Written by Claudia Moder, GABR volunteer since 2000
Peanut, one of many dogs I've fostered over the past 13+ years
If you ask a group of dog trainers, "What is the hardest command to teach?" many of them will tell you that the most challenging command is the recall. The recall is just what it sounds like: you call your dog and your dog runs to you immediately. Sounds simple, right? Well, what if your dog just found a fascinating dead bird in the yard? Or maybe there is a new dog across the street WHO MUST BE INVESTIGATED IMMEDIATELY? Dogs can think of a million reasons NOT to come to you when you call. I often teach (or attempt to teach) the recall command using Easy Cheese. Apparently there is something about chemical cheese in a can that dogs find irresistible. Despite the training, though, I rarely trust the recall command completely. It is far from foolproof.
I've noticed that a few of our applicants have some interesting thoughts about fences and leashes and training. Back in the 70s, it was common to let dogs run free. Dogs often lived outside, in a dog house. It was commonly accepted that "dogs need to run" and were often left to do just that. If a dog was hit by a car, well, that was just part of the bargain. At least he had his freedom, right? Back then, dogs were not always treated as family members. Today, times have changed. Dogs have soared in popularity and it is common for many dog owners to view their animals as true companions. Dogs typically live indoors now. As such, more training is needed so that they can meet the expectations that come with being a bona fide family member.
As we form deeper bonds with our dogs (a bond achieved by living with them, training them, etc.), with that comes the imperative to keep them safe. Keeping a dog safe means not letting the dog run free. One thing I can tell you for certain, after raising dogs for the past 15 years and volunteering for Boxer Rescue for over 15 years . . . dogs do not have an innate understanding of property boundaries. Invisible fencing is not always the best way to enforce that understanding either. An acquaintance of mine is a trainer and behaviorist. She told me that a good portion of her business is now derived from helping dogs who have developed severe psychological issues as a result of invisible fencing. She told me about one family whose dog was so afraid of the fencing that in order to walk the dog, the owner had to put him in the car, drive across the sidewalk, and then get out of the car and go for a walk. The invisible fencing was installed near the sidewalk and the dog was petrified.
A few years ago, I was doing a home visit for a potential adopter. I noticed that their Boxer had a massive scar on his leg, so I asked about it. "Oh, he ran through the invisible fencing to chase a squirrel and was hit by a car." It's amazing that the dog lived. I've never forgotten that scar, though. Boxers, in particular, have a fairly high pain tolerance. I do not think it is uncommon for a dog with a high prey drive and a high pain tolerance to be willing to take the momentary shock in order to give chase. Another issue I've heard about with invisible fencing is that it doesn't stop another dog from coming into your yard to attack your dog. In my mind, invisible fencing is better than no fence at all, but is certainly far from a perfect solution.
Years ago, when Green Acres Boxer Rescue was first formed, we knew we needed to create a leash-related policy for our adoption agreement. After getting input from other rescues, we developed this policy: all dogs adopted from our rescue must be kept in a fenced yard, on a supervised tie-out, or on leash for potty/exercise time. It's pretty straightforward (we do a home visit to confirm the fencing arrangements and reserve the right to conduct follow-up visits after the adoption to ensure that the contract is being honored). In most cities/municipalities, the leash law indicates that a dog may be off-leash while in the owner's yard. Once the dog crosses over that property line, the owner is in violation of at least one ordinance. So, in many cases, keeping a dog on leash or in a fenced yard is not just a matter of our adoption contract, but the law as well.
I once placed a young brindle female in a loving, new home. A couple years later, she got out of the house and was hit and killed by a car. This scenario has played out several times and it is heartbreaking every time. Imagine taking a homeless dog into your home. That dog has probably just come out of a shelter and is probably thin, scared, and in need of medical care - not to mention training. You spend weeks (if not months) caring for this dog who is not your own. Your carpet is ruined after years of fostering. Your dining room chairs have teeth marks in them. You are no longer grossed out by vomit, blood, or intestinal worms. But you don't mind too much. Why? Because you have a passion for rescue. You feel good about making a difference in the life of a dog.
One of the challenges of being a rescue volunteer is that it's a very personal endeavor. When you have invested so much of your time, energy, and heart into caring for a dog . . . well, needless to say, you care deeply about what happens to that dog. You hope that the adoptive home you choose will make the same investment in that dog.
One thing I know for sure is that every person who adopts from us is well-intentioned. That's why the fencing issue is so sticky for us. Adopters say, "We won't let the dog off-leash until we're sure." Maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe you'll get that rare dog who comes when called every single time. But what if you're not lucky? What if it's your dog who ends up under some car's tire, bleeding out of his ears? And if that dog is one that I fostered . . . well, add me to the list of broken hearts.
Now, I know that mistakes happen. I've made them myself. I adopted my female Boxer, Gretchen, from the rescue several years ago. I have taken her to lots of obedience classes. We even dabbled in Rally for a bit. She earned her Canine Good Citizen certificate a couple years ago. Last year, a windstorm took out a section of our fence and before we knew it, Gretchen ran through the open spot and took off like the wind. We started looking for her immediately. A few minutes later, a boy called us and said he'd found our dog. When he told us his address, we quickly realized that Gretchen had crossed a very busy road to get there. It amazes me still that we got her back. My point is that she is a dog who's had a lot of training and knows where "her" yard is. However, she did not hesitate to run off when given the chance. I can't get mad at her, though. It's not her responsibility to keep herself safe. It's my responsibility. She's a dog. I am her protector.
We know that not everyone can have a fence. For starters, they are expensive. Some communities actually prohibit above-ground fencing. However, everyone can afford a leash (and, in fact, GABR supplies one with every dog we place). Err on the side of caution. If you apply to adopt and the application committee asks you some pointed questions about your fencing situation, please don't be offended. The rescue's volunteers just want what's best for each dog. Also, please know that the volunteers take the adoption agreement very seriously. It is a legally-binding document. The leash policy is one of the most important provisions of that document. You've probably signed lots of contracts in your life and you've probably abided by all of them. Why is ours any less valid? Simply put, it's not.
We, the rescue volunteers, know that you love your dog just as much as we love ours. We know that keeping a dog on a leash can be a royal pain. If the application committee asks you if you plan to keep the dog on a leash, it's not because they think you're a bad owner or that you're a careless person. It's not because they doubt your training abilities. It's not because they don't think you will love the dog "enough." It's simply because these dogs have lived in our homes and our mission is to provide a happy ending. We are entrusting you with a little piece of our hearts. Please don't take any chances with it.