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Room to Roam
By Ali Johnson

When my husband and I moved into our last house, the first thing we did was put up a fence in the backyard so that our two dogs would have a large space to play. It was a four foot, wooden picket fence that was built around the back of our house and accessible from three sliding glass doors. It was a great place to wrestle, chase squirrels, smell the smells, and dig holes.

At the time, I was a graduate student at Duke University. On a day when I needed to study at home, I put the dogs outside (as usual) and settled in to read. I could see the back porch from my post on the couch, and could see both dogs dozing in the sun. I studied all day, from morning until evening, and I learned a lot. I learned that my dogs sleep all day. When I let them in at the end of the day, they were boisterous, excited, and ready to eat, as usual.

It is true that our fenced yard is very convenient for playing fetch and letting the dogs out in the morning and evening. However, I have learned that most dogs do not exercise themselves while out in a fenced yard. They may run along the fence a few times each day, patrolling the perimeter, but their daily walk is still a very necessary part of their fitness regimen. It is really through interacting with their family that they get the mental and physical exercise that they require.

Unfortunately, many dogs live in homes where their fenced area in the backyard is more of a curse than a blessing. How many backyard dogs live in your neighborhood that don't enjoy daily walks, time inside with their families, or any regular interaction at all? It makes me wonder why the dog was purchased or adopted in the first place. In some cases, the family would even prefer that the dog never bark while in their yard or pen. Thus both the companion and alarm system functions of the family pet are not in place. For purely aesthetic purposes, stuffed animals and yard art both fit the bill.

Dogs, like people, generally have the capability to form and enjoy a complex social network. Without it, the dog's basic needs are not met, despite adequate food, shelter, water, and veterinary care. There is a reason why isolation is a severe punishment technique among humans-we are social beings. Dogs are too. Please make your dog part of your social network. Interaction with you is more important to most dogs than all the room to roam in the world.

If your dog's high energy level and exuberance convince you that he or she needs more exercise, teach them to play fetch, find, or other games. Take your dog to a dog park, where 10 minutes of wrestling with other dogs is better exercise than an hour of neighborhood walking. Use your dog's higher exercise requirements as motivation to develop a running or hiking habit. See if you can teach your dog to catch a Frisbee in mid air, or to negotiate obstacles in agility or flyball.

Never underestimate the power of mental exercise to calm an energetic dog. Just as a mentally intense day at work can exhaust us, a daily training session can help give your dog a healthy, constructive outlet for their energy. For ideas on what types of exercises you can train your dog, enroll in a training class or pick up a dog training book from the bookstore or library.

Despite the obvious differences that separate us from our canine companions, we share the need for companionship and belonging. Discover the joy of a companion who forgives even the gravest neglect or harm, never criticizes, and is always willing to listen. Invite your dog inside tonight and make them a true member of the family-you'll be glad you did.