Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Fence fighting in dogs can be an extremely frustrating behavior problem to deal with. Even more so with a dog who is deaf because it’s not as simple as calling them away from the fence. I recently dealt with this with my own deaf dog, when our neighbor got two new dogs that spent a lot of the day outside running the fence line.
You may notice that while your dog is friendly off leash, they react much differently from behind a fence (or even a window) when they see another dog or human. This is because fence fighting is typically due to frustration, which can also be exacerbated by high arousal. There are different ways of solving this, but this is the method that I have found to have the most success based on the most up to date science in dog training. This technique can also be employed to prevent fence fighting in your deaf dog.
Management We will want to manage the environment by creating a visual barrier over the fence. This is perhaps the most important piece to this puzzle. We want to do our best to eliminate triggers. For some dogs, adding a barrier alone may be enough to prevent the behavior from happening, other dogs may need the visual barrier as well as a tie out or leash to keep them from charging the fence during training. It’s very important that we are not allowing the dog to practice the behavior, because this can greatly set back training.
Counter Conditioning Counter conditioning is a training technique that we will employ by pairing a positive stimuli (food), with an otherwise negative or neutral stimuli (whatever is triggering your dog from the other side of the fence). It’s ideal to create as much distance as you can from the fence at this stage, even if it means starting inside the house with the door open. Make sure you are using a hungry dog for this training, and if your dog is not taking food, try giving them more distance from potential triggers and upping the value of the reward you are using. The reason I recommend using food for this exercise (rather than a toy or other type of reinforcement) is because food elicits a dopamine release in the brain, which is what makes our dogs feel happy and calm. Using a toy reinforcer in this case may bring too much arousal (excitement) to the training session.
You will need your dog on a leash (recommended 4ft or 6ft) for this exercise. Keep in mind that we are using the leash to prevent the dog from failing. It is a seat belt, not a communication tool. Put your dog on the leash and bring them to a distance where they are clearly able to see the stimuli, but not so close that they are fixated or barking. If your deaf dog has poor vision, err on the side of caution (“too much” distance is better than not enough). Ideally you can have a friend standing or walking outside of the fence, but sometimes we are unable to control the environment to that degree, so work with what you have, we just want to be very careful to increase criteria slowly and incrementally.
Keep your body still and your treats out of sight. Your hands should not be in your treat pouch or pocket, so that your dog is not already tipped off that reinforcement is coming. Wait for your dog to look at the fence, then mark with your visual reward marker and feed a treat. If your dog does not already know a visual marker or has poor eye sight, it’s okay to just deliver the food. Rinse, repeat. If you see your dog perk up, stiffen, fixate, or look like they may bark, it’s okay to put a piece of food at their nose and lure their head back to you, or give a gentle re-direction poke on their side (this is good to teach separately or use if your dog already knows).
What we are doing with this exercise is creating a positive emotional response to the stimuli. Over time, we can decrease the distance they are from the fence and eventually remove the leash and visual barrier. Make sure that any time you decrease distance, your dog is staying under his reaction threshold. If you find you have moved too close, go back a few steps. Try to avoid increasing criteria too quickly. While you are training, your dog needs to be managed 100% to not practice the behavior. How long this takes can depend on the dog.
Manage Arousal This is an important step that I see overlooked in a lot of training plans. I’ve noticed with my own dogs, the back yard alone is already associated with a higher level of arousal. This is because my dogs were used to only using the yard for playing ball, chase, and other exercise that carried a high level of arousal. Simply being in the yard put them on alert. We can help to alleviate some of this by introducing some calm activities in the yard like training and meal time. I will even frequently scatter my dog’s meals in the yard and allow them to forage for it as long as they please. Sniffing is a great calming exercise for dogs.
Give an Outlet Make sure your dog also has another appropriate outlet that will give them the same type of reinforcement they get from fence fighting, but in a more appropriate context. My favorite chase toy is a flirt pole, because it can tire dogs out very quickly and gives them an appropriate outlet for their natural prey drive. They are fairly inexpensive, but I recommend just picking up a horse lunge whip off of Amazon and tying a stuffingless toy on the end. Adding mental stimulation to their daily routine, like eating out of Kongs or food puzzles can also be a big help.
Warnings Please be conscious of not only your dog’s safety, but your own. Often when dogs are exhibiting behavior at a high arousal, it’s not uncommon for them to re-direct a bite if an owner gets too close to them while they are focused. Because of this, avoid grabbing your dog and pulling them away from the fence. If you believe your dog is a risk for this, reach out to a qualified and certified dog trainer in your area. I would urge you to avoid any trainer that recommends putting some kind of a corrective device like an ecollar, pronged collar, or choke chain on your dog. These types of methods can provide quick results, but at the expense of your dog’s mental health. For more information, please read the AVSAB’s Position Statement on Humane Dog Training. When looking for a trainer, always ask them, “What happens if my dog gets it right?” and “What happens if my dog gets it wrong?”
It’s our responsibility as owners of deaf dogs to teach them how to be successful in our world.
Good luck, and happy training!
Rose Adler, CPDT-KA, CTDI