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How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard

Originally published on 6/1/2011. 

Draw the lines yourself

Would you like to train your dog to stay in your yard without resorting to electrical shock? There is a way to do it that is inexpensive, takes about the same amount of time, and is just as reliable as the electronic containment systems commercially available.


Everything you need for boundary
training—including some high-value meatballs
and a dog eager for a training session.

Electronic obstacles

There are potential problems with containment systems that rely on electrical shock to punish a dog for crossing a boundary.

  • Electronic containment systems can create aggressive reactions in dogs. There is no way to control or determine what the dog is focused on when it receives the shock. The dog could be looking at a squirrel running up a tree across the boundary, or at the next-door neighbor, the neighbor's dog, or the neighbor's young child. Whatever the dog is focused on when it receives the aversive (shock) could become associated with the aversive. The next time the dog looks at the tree, or sees the neighbor or child, it may growl or act in another aggressive manner in response.

    Conversely, some dogs shut down after receiving an aversive shock. They can become highly stressed; some dogs won't leave the porch or deck, or even the house. These dogs assume that anything they do outside may result in an aversive.

  • Electronic containments systems can be beaten by many dogs. With systems that provide audio warning beeps, the dogs realize that the beep itself does not harm them. They stop at the beep, and while the electronic collar resets, the dog advances across the boundary before the collar can be reset and the shock delivered. Nearly all electronic containments systems sold in stores for self-installment work this way.

    Another system works a little differently. After a few seconds of beeping, the collar delivers a shock if the dog is still within the boundary zone. The dog doesn't have to move forward to get shocked; it must learn to back out of the zone to avoid the shock. But if the dog runs right across the boundary zone, he is not shocked. Why? The dog runs too fast for the collar to respond (it beeps for about two seconds and then delivers the shock—any dog at full speed can cover a lot of ground in two seconds). Dogs learn that if they run fast enough, they can go wherever they want and avoid the shock. Many dogs learn to bolt as soon as they are let outside; once this happens the fence is totally ineffective.

  • When a dog does run across the boundary (and gets shocked or not) it is stuck. Dogs run out of the yard, but walk back. So even if a dog avoids a shock leaving the yard, it does not understand to use the same strategy to come back. As a result, many dogs don’t come home at all.

  • Electronic containment systems are expensive even for small areas—then add the time and effort to install them.

Since most people don't want to even think about shocking their dogs, boundary training is an alternative way to solve the problem.

Since most people don't want to even think about shocking their dogs, boundary training is an alternative way to solve the problem.

A better way, but there are no guarantees

There is a more effective protocol for teaching your dog—in a positive way—that there is a boundary. Dogs are territorial creatures. It’s natural for them to have a space they consider "theirs" and to feel comfortable remaining in that space as a default. The key is to teach the dog what that area is.

No system or training protocol can guarantee that your dog will always stay within the boundary. That’s primarily because you cannot determine ahead of time every conceivable distraction your dog may encounter. (Not to mention the difficulty involved in asking a squirrel, rabbit, groundhog, or deer to stand calmly on the other side of the boundary while you reinforce your dog for staying within the yard.)

However, with boundary training you will be far ahead of the shock systems because if your dog does go outside, it can (and most probably will) return to its home turf.

With boundary training you will be far ahead of the shock systems because if your dog does go outside, it can (and most probably will) return to its home turf.


  • No dog, no matter how well trained, should ever be left alone outside. Even a dog that is restrained should not be left unattended, as dogs tied outside can develop very bad behaviors. Being left alone poses a risk even for dogs 100% trained to stay within the boundary—boundary training doesn't provide the dog any defense for something (or someone) coming into the boundary area.
  • While you train the boundary protocol, work on training a reliable recall, too. There will come a day (there always does) when a rabbit or squirrel sits on the other side of the boundary and taunts your dog. Your recall, if it is well trained, will get your dog back quickly.
  • The best, and most reliable, containment system is a good old-fashioned physical fence boundary that your dog cannot go over, under, around, or through. If your objective is to keep your dog safe from a nearby busy street, and/or you must leave your dog unattended outside, a physical fence is the only way that's safe and foolproof (the exception is a human trespasser, of course).
nose touch

Hold the flag close to the dog's nose, click a nose
touch, and follow with a chunk of meatball.

