The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

We have recently adopted a nineteen-month-old male Border Collie with a background of physical abuse. He is usually very gentle and submissive and reticent because of his history and is very friendly and polite to all dogs and cats - when he is not separated from them by a fence.

Our problem is that every time our dog sees one of the neighbor dogs moving on the other side of the fence, he runs over, starts pacing, snarling, yelping, and giving out - the worst of all - this weird half-howl, half bark that splits the air for a mile around! He never barks at anything else - as long as it's in the yard.

This would not be so much of a problem it weren't for the fact that one neighbor has a beautiful Doberman bitch that they rarely pay any attention to, so SHE has developed the nervous habit of running in a long circle around the yard. Are you beginning to get a picture here? EVERY time we go out - there's that Doberman looping around (oh, our dog was altered a year ago). His head goes down, his tail goes up, and he dashes for the interception, howling by the time he gets there. It's like he's going into a trance - I have to grab him to make him pay attention and stop.

I have tried distracting him with a command, but he's still in the elementary stages of obedience (like, he knows "wait" and "sit" and that's it). I growl "no" but he ignores me and so I usually end up grabbing him and forcing him into the "Down" position to make him stop. That physical correction usually shuts him down mentally for the rest of the day. He runs into a corner and won't respond to anything. I know I'm not in charge until he knows that he can't get away with this. Every Backyard Time ends with this ridiculous scenario and it's frustrating to all of us. What can we do?

The key here is to realize that this is a completely natural behavior and almost impossible to control through behavior modification. The dog is doing what comes naturally to him - defending his territory. Even the best socialized dogs that love all other dogs will do this if they are in their own yard. They are protecting what is rightfully theirs and to ask them to do otherwise goes against all of their instincts. It can be done but you are far better off trying to prevent the behavior, rather than control it.

The object is to remove all stimuli of the other dog from your dog. You stated it in your question - Every time our dog sees the other dog... If you want this behavior to stop, you have to prevent the dog from seeing your neighbor's dog. You didn't say in your question but I assume that you have some sort of chain-link fence between your yards. These fences work great but allow the dogs to see each other and run the fence line in eternal battles over territory. Replacing the fence with a solid wood fence which the dog cannot see through almost always eliminates the unwanted behavior.

If you cannot afford to replace the fence or it is too problematic, covering your existing fence with a tarp often will do the trick. The key is to eliminate the visual stimulus of the other dog which triggers your dog's instinct to protect its territory. People have come up with various other techniques in eliminating the visual cues but the principle is still the same.

Sometimes auditory cues are enough to trigger the response in your dog, particularly if the other dog is wearing tags that jingle when it walks. If this is the case, there are only a couple of other solutions. Play music when you go outside with your dog. Try to convince the neighbor to tape the dog's tags so they don't make any noise. Or the only other solution is to move to another part of the yard, out of hearing range (sometimes not easy with a dog).

One final solution is to work things out with your neighbor. Asking them to bring their dog in during scheduled times or switching "yard time" on an hourly basis is usually a great solution. This of course assumes you are on good terms with your neighbor. Try working it out with them. I'm sure they don't appreciate your dog's howling and barking any more than you do.

If none of these work, there are some behavior modification techniques (like the citronella collars) that can be used but I would suggest starting with the simple solutions first.

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Page last updated April 3, 1997. All material Copyright 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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