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The Great Outdoors: Or Is It?

Dogs love the outdoors. Just watch one blaze across a hiking trail, chase a ball or swim in a pond. The tail wags, eyes gleam; all is right in the canine cosmos. But the great outdoors to a dog is like the lights and excitement of a Las Vegas casino to us—a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

People often get a dog with the assumption that he will live happily alone in the back yard. Perhaps the kids will play with Rusty after school and Dad will provide a walk in the morning. Good ol’ Rusty ought to be just fine the rest of the time. Right? Wrong. Those same owners are the ones who end up with dogs who dig, bark excessively, claw at screen doors and windows, and cause all manner of destruction. What all those problems have in common is, they are usually the result of boredom, along with a desire to be indoors with the family.

Dogs are social, pack animals. They enjoy the company of humans and other dogs. Isolation is tantamount to solitary confinement in prison for humans; it’s easy to see how taking a social, pack-oriented animal and expecting it to live a mostly isolated life can lead to problems. The good news is, it’s not too late. Even if Rusty absolutely cannot be allowed indoors because, for example, a child is allergic, there’s still hope. One solution is to get Rusty a companion. You might think that having two dogs would be twice the work, but really, it’s half. I love knowing that while I’m gone, my dogs have each other for company. Sure, there’s more poop-scooping, but there’s also less guilt and happier dogs, which equals less problem behaviors. If a second dog is not an option, be sure Rusty has things to keep him busy, such as a bone to chew on or an interactive food toy. If possible, engage the services of a dog walker; have the person come by during the day and toss the ball or take Rusty for a walk. Do you have a neighbor who has a similarly lonesome dog? Arranged play dates can benefit everyone. There are also doggie daycare centers where you can drop Rusty off to play with other friendly dogs during the day, assuming he’s dog-friendly.

But what if you’d like Rusty to be indoors, but are worried that he’ll be a Tasmanian devil, tearing around the house, leaving a path of destruction in his wake? Surely he’ll knock the kids down and grab things off counters, right? Well, that’s a fair assumption, if you leave him to his own devices. Instead, set him up to succeed. Isolate a room for initial indoor visits by closing doors or using baby gates. Move anything valuable, breakable or ingestible out of reach. Have a dog bed ready. Next, set up a tether. Loop a leash around a sturdy furniture leg. This will attach to your dog’s flat buckle collar. (Be sure your dog wears a flat buckle collar or body harness when being tethered, and do not leave him unsupervised.) The last thing to prepare is a chew bone or stuffed food toy. 

Exercise Rusty outdoors first, then wait fifteen minutes. Dogs’ adrenaline levels take time to return to normal after a workout, just like ours do. Be sure he has eliminated as well. Then, clip the leash on and bring him indoors. Allow Rusty to greet family members and to walk around a bit on leash, then tether him on the dog bed with the chewie you’ve prepared. Be sure someone stays on or near the bed with him, as a dog who has never been tethered might panic or fight it. We want Rusty to enjoy tethering–that’s why we’re pairing it with a nice soft dog bed, a great chewie and best of all, our company. Any time Rusty lays there calmly, softly say, “Good boy!” then reward with verbal praise, petting or even a treat. Rewarding calm behavior results in more frequent calm behavior.

Do short indoor visits at first, switching between tethering and moving about with Rusty on leash. Eventually, neither the leash nor the tether should be necessary. Our goal is to teach the house rules, i.e. no jumping on couches, counters or kids, or grabbing illegal objects, while maintaining control and gradually expanding his area. Do training sessions indoors so he learns to focus on and listen to you. If necessary, consult a professional trainer for assistance. Teach basic behaviors, especially a down-stay. There are plenty of undesirable things a dog can’t be doing while in a down-stay, and once he learns that one, the tether won’t be necessary.

If your dog is currently an outdoor dog, be sure it has plenty of fresh water and a shady area to retreat to. Consider setting up misters to keep the area cool. Summer digits in some areas can reach triple digits by mid-day, which can be not only unpleasant, but downright dangerous for dogs.

The bottom line is, it’s worth the effort to make your dog part of the family. Just ask Debbie and Armando Jimenez, a typical suburban family. Their Chocolate Lab, Cocoa, spent most of her first year outdoors. She was wild and out of control. The Jimenezes are now working with a trainer (yours truly) to make Cocoa an indoor dog. After a month of effort, everyone is happier, including Cocoa. Debbie sums it up best: “Having Cocoa indoors has made her part of the family!”

Copyright 2002 Nicole Wilde

This article appeared in Santa Clarita, CA SIGNAL newspaper.

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