How to train the boundary protocol

  1. Start indoors, and teach the dog to target a flag (a white strip of cloth on a dowel rod will work). The dog gets a click/treat (C/T) for touching its nose to the flag. The dog goes to the flag, gets a click, and then returns to you for its treat. Have the targeting completely fluent with as much distance as possible inside. I recommend at least a week of practice.

  2. Place the flags at intervals of 8-10 feet around the yard/boundary.

  3. Practice walking the dog on a 15-foot lead (even longer is fine) around the boundary/yard. The dog should run up to the flags to target them for a C/T. The dog should already be conditioned from the inside training to return to you for a treat. (Use higher value treats outside—I recommend real meat such as roast beef, turkey, chicken or whatever the dog goes crazy over and only gets for this boundary training.)

    The dog will learn that the flags are cues to come back from the boundary. You are reinforcing the return from the boundary. As dogs are territorial, you are also heavily reinforcing the dog to be and remain in its territory, as defined by the position of the flags.

    Practice, practice, practice. I recommend a minimum of two boundary walks a day (the more the better) over a period of at least eight weeks. You want the act of coming back from the boundary to be classically conditioned so that it is an involuntary response (the presence of the flags becomes the cue to return).

    Do not punish the dog if he goes outside the boundary. If he does (because you walked him too close to the boundary and/or there was a high-level distraction on the other side), simply reward his return.

  4. Practice as often as you can until your dog routinely comes back from the boundary on a long lead. Increase the lead as you practice. A 50-foot, 3/8-inch nylon rope tied to the lead is a good option. If possible, begin introducing low-level distractions on the other side of the boundary. Reinforce the dog for returning from the boundary when distractions are in sight. Over time, increase the level of the distractions.

  5. Start to allow the dog off leash in the yard. Never leave the dog alone in the yard. Have lots of fun and interesting interactions with the dog well within the boundary area. If distractions occur on the other side of the boundary, reinforce your dog with a jackpot if he goes to the boundary and returns to you.

  6. turn away

    Click as the dog turns away after a
    touch—reward when he returns.

  7. Continue staging distractions and reward successful returns significantly. If your dog goes over the boundary, simply lower the level and/or distance of the distraction.

    When the dog responds successfully by turning away after a really big distraction, consider running back to the house, porch, or deck. When your dog reaches you, offer really good treats for at least 30 seconds. This will help to condition an additional response—seeing something extra-enticing means “run quick to the house” to receive even better stuff.

  8. Continue to monitor and recognize that someday there will be something that can and probably will overcome your dog. This happens even with the electric fences. Sooner or later there will be a distraction that you haven’t trained for, and your dog will, well, act like a dog whether you have a fence or not. But, having trained that reliable recall, when there is a distraction that your dog simply cannot ignore, the recall will get your dog back across the boundary.

    Keep the flags up for an extended period of time (six months or more) so that your dog continues to have a visual cue of his boundaries.

  9. To get a little fancy: if you practice providing reinforcement in the same location (on the porch/deck, for example), that location will be the default location to which your dog returns, especially if you reinforce there when distractions are present.

    Practice, practice, practice.

Reinforcing the positive while avoiding the pitfalls and expense

Boundary training reinforces for your dog that the yard is always the best option. Over time and with practice, your dog will want exactly what you want: to stay in the yard! Positively training a boundary, when it is coupled with a reliable recall, can be at least as effective as an electronic containment system in keeping your dog in your yard. Significantly, boundary training comes without the financial cost of an electronic system, not to mention potential behavior and stress consequences to you and your dog.

