Rescue organizations often hold adopters to a high standard, and understandably. These groups take in dogs who have been thrown away, neglected, or abandoned, and try to find them forever homes. A good rescue organization does not just want a dog to find any home, but the right home with the right family, with the primary goal being “Let’s make sure that this dog does not wind up in a shelter or rescue ever again.”
This means many things: that some dogs are not adopted into multidog homes, that others are not adopted into homes with children, that active dogs are not sent to live with couch potatoes, that dogs with behavioral issues are not sent to families ill-equipped to deal with the training challenges they face, and so on. These are logical considerations for appropriate placement.
But also, frequently, high on the list of adoption criteria is one that galls us: MUST HAVE FENCED-IN YARD.
I hate this one, big time. Here are a number of reasons.
Many of the families in my neighborhoods have fenced-in yards. The vast majority of dogs living in those homes never go for a walk. Many of my clients say, “Well, I don’t take my dog out to exercise, but we do have a fenced-in yard.” I often observe dogs spending many hours outside, in temperatures that surpass 100 degrees during the summer, without shade or water. Even in cooler conditions, the dogs are either lying down or engaging in boredom-induced behaviors like barking, digging, patrolling, self-mutilation (excessive licking and chewing at self, etc.), but I really never see dogs just running around exercising themselves unsupervised in their yards.
How are these dogs better off than one who spends his day relaxing in a cool house, chewing on a marrowbone, and being taken out for an agility class or long walk in the evening? I’m not sure. What I do see is people using fenced-in yards as an excuse not to interact with their dogs or provide them with appropriate exercise, leash training, socialization, and so forth. Not cool.
Let’s say we have a Standard Poodle in rescue who is a fabulous sporting prospect. Two families are interested in adopting this dog. One is an active couple who live in the city and are total “dog nerds.” They may live in an apartment building and have no yard at all, but one works from home and can take the dog out for short walks during the day, a long walk each evening, agility classes Tuesday night, and sheep herding, camping, hiking, biking, or dock-diving on the weekend. Family B are couch potatoes when they are home, because they are exhausted from the demands of raising a family of four children, each of whom participates in myriad social, athletic, and community activities. They have a small fenced-in yard, which borders a busy street with a lot of foot traffic. What they don’t have is a lot of time or interest in exercising and training this dog, so he ends up spending the majority of his life in the yard while the family’s life continues separately in the house.
Which life do you think this dog would choose for himself, given an option?
I know that nobody wants to see a dog chained outside all day, but I do know plenty of dogs who live inside with families, are well-exercised in a variety of ways, but do go out for short owner-supervised potty breaks on a tether or run. There is a big difference between observing your dog for a 15 minutes on a tether and chaining a dog so that he can spend the rest of his life out in the yard, running back and forth in boredom, wearing a ditch into the ground at the outer edges of his reach. In my opinion, secure tethering for short periods with owner supervision (and interaction!) is a fine way to provide a dog with potty breaks and is in no way abusive. Nor should it preclude someone from being considered a viable adoption prospect.
What kind of fencing do you need? I know dogs who will blow through Invisible Fence, dig under nearly any fence that is not reinforced below-ground, or easily climb over a 4-foot chain link fence, and dogs who hae strangled themselves when their collars became caught on fence posts as they were left outside unsupervised. Does every adopter need a 6-foot-plus privacy fence equipped with coyote rollers to prevent dogs climbing over, as well as wire reinforcement underground? If so, we’ve seriously limited the potential pool of adopters, likely eliminating many wonderful, qualified candidates.
I’ve seen fenced-in areas not much bigger than Cuba’s crate erected as “play yards” for dogs. The dogs can hardly even work up the momentum to trot from one end to the other, let alone run, play, fetch, and get a good workout.
Fenced-in yards can be very dangerous when not combined with careful and constant supervision. While I do have a fenced-in yard, my dogs are not allowed in the main yard without supervision for any length of time. If they are in the yard, so am I. Small dogs have been carried off by birds of prey, and dogs of all sizes, when not contained by privacy fencing, may be subject to harassment from human or canine passersby, which may result in barrier-related behavior problems. And, yes, I do know of dogs who have died from being choked when their collars catch on a fence post or support.
Don’t get me wrong: Fenced-in yards can be a great luxury. My own yard is a great place for the dogs to play together with me, practice training activities, chew on Kongs and bones that are too yucky to have on the living room carpet, or take potty breaks. My fence is actually just some cattle fencing, which wouldn’t work to contain most of the dogs I know, but my dogs never try to escape and are always closely supervised.
I love having a fenced-in yard, but before we installed our fence, Mokie was on a tether (again, short duration and always supervised) out back, and she had a fantastic life then, as she does now. Fenced-in yards can be great fun, convenient, and provide good play and exercise opportunities for dogs and their owners, but should never be a deal-breaker in any adoption decision.