Sassy in suburbia

Keeping man's best friend out of trouble with the neighbors


A generation and more ago, dogs wandered loose through town and country, traveling their appointed rounds with great abandon. They littered with impunity and vandalized with great joy, leaving puppies and ruined gardens in their wake.

On occasion, a dog was shot for killing chickens or chasing sheep or was picked up by the dog warden for hanging around the school yard or digging in Mr. Clark's roses. More often, a dog was hit by a car and left dead or injured at the side of the road.

Change began after World War II and grew as tract houses and shopping centers filled in the gaps between big cities, small towns, and farms. Today, family dog ownership is a far cry from the past; no more can dogs wander, bark, or guard without running afoul of some law or a neighbor's good graces. These days, even the mere ownership of dogs comes under scrutiny with breed restrictions and dog number limits.

One thing hasn't changed: it is still true that a dog makes a great family companion — for the kids to play with, for Mom and Dad to jog with, for the whole family to love. The trick is to meld that family-and-dog experience with the restraints of living in suburbia.

Keeping Sassy home

Traffic, cheek-by-jowl houses and condominiums, manicured lawns and green space, and fussy or fearful neighbors make it imperative that Sassy forego the adventurous life common to canines 30-40 years ago. A homebody dog is safe from automobiles and accidental poisonings from lawn chemicals and pesticides and is unlikely to commit criminal trespass on Mrs. Nelson's green velvet lawn, chase the Porter kids into the pool, water the Morgan's petunias, bully the McKenzie's Yorkshire Terrier, or scare the power walkers in the subdivision.

Dogs are not furry people

As silly as this sounds, “dogs are not furry people” is a profound insight. Owners need to understand that dogs do not stay home because they know they are supposed to, because they have a conscience, or because they fear punishment. They stay home because it's more fun than a jaunt around the neighborhood and because they can't get out. Whenever temptation beckons, most dogs will leave if given half a chance.

Those who say that their dog knows his boundaries and never leaves the yard are closing their eyes to the certainty that a dog will act like a dog and chase a squirrel, a ball, or another dog or will dig to China by way of the new petunia bed next door. A dog trots to his own drummer; he does not have human thought processes or a moral code.

So, top consideration for living with a dog in suburbia is to make sure he stays home. The options are:

chain link, post and rail with mesh liner, privacy panels, and underground fences are the most common choices. The breed of dog should be considered along with family budget, esthetics, need for repair, zoning requirements, and subdivision regulations. Some breeds and some individual dogs are natural wanderers, diggers, or climbers and require special effort to keep confined. These dogs should not be contained behind an underground fence. [More on fences]
Trolley lines or tie-outs
a poor choice, especially for the guardian breeds and for dominant or fearful dogs. Tie-outs can make dogs aggressive.
Training for the dog:
good manners are a big help in keeping a pet happy. Training is a tool to improve the pet-and-family relationship and to increase the joy of owning a dog; although it is helpful in curbing a dog's tendency to roam, it does not replace confinement and should never be counted on to keep the dog at home or out of trouble. [More on obedience training]
Training for the kids:
open doors or gates, rolling balls, and running, noisy children are tempting to even the best-behaved pet, so kids should be taught to close gates and doors and understand how their play influences the dog. [More on kids and dogs]
Spaying or neutering
done before sexual maturity so the pet never experiences the urge to seek a mate and cannot litter. [More on spay/neuter]

Away from home

Half the fun of having a dog is doing things together. Dogs enjoy a daily walk in the subdivision, an occasional stroll in the park, car trips to the grocery store, visits to friends, and a soccer game at the schoolyard now and then. They can have the freedom to enjoy these excursions if they are safe and under control — on a leash.

The leash allows the owner to protect his neighbor's property, his neighbor's kids, and his neighbor. A dog on a six-foot leash can be kept away from flower beds, shrubbery, and lawns; prevented from jumping on the kids or grabbing their toys; and stopped from mugging adults as they jog past. Many children are afraid of dogs, especially big dogs, so even if Sassy wouldn't hurt a flea, she should not be allowed to approach any child or adult unless invited to do so.