About the author
User picture

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP, is a KPA faculty member and the owner of Clicking With Canines in Endicott, NY. Steve specializes in teaching clicker training to his clients, helping them teach their dogs to be socially acceptable, happy, and intelligent family pets.

This is a great article and one I will be passing it onto my owners. I wrote an article last year about all of the dangers of invisible fences. I'm going to post a link to this article on the blog so that my readers will have an alternative technique to try. Thanks!

Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA

Companion Animal Solutions


Great article.

I just printed this out! I'll work on it at home, but I too wonder how to do something similar on walks? We live in the woods and I would LOVE for him to be able to accompany me off lead, but he's completly unreliable (hunting breed...) any help?

Steve Benjamin's picture

Re: Great article

Dhickman...I've been remiss in checking responses to my article and was just advised that there were some questions.

The question you have is a different one but the principle is the same.  I have a black lab who has a very high prey drive and simply looses his mind when he's out in the woods and gets on the scent of some critter that's been around.

The solution is what I call my "invisible leash."  You can have one yourself by simply establishing a "history of reinforcement" for not only checking in with you but also being in your close vicinity.  Does it take time?  Yes...especially with any dog that has a high interest in investigating its surroundings.  And even more time for a dog without a solid recall, has been practicing running off on its own for a long time, or has a less then stellar relationship (read "reinforcement history") with its human partner.  Will it be 100%?  No...of course not, nothing is when it comes to working with behavior.  There are just too many unknown distractions (scents) when it comes to a high-prey drive dog in a distraction rich environment such as the forest. 

Briefly, the steps are: 

1) begin in a less distracting environment; ensure your dog is not capable of running off by himself...even one time will set back your reinforcement history; If you want to take your dog to the woods for a hike during this initial period put him on a long line.  I had my lab on an 80 ft. thin yellow nylon rope whenever we went into the woods for over a year...yup, about 16 months I think it was;  When he got to the end of I just stepped on the then and waithed patiently and reinforced him when he came back to me; Did it get tangled up around shrubs and trees?  ALL THE TIME...just un-snag it and keep going; 

2) experiment with what your dog finds reinforcing...for my lab it was chunks of rare roast beef...LOTS of it.  He only got it when he checked in with me after running off a short distance.  Training when you have a hungry dog helps too. 

3) Anytime your dog checks in with you give him a decent portion of his favorite stuff.  NEVER leave home without it.  If his "switch" goes off trying walking up to him and actually putting the reinforcer up to his mouth...if he doesn't eat it consider switching to something better for these occasions.  Over time and with enough trials he will begin to associate that the scent of a wild critter opens up the opportunity (becomes a "cue") to get the real good stuff.

4) Be consistent; don't waiver; take whatever time it needs;  Always remember you are competing with "hard-wired" behavior.  It'll take time.  You'll begin to see your dog checking in with you more often.  My lab would begin to trot away from me a few feet then then run back just to get some of the "good stuff."  When I saw him alert, he got a big jackpot of the good stuff.  If he came me attention/responded to a recall cue when he alerted he got another big jackpot.

5) If your dog doesn't have a strong recall, work on that as well.  Use "Premack" to build a stronger recall in a high distraction enviornment:  When your dog responds to the recall cue, give him the ok to go run off exploring (utilizing the long line AND going with him, of course).

At around the two year mark, I had a black lab who I could walk with off leash in the woods around my place.  He would trot off out of sight from time to time but come right back within a few short minutes.  I still reinforce him for this, and always will...but I don't need to be lugging roast beef around with me all the time.  Common fare now does the job.

Now, when we go on hikes in unfamiliar territory (state forests/parks etc.) I continue to keep him on a 15 ft. lead.  Lots of times he just drags it but I ensure its close enough to grab if I see him alert. 

