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A Deadly Game: Fence Aggression

Just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read the current issue online here.

by Deanna Schaar

Have you seen that “Dances with Deer” viral video? The one where a deer approaches a fenced dog and they then proceed to run back and forth on either side of the fence? The dog owner laughs and narrates as the two are “playing peekaboo.” It really is utterly adorable and, not surprisingly, has racked up half a million views on YouTube. Many people would perceive similar joy watching two or more dogs running up and down a fence line; certainly, just an innocent “game” where the dogs are playing and getting great exercise. They can’t imagine this behavior ending tragically. But, for pet care services providers, it is vital to understand that what looks like a game might actually be fence aggression, also known as fence fighting or fence running, and that is, at its core, barrier frustration. Pet sitters and dog walkers may experience this behavior more often than other providers, either from a pet they’re caring for or from a dog reacting to the pet in their care as they’re out for a walk.

A personal loss and the importance of education

As pet care providers, we are not immune from our own pet losses and tragedies. My family, including our Husky/Shepherd mix, Reese, shared a fence line with our neighbors who owned a Chihuahua. On a daily basis, the two dogs would run up and down the fence line, barking all the way. The behavior was more annoying than concerning. But one day Reese broke through the fence, and in her effort to pull the smaller dog back through to “her side”, the Chihuahua sustained injuries that lead to our neighbors making the decision to euthanize. Needless to say, both families were devastated.

I felt horrible. I cried for two days. I was at a loss. I felt helpless. I was frantic. I would have done anything to make it better for this family. I started thinking about our pack. Would Reese turn on my three other dogs? How could I keep this from happening again? Would Reese have to be euthanized?  I had no idea what to do, but knew I needed to do something.

As a pet care provider – and pet owner– I knew help and education were needed, which is when I made the call for help to a certified professional dog trainer who visited my family’s home. She conducted an assessment of Reese and the rest of our pack; observed their interaction and asked us many questions. She explained fence aggression and the fact that it creates a highly stressful situation that may cause fights, injury, or death. She described fence fighting like two boxing champions who are training every day to get ready for the big fight. The stress gets higher and higher as days pass and the dogs continue running up and down the fence line. If there’s ever a chance for the dogs to fight, they will. Also, if there are several dogs involved, even dogs from the same family can and may turn on each other.

She also helped us understand prey drive, which is their natural instincts as predators and hunters.  Reese thought she was doing her job by protecting her domain and saw the Chihuahua as her prey.  That’s why our dog trainer didn’t feel the rest of our pack was in danger. She also helped us identify options and successfully resolve outstanding issues with our neighbors. If you are a pet care provider, but not a professional dog trainer, investing in education and learning from the experts is invaluable – and possibly life-saving.

In her article, “Solve Fence Aggression with a Better Fence”, author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, offers advice and insight on how to “(p)ut a stop to fence-running, fence-fighting, and barking.” Miller, a certified dog trainer and the past president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, begins her article by describing her own dog “running the fence line and barking madly at two black Labs who have wandered over from a distant neighbor’s house, still sporting the highly ineffective shock collars that are supposed to keep them home.” Fence running can happen to any of us, but education on how to manage it can help avoid tragedies. Her article, published in Whole Dog Journal, delves into specific tips such as: installing a solid fence, keeping your dog indoors, eliminating the stimuli, modifying your existing fence, and installing an “airlock” (essentially a fence within a fence).

The “Four E’s of Excellence in Off-leash Dog Play: Industry Standards for Dog Daycares” a robust guide by The Dog Gurus, Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs, addresses fence specifics to “secure and minimize risk of escape and injury” such as using “solid fence panels for outdoor fences…as it limits dog distractions from activity outside the fence which helps keeps arousal levels lower.” Ensure this fencing is in good repair.

Trainer Pat Miller also addresses “retraining a fence aggressive dog” in her article; a reminder of the importance of the breadth and depth of interview questions to ask when learning about new pet clients. As The Dog Gurus suggest, in addition to the basic questions such as breed, age, health, routines, get those other details like bite history, energy level, fears, and behavior outside of the home. As they say, the more you know.

Whether you’re a pet sitter, dog walker, boarding facility or doggie daycare owner, fence aggression is a very real possibility – a “game” that can turn deadly even for the most seasoned pet care providers. We must educate ourselves, clients, employees, and neighbors on fence fighting and the devastating ramifications.   If you see it happening, stop it immediately.  If you need help stopping it, engage a professional dog trainer.  Inspect your fence and repair any holes or broken pickets.    If it’s going on in your backyard, talk to your neighbors NOW.  We must stop fence fighting at all cost — it will save dogs’ lives.

Deanna Schaar is co-owner of Passion Fur Paws Pet Care, LLC, in San Antonio, Texas. Passion Fur Paws Pet Care provides in-home pet sitting and dog walking services.