solution. If I make it out of plywood I need to fit it to the stair steps so that the dogs can’t get their heads caught, which is one thing that has prevented me from trying before. But I’m posting this temporary fix because it was a simple, easy thing to do and it is instantly making things better for my dogs. All it took was ten minutes of work.

Shouldn’t I Be Training Them?

Sure! And this is the kind of training I do all the time. They are all expert at recalling away from distractions. They interrupt themselves and come to me even when I don’t call them. (I give them very good stuff for that behavior!)  Here’s a quick example of both. In this case all three dogs are checking out what a resident neighbor dog is up to. Clara and Zani interrupt themselves to run to me. Summer waits to be called, then comes as well. But in the case of the visiting neighbor dog, Clara’s ability to view him from the platform created a perfect antecedent for fixation and arousal. I needed a little management help. The barrier did the trick. I offer my dogs attention, fun, and the invitation to do a bit of ad hoc training when we are in the yard. But I need to be able to get their attention. And now I can again. Addendum: Some FaceBook friends have suggested products that they use successfully in similar circumstances. You can search on garden cloth, landscaping cloth, and a specific brand name product called Alion Privacy Screen. All of these look much nicer than my cardboard and are more durable. Thanks for the crowdsourcing Carolyn, Katie, and Sue.

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson