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Dealing with Dogs that Run Away

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Some dogs are just born to run. Although the reasons for running away are varied, there are a couple of common themes. Dogs run away either a) to get to a better place where something rewarding may happen or b) to escape from a real or perceived danger.
It is useful to remember that dogs' living ancestors, the wolves, roam for a living. For them, roaming is a natural behavior that involves scouting, hunting, exploration, and discovery. Home, the den is reserved for family affairs but all other good things in life are procured by skillful exploitation of their home range. Typically, a wolf's or wild dog's home range covers several square miles and nature has equipped them (and their domestic dog descendents) with a "Cadillac" North Star navigation system that enables them to create and store mental maps. Essentially, they never get lost and can always find their way home. With these awesome skills, all they need is a good reason to go and they're gone.

But when the neighborhood is concrete or tarmac and is seething with automobiles and trucks, this can present a problem. Free-ranging dogs get into a lot of trouble in our society and a good number of them wind up in the pound. For this reason, a wandering dog is not a good dog is not a happy dog – not in the long run anyway. If the trucks don't get them, and they don't bite or get bitten, the animal control officer will eventually track them down.

Causes of Roaming

  • Reproductive drive. An intact male dog roams when he detects the odor of estrogen on the wind. Why, though, would a neutered male or a female develop reproductive wanderlust? The answer is because sexual urges are generated in the brain, not in the loins. Although castration causes the male hormone testosterone to fall to zero within about 8 hours, a neutered male remains a male, not an "it." Castration reduces roaming in 90 percent of dogs but for the remaining 10 percent behave as if nothing has changed.

  • Boredom. Why do dogs climb over and dig under fences? Some say, to get to the other side. People sometimes go to work and leave their dogs tied up or wandering in the yard because they are afraid they will damage the house if left inside. A curious and active dog in a postage-stamp sized backyard is an instant candidate for escape - and thus disaster.

  • Predatory drive. Another very strong, almost magnetic, force that draws dogs away from their homes is prey drive. Seeking and finding prey is one of the most powerful natural tendencies that dogs possess. The thrills and the sweet victory of the chase are their own intrinsic rewards. Although we provide our dogs all the food they need, this extravagance still does not extinguish the drive to hunt in dogs.

  • Social reasons. Like wolves, some dogs have secondary homes or dens. Unless physically restrained, they will leave one home and wander over to the other periodically. I once had five clients sitting in front of me during a behavior consultation on one dog. "Which one of you is the owner?" I asked. They looked at each other for a moment or two and then one of them said, "We all are." Apparently, the dog in question would wake up in one person's home and wander over to the neighbor's house for breakfast. It would then go over to a third neighbor's home for a mid-morning walk and visit yet another neighbor each evening for dinner. This scenario brings to mind so-called "boomerang dogs" that are discarded by one family but keep returning to the original owners' home.

  • Physical rewards. Food is a powerful reward for certain dogs. If such dogs learn of a source of food away from their home, they may visit that location whenever they feel a little hungry. One dog discovered that a neighbor always threw out leftover pizza on a Friday night. The dog was always found missing on Fridays.

  • Thunderstorm phobia. There are some phobic dogs that express their great displeasure by attempting to run away from what ails them. If a dog like this starts to run and run, he will eventually find that the storm abates. The running away behavior is rewarded by so-called negative reinforcement – the frequency of running away during storms increases because it stops something bad from happening (apparently, at least). Thunderstorm phobic dogs sometimes become quite skilled at breakouts, leaping from windows, or clearing high fences in a single bound as if they had superhuman powers.

  • Fear of owner. Although rare, I have seen this behavior recently in a dysfunctional dog adopted from a pound. The dog loved the lady owner but couldn't stand her husband. The dog barked at him from the time he set foot into the house in the evening until the time he left for work the next morning. Tragically, the woman died, leaving the dog to either get over his fear of the man or run away. The dog chose the latter approach but was later recaptured and rehabilitated.

    What To Do About Roaming

    The first step is making sure that all dogs are neutered. Though not a panacea, neutering is the best way to reduce the risk of roaming in an intact dog. Also, unneutered dogs at large simply add to the already overwhelming population of unwanted pups.

    The second most important measure is to have your yard fenced with a sturdy solid fence to prevent your dog's escape and unwanted visits from neighboring dogs. Ties, runs, and electric fences are not as good as real fences because they don't keep others out and seem to increase territorial aggression in some dogs.

    The third step is to ensure that the environment in which you leave your dog is "user friendly." There is any number of ways to do this and they all involve various forms of environmental enrichment plus dutiful attention to the dog's basic needs. Environmental enrichment measures include providing your dog some company while you are away, ensuring he has plenty of aerobic exercise every day, making sure he has a sensible diet, and making sure he has a meaningful job to perform while you are with him Another more helpful measure is to make home as rewarding a place for him to be as possible – literally. Put your dog on a long line and feed him small meals often by the back door. Later, even if the frequency of meals is reduced he will hang around the vicinity of your home – just in case a meal is in the offing.

    For dogs that run because they're scared it is important to address the source of the fear by means of a specific behavior modification program. Such programs entails desensitization and, in some cases, anti-anxiety medication.

    Conclusion

    No one in his right mind would allow a dog to roam the streets these days. There's just too much trouble out there – not to mention leash laws. Attending to a dog's basic needs, making home a fun place, fencing in the yard properly, and having your dog neutered will all help to prevent escapes. And if your dog is one of those incorrigibles who are likely try anything to escape whatever you do, then you should make sure he is properly identified with tattooing, identification collars and tags or a microchip, so that he can be safely returned in the event of the inevitable escape.

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