Why Does My Dog Run Away?

Trainer Talk

Why Does My Dog Run Away?

There are several reasons a dog might run away, many of which have to do with how many interesting things are out there. There is a whole world to explore, and it might contain cats or squirrels to chase, people to meet and maybe even females in heat. Some dogs dash out the door to make sure there are no invaders in their territory. And some dogs just love to run -- especially when it starts their owners on that super-fun keep-away game.

Prevent Your Dog From Running Away
As always, any dog behavior issue has a management component. In this case, it is physically preventing your dog from dashing out. Your best defense is twofold:

1. Create layers of security.
If your dog targets a specific door, be sure to make a double gate or “airlock” system: Set up a baby gate or ex-pen just inside (or just outside) of the door as a backup enclosure. For households with less-responsible door-openers (like small children or service people), self-closing hinges, strong springs and sturdy latches are very important.

2. Training your dog.
There’s also always a training component to prevent your dog from running away. The best idea is to teach your pet to wait at the door while it’s opened and people pass through. Here’s how:

  • Start by practicing a reliable, solid sit-stay near the front door.
    • Carry this out on a mat or rug at some distance from the door -- far enough away that the door can be opened easily.
    • If your house has a physical or visual divider (a step, or tile bordering carpet, for example), have your dog stay just behind that divider.
    • Practice several times, gradually increasing the length of your dog’s stay.
  • When your dog can handle this routine without running away, add the distraction of going to the door, touching the doorknob, turning the knob and opening the door (just a crack at first).
    • When your dog’s used to the open door, step through it, go to your dog and reward him.
    • Step out, close the door and open it again.
    • Practice each step until your dog stays and you can click and reward him over five to 10 repetitions. This should take several days.
  • Next, add a verbal greeting to your imaginary guest.
    • Many people are surprised to discover that their dogs immediately react as soon as their owner says “Hi!” -- even if there’s clearly no one there. (With my dog, it was “Hi!” Once we got over that, it was “Come on in!” that made him excited).
    • Practice until you can do it five or 10 times with your dog holding the sit-stay.
  • Finally, if you can, get a friend to help you by being the guest that you’re letting in -- while your dog stays in too.

Come Back!
If your dog is a dedicated door-dasher, it will take quite a history of being rewarded for staying in to counteract the previous history of going out. In the meantime, be sure to also practice your dog’s recalls. Practice in your house and enclosed yard first. Then put your dog on a long line (a light rope will do) and practice calling in front of your house, up and down the sidewalk, and then calling your dog into the house.

For many dogs that like to run away, coming in means the end of their fun. So be sure to give a jackpot reward for coming in when you call. Eventually you can “accidentally” allow the dog to get out the door (with that long line as security!) and practice calling the dog back in. Before heaping on the happy praise, be sure to call with a tone of voice that’s similar to the one you would really use if you were to see your dog heading out to the street.

Stacy Braslau-Schneck is a longtime dog trainer and a professional member of the Association of Dog Pet Trainers. She works closely with the Human Society Silicon Valley and is the owner of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train, which offers small group classes and private lessons in San Jose, Calif. Stacy writes frequently for Exceptional Canine.

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