Handling Run-Away Dogs

Does your dog run outside at the first suggestion of an open door? My dogs have been known to escape, run for miles, and stay gone for several days. It’s scary, and may seem like an unsolvable problem, particularly if you have children who like to leave doors open. Here are some tried and true ways to deal with the problem.
runaway dog
Dogs sometimes have a tendency to run away, but there are ways to prevent that.

Install a fail-safe

Although this does nothing to teach your dog not to run out, it will give you peace of mind in the short run while you work on training. A fail-safe, or buffer zone, serves to keep your dog contained when the door is open. You might install a baby gate across the doorway into the room where the outside door is, or you might put a barrier across the porch stairs so the dogs can get no further than the porch if they do get out.

In my house, my dogs’ escape route is through the kitchen door into the garage and from there to freedom. Our fail-safe is a baby gate across the door to the kitchen. The dogs have to be behind the gate with the gate locked before anyone is allowed to open the kitchen door. My babysitter goes a step further and keeps the garage door down until she has cleared the kitchen door and the dogs are shut securely inside the house.

Keep your dog tired

A dog who is getting plenty of exercise with you may be too worn out to seek more exercise by running away from home. Take your dog for frequent walks or have the kids run around with him or her in the back yard. Play tug to make the animal use big muscle groups. Play fetch to encourage running, as well as to teach the idea of coming back to you for more fun.

Don’t forget that most dogs enjoy a mental challenge, as well as physical exercise. Consider using puzzle toys to make your dog work for his or her snacks. Hide the treat inside the toy so the dog must use his or her mental muscles to find it. Dogs who are kept mentally stimulated at home are much less likely to seek challenges elsewhere. You can find puzzle toys just about anywhere. Here are some examples to get you started:

Train the dog to ask before leaving

As you potty trained your dog, you probably worked out some sort of signal that your dog uses to tell you when he or she needs to go outside. Some dogs bark or turn circles, others whine or scratch at the door. Still others have learned to nudge a bell cord hanging from the doorknob. It doesn’t matter which method you use; the point is, your dog is capable of telling you what he or she wants.

In a similar way, you can teach your dog to “say please” before getting other things he or she wants. You just need to adapt the process you used when potty training. It’s easiest to start with the food bowl because the dog receives the immediate reward of getting supper. Assuming you have already done basic obedience training so your dog understands the SIT command, you simply tell your dog to sit and don’t give him his food bowl until he does so.

runaway dog
You can train your dog to sit before being allowed to go outside.

Your dog will quickly get the idea that good things come to those who sit. Now, you adapt that lesson to the door. When the dog wants to go outside, he or she first has to sit before you will open the door. You can do this for both entering and exiting your home. The door doesn’t open until the dog sits. When it comes to the “escape door”, if the dog is sitting, you have a much better chance of grabbing his or her collar than if the dog is charging the door.

A key escape method for my dogs was to wait until we were trying to come into the house carrying groceries or luggage. They charged us and pushed through while we were trying to get a hand free to grab them. Once they learned to sit before they were allowed to go outside, it gave us a few extra seconds to block them even with our hands full.

Reacting to break outs

If you have an escape artist, there will inevitably be times when he or she will get out. As you may have already found out, chasing an escaped dog is futile because that plays into the dog’s hand, reinforcing the idea that the reason it’s so fun to escape is because you can get the family to run around like fools for awhile.

What you want to do instead is to get the dog to chase YOU! First, you must figure out what the dog’s raison d’etre is. Every dog has something that they live for. With some dogs, it will be a treat; with others it will be a toy that stimulates their prey drive. It’s pretty easy to figure out which one your dog prefers. Simply offer both and see which one creates more interest.

Once you have it figured out, you can use this to your advantage. While you are in the training stage and your dog is getting out with some regularity, keep the favored toy or treats near the door. As soon as the dog gets outside, grab the treat or the toy and go outside, calling the dog’s name. Shake the treat container to get his or her attention, or say whatever word you use when you want your dog to play. “Wanna play fetch?” or “C’mon! Get it! Get the toy!” Whatever your dog associates with play time will work.

When the dog runs back in your direction, make him or her work to get the reward. Play keep-away for awhile, making the homecoming all about playing with you and receiving attention. After a short game, let the dog latch onto the toy and play tug while you head back toward the house. Once inside, do a little more playing. You want the dog to associate coming home with good things, not with getting disciplined.

Another way to do this for car lovers is to give chase in the car. When you approach the dog, open the car door and say, “wanna go for a ride?” Most dogs cannot resist the opportunity to hang their heads out the window and smell whatever wafts past.

When you get the dog back home, make sure the rewards continue. The idea is to make staying at home much more attractive than running away.

Using a combination of training, adequate exercise, and a fail-safe buffer zone, you should be able to keep your dog at home where you can keep him or her safe and sound.

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