Back Yard Blues

by Susie Rivers, SFSPCA

Many people think of a back yard as a cure-all. In reality, the yard can be a cause-all, leading to all sorts of behavior problems.

How many times have you heard: "We can't get a dog until we get a place with a yard." The SPCA wants to make it clear: Putting a dog in a yard does not guarantee the dog's happiness. In fact, the opposite is often true.


Dogs confined to fenced yards for long periods of time, especially dogs kept chained, can develop behavior problems known collectively as "fenced yard syndrome." Basically, this means the pet is miserable. Hyperactivity, insecurity, aggression and panic are some of the traits common to dogs in confinement. These traits may manifest themselves in habits that can be annoying for your neighbors as much as for you, such as excessive barking, digging, or threatening anyone who comes near your property.


Another fallacy of back yard believers: a canine left loose in a fenced area will exercise itself. The dangerous irony in having a back yard is that it can lead to "lazy owner syndrome," wherein the person imagines the yard to be some kind of automatic aerobics arena. Perhaps you've heard someone say, "I don't have time to take Rover for a walk, but that's O.K. He's got the whole yard to run around in." It's not as if dogs know they're supposed to run laps to burn off excess energy. No, canines need company and exercise, and providing both is the job of a responsible pet owner.


Dogs are extremely social animals, craving contact with humans and other dogs. (Studies have shown that dogs sleep better when they can bed down close to their owners or at least other pets in the household.) A dog deprived of companionship and activity becomes bored, frustrated and stressed. Not only does the dog feel lonely when everyone leaves the house, but when people are gone the dog's territorial instincts tell him to protect the property. He does the best he can to act on his feelings of responsibility by barking incessantly, or by lunging aggressively at anyone who comes near.


A dog who is chained up feels even more stress because his ability to defend his turf is so limited. Being vulnerable in this way makes him doubly reactive: he'll bark, dig, chew, and even eat feces. And the bad habits that the dog develops in this situation end up cruelly perpetuating his banishment to the back yard.


Used as a safe retreat where your dog can burn off some calories, entertain company(you), and bask in outdoor sights and smells, a yard can be a paradise for a dog. But it can become a prison for your pet if it takes the place of regular walks through the neighborhood, socializing with other dogs, or time spent indoors with family members.


Your dog would rather spend a little time with you than have a football field to play in alone.