All dogs should be taught to ride quietly in the car, walk politely on a leash, and sit and wait to be petted. They can wear a buckle collar, a slip collar, a prong collar, or a head collar, but they should learn good manners.

All dog owners should control their pets in public; a six-foot leather, nylon, or cotton leash works best but a retracting leash is suitable if the dog is kept away from gardens, children, joggers, and other dogs.


Many communities have ordinances that prohibit nuisance barking, and many dog owners have neighbors who will use those ordinances to settle old or imaginary scores. If Sassy dodges past the kids and out the gate to chase a rabbit through Mr. Clark's roses, Mr. Clark may file a complaint the next time Sassy barks at a stranger or plays noisy games with the kids in the back yard.

Most of these ordinances address continued barking, especially at night and in early morning — not occasional alarm barking or joyful noise. Some require multiple complaints.

The best defense is a good offense; every time Sassy sounds off, check out the situation and bring her inside if necessary. Teach her to “knock it off!” when there's no reason to continue barking, and respond to her request to come inside as quickly as possible so she doesn't feel obliged to keep giving the signal.

Clean up

All dog owners should clean up after their dogs and keep them from urinating in flower beds, lawns, and shrubbery. Neighbors deserve the opportunity to beautify their property and enjoy the fruits of their labors without urine stains and poop piles.

Feces clean-up is easy. Carry a Mutt Mitt or a plastic bag when you take Sassy for a walk. When she does her business, tell her to “sit-stay” on the sidewalk or path while you pick up the pile. Keep hold of her leash so she can't take off after a critter or to greet another dog.

Place one hand in the plastic bag; pick up the feces; invert the bag; tie a knot; deposit in garbage can.

To control the amount of feces produced, feed a premium dog food that is highly digestible. If Sassy has soft feces, check for internal parasites and then try to find a food that will produce stool that is easier to pick up. If she has diarrhea, stay home.

More than one dog

These days, many families have two or more dogs, a situation that can raise the ire of neighbors. Multiple dogs often bark more and make more of a mess, especially if they are left outside for extended periods. No dog should be left outside unattended, a warning that goes double or triple for families with more than a single dog.

Many communities have responded to the potential for problems in mulitple-dog households by placing a limit on the number of dogs that can reside at any one location. They assume that ownership of more than one or two dogs will result in a nuisance, leaving responsible owners with three choices: don't get any more dogs; lie about the number of dogs you have and hope they don't get caught; and go to court to retain their rights.

Like noise ordinances, these laws are often passed when one dog owner is a nuisance; they do not take into account that many people with multiple dogs never cause problems.

Number limits have been declared unconstitutional in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, but they are passed with increasing frequency throughout the country, often to solve problems that don't exist. Trouble is, the community can pass any laws it deems necessary and it is up to the citizens to fight the laws in court. Few citizens have the time and money to do so, leaving these laws on the books to be selectively enforced or used as weapons in neighborhood feuds.

In some communities, number limits are passed as zoning code amendments; in others they are criminal laws that turn responsible multiple dog owners into lawbreakers. Number limits also affect the number of dogs a family can rescue from a shelter or take in as a stray and thus may contribute to the number of dogs euthanized at shelters. [More on dogs and the law]

Buying the right dog

For families considering purchase of a dog, it is easier to carefully consider the type of dog that fits the lifestyle than to deal with the wrong dog six months or a year later. An active family might do well with an active dog as long as the time, energy, and desire to train the pet are available. A family with small children probably does not need a dog at all unless they are willing to train dog and children and keep and eye on both at all time. [More on choosing a breed]

Many breeders and purebred rescue groups will not sell puppies or adopt adult dogs to families with small children, especially toy dogs, some terriers, and some herding and guardian breeds. They know that the “wrong dog” can easily become the neighborhood juvenile delinquent six months or a year later, a situation that bodes ill for the dog, the breed, and dog ownership in the community.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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