Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

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.

The myrtles have to be four to five feet above the fence to function as a barrier. So we have a way to go….

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

The hastily applied cardboard barrier

This flimsy, makeshift barrier has made a big difference. I should have done something like it years ago. 

I do feel a little mean.

Staring into the neighbor’s yard isn’t working out so well

Really not working anymore

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

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17 Responses to Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

  1. Frances says:

    I am a great believer in management to make time and space to teach better habits! Just a thought – an outdoor fabric would be easier to fit and staple than than plywood, and probably just as long lasting – the sort of plain stuff used on outdoor chairs, perhaps?

  2. Iben Fals says:

    I did the same thing when I had an aggressive German Shepherd as a neighbor … I used tarpaulins (Sorry dont know if this is the correct word) that I put up in the fence with strips …and then All dogs had peace 😀

  3. Kriss says:

    Wow! A lot like my house. With new neighbors recently and their days of in home construction leaving their little yapper outside…my very reactive dog looked a lot like your Clara if I ever let my dogs out to their huge yard during the day! Fence running, barking, all worked up! I was actually ready to build an inner fence . ugh. But finally I resorted to a swift spray with the hose when the trouble began. This is NOT really the way I train or handle my dogs, usually it is treats treats treats. But that was not working. Anyway, they seemed to have gotten the idea after just a couple of times.
    Hopefully it wasn’t damaging to them.

    Always love your tips!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I hope it wasn’t, too. I always have to speak up about things like this, even though I get it that this was an out of the ordinary step for you. Whenever we suggest a technique that involves scaring, startling, or otherwise making the dog uncomfortable, there are risks. Hopefully it worked out for you, but it might go terribly wrong for the next person who sees that and thinks it’s a good idea for their dog. With some dogs you could get a big avoidance response in the future to the hose, to you holding the hose, to you walking near the hose, to you coming out the door, to the sound of water spray, etc. I’m not exaggerating. Any kind of use of an aversive can go wrong. I’m REALLY glad it didn’t for you and I hope you can work on teaching more attention, positive interruption, and recalls. I’m not coming down on you for using that. I’m warning other people about the risks. Thanks for the comment and glad you like the tips!

  4. Susan says:

    Wonderful article as always and sent it to a few clients — as well as posting on Facebook! Thank you so much for writing such terrific pieces. They’re great resources! Wanted to also let you know that the link to the article on window film isn’t working…

  5. robynyoul says:

    Thank you for raising the barrier for professional trainers. Honesty is the hallmark of integrity! Being honest with oneself means one has the capacity to extend compassion to a dog with a behaviour that is a human irritant. To be proactive to the behaviour and not react to its outcomes.

  6. Deb Moran says:

    Sometimes the simple ideas are the best! I used really, really cheap weed mat to block the view of my neighbours side steps. My 3 dogs just didn’t like my neighbour using his own side steps 🙂 Problem solved! Now, I just need to work harder on distraction techniques.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      That’s great, Deb! A lot of good ideas are coming from this. Thanks for sharing.

  7. repoleon says:

    I love this post. I have 4 dogs and a chain link fenced yard that borders an alley on one side. People often walk past, ride bikes past, or walk dogs past. The dog’s all go crazy barking whenever there is activity in the alley, but ESPECIALLY if its another dog. None of them would react to a dog in any other situation including if they were the “strange” dog walking past another dog’s fence. They are only dog reactive in this situation, but they feed off of each other’s energy and get really worked up. I finally decided the best visual barrier would be the tarps they sell for this purpose (the type used at tennis courts or constructions sites). The barrier has not stopped the reactivity, because it is a bit transparent and they can see the shapes and, of course, hear and smell the walkers, but it has reduced the intensity a bit so that I can continue to work with them. (It prevents eye contact with a passing dog, which helps.) More importantly for me, it acts as a screen so that whoever is on the other side of the fence doesn’t feel unnerved by my snarling, barking dogs running at them, because they can’t really see them, only hear them. I carry meat and cheese in a treat pouch when I’m out back and call them to me (“puppppppies” – group recall word) and feed them the whole time someone walks past. If its a walker or bike rider, I can call them from a good distance and keep their attention. If its another dog, its much more challenging and I have to be right next to them, but I can keep 3 of the 4 dogs focused. One of the dogs will run to me for treats as soon as she sees a walker in the alley. I’m hoping someday they will all get to that point. It’s a work in progress!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      That’s great! I have found as well that even a partial, imperfect barrier helps. And that’s nice of you to think of the people on the other side of the fence, too! I bet if one dog will run to you, it’s only a matter of time before they all do. Mine tend to follow each other when they think there is R+ involved! Thanks for the comment.

  8. Excellent post as always. I love management solutions which create success. I think we can all get too fixated with “I need to train that” but there’s always so much else to train! I’m talking for a horse training viewpoint where often the best fix is management. Then you can keep your training time for the fun stuff.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Exactly! There is always so much to train! And I still have to train around the edges of this issue. But a lot less this way. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Great post. Dog walking clients just bought a house and chose it because of the large yard and relative street quiet but it turned out to be a thorofair for walking dogs bicyclists baby carriages etc.
    the extra visual barrier to block the few cracks in the fence did the trick. I’m so glad, Oreo is one of the nicest Aussie’s I’ve worked with but we all know how they can turn on dime and be reactive. I’m glad I told them right away to leave him in the house until we decided on a solution so the pattern did not solidify.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      That’s wonderful and they are lucky to have you to advise them to get the yard exposure fixed right away. So much easier to prevent reactive behavior than fix it once it starts!

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