Dogs in Yards: Are They Happy?

Even those of us who love dogs don’t love the sound of constant barking. One effective way to get dogs to bark their heads off is to leave them outside in a yard alone. Maybe you have a neighbor who does this, but maybe you even do it yourself, because you think your dog loves being out there. This is a well-meaning misconception that results in a lot of bored dogs at best and exacerbates or causes behavior problems at worst.

What Dogs Do in Yards

The conventional wisdom is that dogs love yards. Many dog lovers dream of moving to a house with a backyard; shelters or rescues sometimes require adopters to have a fenced yard. But a yard can be a mixed blessing if our assumptions aren’t in line with what dogs really need.

“Often people think that if they leave the dog in the yard, they’ll be having a really fun time, they’ll be playing and sniffing and enjoying themselves,” says Zazie Todd, author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. “And there are some dogs that enjoy it, but for many dogs, if they’re outdoors on their own, they’re going to be a bit bored.”

Fear Free Certified trainer Kate LaSala agrees. “There’s this common misconception that dogs just want to hang out outside; that that’s more interesting for a dog than being inside,” she says. “When I teach classes, people will ask ‘Should we set up a place where we can leave the dog outside?'” In reply, LaSala reminds them that dogs need our companionship. “Dogs are very social creatures and they want to be with us. They’re not livestock, they’re not wild animals. They don’t want to be isolated in the backyard.”

You may think the dog is getting exercise in the yard, but if you’re not out there playing with him, probably not. “There’s some research on dogs in yards and it showed that they don’t actually do a huge lot,” says Todd. If anything, the study showed that dogs outdoors seem to move around the house according to where their person is inside, as if trying to stay near.

But when you open the door, your dog runs right out. He must love it, right? Sure – at first.

“Novelty is very interesting to most dogs, so if he’s been inside for six hours, yeah, going outside is going to be really exciting for five minutes,” says LaSala. “But then if he’s out there by himself, there’s no enrichment, no social interaction; then we find dogs who enter into boredom barking. They’re barking to release energy, they’re barking just to pass time, because there’s really nothing to do out there.”

Barking is Normal–Up to a Point

Barking is normal canine behavior. “It’s not reasonable to expect them to never bark. They’re dogs, they’re going to bark from time to time,” says Todd. “But when they’re barking excessively, that’s not good.”

Dogs bark for many reasons, and it’s not always because they are making a joyful noise.

“Many of those reasons are because there is something the dog is not particularly happy about,” says Todd.  “If someone arrives at your house and your dog barks and alerts you to the fact that they’re there, that’s just a normal thing for dogs to do. But if there’s barking for long periods of time, you should be thinking about the underlying reasons. Is it because they’re bored? Is it because they’re frustrated?”

Along with barking out of boredom, barking can also be triggered when a dog sees or hears passersby. This is not only annoying to your neighbors and their dogs, it can also lead to behavior problems.

If you have a friendly dog who’s constantly left to bark along the fence, he’s going to be frustrated at not being able to interact with dogs and people passing by. “That can look a whole lot like aggression: lunging, growling, barking,” says LaSala. “Then when they do get access to other dogs, they can be over-enthusiastic and that can tip over into a scuffle.” The owner may then no longer feel safe letting the dog play with other dogs. The result is a dog who is desperate for contact with dogs but is deprived of it.

Dogs also may bark at passersby because they’re anxious about strangers. These dogs are constantly reinforced for barking. “From the dog’s perspective, they barked, and the person went away, so they’re going to do it next time to get the same results,” says Todd.

What To Do Instead

LaSala says some owners put their dog outside as a way of managing behavior issues, but this can escalate the problem. For example, if the dog is overexcited and jumps on people who visit, it’s an easy fix to put him outside when someone comes over. But this amounts to punishing a dog for trying to be sociable, and it makes the problem worse. “Then it becomes this circular thing where when they bring the dog inside, he’s been so deprived of human contact and connection that he’s jumpy and mouthy and very excitable, and then they put the dog back outside because they don’t know how to handle that over-the-top behavior.”

This isn’t kind to your dog, so if you’re putting him outside to manage a behavior problem, contact a appropriate behavior professional or trainer.

Otherwise, the solution is simple: don’t leave your dog outside alone. Or leave him outside only if you can see that he’s relaxed and happy. If he starts barking, he’s not. Go outside and play, go for a walk, or bring him in and give him a food puzzle and let him hang out with you. All of these things are better for dogs, says LaSala. “Just putting them outside is not enrichment all by itself.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.