Home Page

Dogs Need Time Off the Chain to Learn Good Behavior

With Permission from Dr. Marty Becker

Every time I drive the 16 miles from my ranch to my hometown in northern Idaho, I pass dogs that are chained to a tree, to a doghouse or to a stake driven into the ground. Make no mistake. These aren't loving, responsible pet owners who temporarily secure their outdoor dogs to make sure the animals are safe at night or when unsupervised. These pets are imprisoned within the chain's radius, 24/7/365. In the six years I've lived here, I've never seen them run free.

Sadly, millions of other pets across the country share their fate. I always feel sadness for the dogs' plight. I also feel frustration at their caretakers' lack of understanding that chaining a dog all the time can have serious consequences for the pet and its guardian.

Experts agree that chaining increases aggression in some dogs. "Rather than protecting the owner or property, a chained dog is often fearful for itself, particularly poorly socialized dogs or those with a previous negative experience," says Rolan Tripp, affiliate professor of animal behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University. "When tethered and exposed to a potentially threatening stimulus, one thing the dog definitely knows is, `I can't get away.' In that circumstance, a reasonable response might be, `Therefore I'm going to try and scare you away by growling or, worse yet, biting.' "

Myrna Milani, a veterinary ethologist and author of several books on animal behavior, agrees. "I specifically see increased aggression when a dog feels responsible for protecting the owner and that person's belongings," she says. "Under those circumstances, restraint of any kind makes it impossible for the dog to freely explore any perceived threat to determine whether it poses any danger or get away from it if it does."

Adding to this chorus is veterinarian Elizabeth Shull, president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. "In addition to frustration, the constant physical restraint promotes excessive territoriality, which may be manifested as aggression. These attacks are completely unnecessary as they are easily preventable by using a secure fence for containment," Shull says. This leaves the dog with the option of making a lot of noise (barking its head off!) and looking as scary as possible (lips curled, teeth showing, coat fluffed) in hopes of frightening the perceived threat, or to bite when that threat gets too close. Thus, too often, biting becomes the chosen response when a bark would have done. Sadly, the person on the other end of the teeth is often a child, a delivery person or another dog that just wanted to play.

Dog bite statistics show that children are the most common victims. This then becomes a tragedy for all involved: the victim, the dog and the owner who is now liable for injuries that could have been avoided. "Another thing to consider is that dogs are social animals," says Janice Willard, veterinary ethologist from Moscow, Idaho. "They need to have company to live normal, healthy lives. Most dogs live in a human family that fills their biological need for companionship. But a chained, solitary dog is in the worst of circumstances. Not only are they starved for social contact, but often they have poor social skills from lack of experience. And they often live in a state of sensory deprivation. Their environment is barren, and they have nothing to explore or play with. They have nothing to do but pace the tiny space allotted to them. Or they become frustrated by the tantalizing world just out of their reach, increasing their anxiety and agitation."

The worst punishment for people in prison is solitary confinement, while the military uses the silent treatment as a nonviolent but highly effective means of reprimand. But these are only temporary measures; a dog may be committed to the same treatment for most of its life. What crimes did these dogs commit to deserve such a fate? If you need to secure your dog, get a big fence. If you need a security system, install an electronic one. If you want a dog but aren't willing to love it and consider its needs, get a stuffed one. Chaining a dog all the time is no way to treat a thinking, breathing, trusting, loving creature.