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How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard

Draw the lines yourself

Would you like to train your dog to stay in your yard without resorting to electrical shock? There is a way to do it that is inexpensive, takes about the same amount of time, and is just as reliable as the electronic containment systems commercially available.

Prep

Everything you need for boundary
training—including some high-value meatballs
and a dog eager for a training session.

Electronic obstacles

There are potential problems with containment systems that rely on electrical shock to punish a dog for crossing a boundary.

  • Electronic containment systems can create aggressive reactions in dogs. There is no way to control or determine what the dog is focused on when it receives the shock. The dog could be looking at a squirrel running up a tree across the boundary, or at the next-door neighbor, the neighbor's dog, or the neighbor's young child. Whatever the dog is focused on when it receives the aversive (shock) could become associated with the aversive. The next time the dog looks at the tree, or sees the neighbor or child, it may growl or act in another aggressive manner in response.

    Conversely, some dogs shut down after receiving an aversive shock. They can become highly stressed; some dogs won't leave the porch or deck, or even the house. These dogs assume that anything they do outside may result in an aversive.

  • Electronic containments systems can be beaten by many dogs. With systems that provide audio warning beeps, the dogs realize that the beep itself does not harm them. They stop at the beep, and while the electronic collar resets, the dog advances across the boundary before the collar can be reset and the shock delivered. Nearly all electronic containments systems sold in stores for self-installment work this way.

    Another system works a little differently. After a few seconds of beeping, the collar delivers a shock if the dog is still within the boundary zone. The dog doesn't have to move forward to get shocked; it must learn to back out of the zone to avoid the shock. But if the dog runs right across the boundary zone, he is not shocked. Why? The dog runs too fast for the collar to respond (it beeps for about two seconds and then delivers the shock—any dog at full speed can cover a lot of ground in two seconds). Dogs learn that if they run fast enough, they can go wherever they want and avoid the shock. Many dogs learn to bolt as soon as they are let outside; once this happens the fence is totally ineffective.

  • When a dog does run across the boundary (and gets shocked or not) it is stuck. Dogs run out of the yard, but walk back. So even if a dog avoids a shock leaving the yard, it does not understand to use the same strategy to come back. As a result, many dogs don’t come home at all.

  • Electronic containment systems are expensive even for small areas—then add the time and effort to install them.

Since most people don't want to even think about shocking their dogs, boundary training is an alternative way to solve the problem.

Since most people don't want to even think about shocking their dogs, boundary training is an alternative way to solve the problem.

A better way, but there are no guarantees

There is a more effective protocol for teaching your dog—in a positive way—that there is a boundary. Dogs are territorial creatures. It’s natural for them to have a space they consider "theirs" and to feel comfortable remaining in that space as a default. The key is to teach the dog what that area is.

No system or training protocol can guarantee that your dog will always stay within the boundary. That’s primarily because you cannot determine ahead of time every conceivable distraction your dog may encounter. (Not to mention the difficulty involved in asking a squirrel, rabbit, groundhog, or deer to stand calmly on the other side of the boundary while you reinforce your dog for staying within the yard.)

However, with boundary training you will be far ahead of the shock systems because if your dog does go outside, it can (and most probably will) return to its home turf.

With boundary training you will be far ahead of the shock systems because if your dog does go outside, it can (and most probably will) return to its home turf.

Remember…

  • No dog, no matter how well trained, should ever be left alone outside. Even a dog that is restrained should not be left unattended, as dogs tied outside can develop very bad behaviors. Being left alone poses a risk even for dogs 100% trained to stay within the boundary—boundary training doesn't provide the dog any defense for something (or someone) coming into the boundary area.
  • While you train the boundary protocol, work on training a reliable recall, too. There will come a day (there always does) when a rabbit or squirrel sits on the other side of the boundary and taunts your dog. Your recall, if it is well trained, will get your dog back quickly.
  • The best, and most reliable, containment system is a good old-fashioned physical fence boundary that your dog cannot go over, under, around, or through. If your objective is to keep your dog safe from a nearby busy street, and/or you must leave your dog unattended outside, a physical fence is the only way that's safe and foolproof (the exception is a human trespasser, of course).
nose touch

Hold the flag close to the dog's nose, click a nose
touch, and follow with a chunk of meatball.

