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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Through-The-Fence Play

Julie asks this question...

My question for you is about dog behavior, not health. If you can help me out, I'd appreciate it because I have fallen a bit in love with the neighbor-dog in question here.
Most homes in my neighborhood have low chain or iron fences around their front yards, so on walks my dog inevitably ends up nose to nose with fenced-in dogs. (She is completely nonreactive to them.) One particular neighbor has a pup who stays outside 24/7. For the longest time I assumed he wasn't well looked after because he was an outside dog, but in fact he appears to be a healthy, well-adjusted pet. He is calm and inquisitive, and has never jumped, growled or barked. Recently he and my on-leash dog have started play bowing and fence-racing. I feel bad for the sweet guy, so lately I've been letting my dog stay and play a couple minutes before dragging her off to finish our walk.
My question is, is there any reason why this through-the-fence-play might be a bad idea? Though friendly, the other dog seems to get little attention or stimulation and so I feel like I'm doing him some good. Am I?For the record, my dog has never exhibited any aggression or frustration playing on-leash.

Behavior can be tricky to assess sometimes, and that is even more true when reading a description like this.  However, it sounds like this is a good situation.  The play bow never happens outside of play behavior, and is a very good sign of a willingness to be nice. 

There are some potential concerns with playing through a fence.  First, if the other dog is not properly vaccinated there could be some risk of spreading infection to your own dog, especially bordetella ("kennel cough").  If any signs of aggression do happen, even suddenly, you can get bites through a fence if body parts are close enough.  There is also the potential that either dog could potentially break a toenail, get a toe or foot caught, or snag a tooth, resulting in some minor trauma.

My recommendation would be to politely ring the doorbell and ask the owner if they are fine with this.  The dog may be outside because someone has allergies, they don't believe in inside dogs, or the dog just prefers to be outside.  A dog can still be very well cared for while living outside, as long as food, water, and shelter are provided, so I wouldn't assume that the dog is mistreated.  By asking the dog's owners you are letting them know of the situation so they don't become a bit freaked out if they see a random person playing with their dog through the fence.  They could also inform you of any health problems that would make it a problem or concern for your own dog.

A related but side note....

Back when I was in graduate school getting my Master's Degree in ethology (behavior) I spent the summer doing research on ermine at the Minnesota Zoo.  One of the animals they had on exhibit was a wolverine, and one day I was wandering the zoo just looking at some of the animals.  The wolverine's exhibit was a long plate glass window with a natural habitat inside.  He started running along the window and it looked like he was trying to play.  So I started jogging back and forth in front of the glass to see what he would do.  He followed me!  And then I saw him do a play bow, and open-mouth play-face, and other behaviors that were clearly play.  This wolverine was exhibiting play behavior and was actually having fun running back and forth with me, playing through the window!  It was a remarkable experience, and though I would never venture into an enclosure with an animal like that, it was neat to see that many different kinds of animals enjoy playing.  We should take more cues from nature!