Even though he is excellent at staying close now and checks in regularly, the boy has no sense of self preservation!  If he bolts after a squirrel that runs over a ledge, he'd end up going over the ledge without looking first, no doubt about it.  So safety is always paramount and that's always MY responsibility.

Now, I've had some decide that its just not worth the effort.  Then keeping the dog on leash (management) in environments which overcome them is the only answer.  For me, two years of training was well worth the effort becuase we've had 8 years of hiking in all types of places that I otherwise would have not been able to take him.

Best of luck and have fun training.

Steve Benjamin, KPACTP

KPA Faculty Member

Thanks again!

Thanks for the extra help, sorry it's been some time, I just "rediscovered" this website. I'm proud to say that I've already been working like this with a 50 ft nylon lead. It's amazing, however, that he always "knows" when he's on a lead. He doesn't charge after things while on the lead. The second he's free, however, off he goes for 2 or 3 hours at a time after some critter that caught his nose. He DOES always return, but he's gone for too long. I reward like crazy the second he comes back, but it still doesn't matter, that need to put on a chase is greater than ANY snack I can give him.

Although I'm still working on it, it's almost at the point of deciding that management is my best option with him, which is a little sad because I can take the other two almost anywhere and they won't leave my sight.

If my hunter is with them, however, they think it's okay to run with him. Although my doberman will come home much, much sooner than my Lacy dog.

something that I've had

something that I've had people try is a rope lead at 50 feet. Then as you are training cut off one foot each week or so. Eventually you are down to a tiny piece of rope or just the hook attachment from the leash. The dog thinks he is still working, and stays in the yard. This is while you have the leash dragging on the ground... something to try :)


Thanks for this great

Thanks for this great article! One question: How do you handle taking the dog out of the boundary area (ie to go for a walk)? Does doing so diminish the lesson? Do you stop at the boundary, before proceeding?

Steve Benjamin's picture

Re: "Thanks for this great"

Jazz...sorry for the delay.

Good questions.  Actually its pretty easy.  Develop "cues" that communicate to your dog that its ok to go past the boundary.  These cues would include things like:  1) the leash (only on when going outside the boundary); 2) go out at the same exact location every time; 3) being with you (or another family member); 4) have a word cue ("hike" "walk" "let's go" etc.) that ONLY means your dog is passing the boundary; 5) some like to put a particular collar or even a "jacket" on their dog when out strolling, these can become cues for your dog as well.

The key is to be consistent with these cues and with a word cue simply give it AS you pass the boundary point.

Unlike boundaries trained with an aversive like shock, your dog will not be fraid of it.  Be sure to continue to reinforce your dog any time you come back within the boundary and as soon as you step across it.

I have many acres of woods surrounding my yard and my three dogs don't venture into them unless I go with them and give the cue:  Let's go for a "walk." (They will chase a deer or the occasional bear away, but stop at the edge of the yard and then return.) This is becuase they have been regularly and highly reinforced for staying within the boundary of the mowed yard, which is about 3 acres.

Steve Benjamin, KPACTP

KPA Faculty Member

sometimes, unfortunately, shock seems necessary

I have a mini dachshund that will dig under any fence to run away. He always comes back, but, tries to kill cats, etc. and doesn't understand cars.  I fear for him and others. He will not dig if he's being shocked. I hate it because he's only 10 lbs and the shock is bad, but it is better than him dying or other animals being harassed. he has killed a possum his size, so, you see, my fear is real.   i am interested in trying your idea to help keep him in, however. thanks. mb

Great Article!

Very nice protocol, but could you please tell me how to get 50 feet from my dog , or 15 feet away for that matter :) ?  I live in a tiny condo with a teeny patio.  LOL!  I will have to find a dog with a yard to teach this to so that I can give people an alternative to electronic fences.  Nothing would make me happier!

Re Great Article!

Thank you.  When you find a dog with yard to train, don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP, KPA Faculty

Casey Lomonaco's picture

Great job, Steve!

Nice job with this article, Steve!


Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP

Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training


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