How to train the boundary protocol

  1. Start indoors, and teach the dog to target a flag (a white strip of cloth on a dowel rod will work). The dog gets a click/treat (C/T) for touching its nose to the flag. The dog goes to the flag, gets a click, and then returns to you for its treat. Have the targeting completely fluent with as much distance as possible inside. I recommend at least a week of practice.

  2. Place the flags at intervals of 8-10 feet around the yard/boundary.

  3. Practice walking the dog on a 15-foot lead (even longer is fine) around the boundary/yard. The dog should run up to the flags to target them for a C/T. The dog should already be conditioned from the inside training to return to you for a treat. (Use higher value treats outside—I recommend real meat such as roast beef, turkey, chicken or whatever the dog goes crazy over and only gets for this boundary training.)

    The dog will learn that the flags are cues to come back from the boundary. You are reinforcing the return from the boundary. As dogs are territorial, you are also heavily reinforcing the dog to be and remain in its territory, as defined by the position of the flags.

    Practice, practice, practice. I recommend a minimum of two boundary walks a day (the more the better) over a period of at least eight weeks. You want the act of coming back from the boundary to be classically conditioned so that it is an involuntary response (the presence of the flags becomes the cue to return).

    Do not punish the dog if he goes outside the boundary. If he does (because you walked him too close to the boundary and/or there was a high-level distraction on the other side), simply reward his return.

  4. Practice as often as you can until your dog routinely comes back from the boundary on a long lead. Increase the lead as you practice. A 50-foot, 3/8-inch nylon rope tied to the lead is a good option. If possible, begin introducing low-level distractions on the other side of the boundary. Reinforce the dog for returning from the boundary when distractions are in sight. Over time, increase the level of the distractions.

  5. Start to allow the dog off leash in the yard. Never leave the dog alone in the yard. Have lots of fun and interesting interactions with the dog well within the boundary area. If distractions occur on the other side of the boundary, reinforce your dog with a jackpot if he goes to the boundary and returns to you.

  6. turn away

    Click as the dog turns away after a
    touch—reward when he returns.

  7. Continue staging distractions and reward successful returns significantly. If your dog goes over the boundary, simply lower the level and/or distance of the distraction.

    When the dog responds successfully by turning away after a really big distraction, consider running back to the house, porch, or deck. When your dog reaches you, offer really good treats for at least 30 seconds. This will help to condition an additional response—seeing something extra-enticing means “run quick to the house” to receive even better stuff.

  8. Continue to monitor and recognize that someday there will be something that can and probably will overcome your dog. This happens even with the electric fences. Sooner or later there will be a distraction that you haven’t trained for, and your dog will, well, act like a dog whether you have a fence or not. But, having trained that reliable recall, when there is a distraction that your dog simply cannot ignore, the recall will get your dog back across the boundary.

    Keep the flags up for an extended period of time (six months or more) so that your dog continues to have a visual cue of his boundaries.

  9. To get a little fancy: if you practice providing reinforcement in the same location (on the porch/deck, for example), that location will be the default location to which your dog returns, especially if you reinforce there when distractions are present.

    Practice, practice, practice.

Reinforcing the positive while avoiding the pitfalls and expense

Boundary training reinforces for your dog that the yard is always the best option. Over time and with practice, your dog will want exactly what you want: to stay in the yard! Positively training a boundary, when it is coupled with a reliable recall, can be at least as effective as an electronic containment system in keeping your dog in your yard. Significantly, boundary training comes without the financial cost of an electronic system, not to mention potential behavior and stress consequences to you and your dog.

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