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7 ways to discourage your dog from running away

One of the most surprising things about working from home has been the number of dogs who drop by—without their owners.

I’ll be typing away at my computer when my Lab mix, Rio, will start frantically barking and squealing with delight. Sure enough, a dog will be outside the gate, hoping to play. Sometimes it’s a dog we’ve never met; other times, it’s a repeat offender. Occasionally, we’ll even wind up hosting several dogs from different homes on the same day.

Luckily, the canine escape artists usually have ID tags on their collars so I can call their families. The owners are typically grateful to know their dog is safe and come get them, apologizing with, “My son must have left the door open,” or “Ugh, I guess Jake is digging under the fence again.”

What makes dogs roam, and is there anything owners can do to prevent it? I love meeting new dogs, but clearly the safest place for them is at home instead of wandering nearby (or far away) streets and properties, where they might be hit by a car, chase after a frightened child, or simply become lost.

Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB, and owner of Veterinary Behavior Consultations in Bethel, Connecticut, says while no dog obeys 100 percent of the time, there are steps we can take to help keep dogs from roaming. Whether it’s a dog distracted by a squirrel racing by or a tantalizing far-off scent, here are some suggestions:

Spay or neuter. Dogs’ drive to breed is very strong, so intact male dogs are hard to keep at home when there is a female in heat in the neighborhood. Intact females can also be driven to seek out males, Lindell says, so spaying or neutering your dog is a key component in keeping them from running away to mate.

Invest in traditional fencing. Lindell prefers traditional fences to electronic ones because they are appropriate for most dogs, and help them see clear boundaries. Obviously, it’s important to install a tall fence that your dog can’t jump over. Lindell also suggests talking a walk with your dog along the fence line each day to look for snow piles, fallen branches, breaches in the fence, holes, or other potential exit aids. Meanwhile, throw a ball for your dog to provide them with an enriching activity that reinforces the idea that the yard is a fun place to be. Finally, self-closing gates can be helpful, particularly in homes with children.

Provide interactive exercise. “I tell my clients I recommend half an hour twice daily of aerobic exercise, but I also tell them that exercise is not restricted to walks or runs and can include interactive activities, such as training games,” Lindell says. “The behavioral component is more about how interesting the time is that we spend when we’re outdoors together.” For instance, rather than sitting on a park bench reading a book or talking on the phone on an outing, play fetch or other games with your dog. You can also provide enrichment activities to keep them busy at home, such as putting out dog puzzles, stuffing a food toy with peanut butter (freeze it for a longer activity), hiding treats or toys around the house, baiting your yard with fake rabbits in tunnels, or a building a sandbox for digging.

Use positive training methods. “You don’t ever want to punish a dog when he comes back to you—that’s certainly not going to make the dog want to come back,” Lindell says. “Instead of calling your dog when he is running circles around you, try teaching him to lie down quickly to earn a treat. It can be a game you play whenever the dog is running.” Another trick is to train your dog not to go through a door or gate until invited. Use reward-based training (like giving a treat for correct behavior) instead of correction-based training (like using shock collars) to avoid creating fear and aggression in your pooch.

Evaluate the particular needs of your dog. Some breeds, like huskies, have a reputation for independence and roaming, but each dog’s temperament and drive is different. For best results, work with a trainer or animal behaviorist to create a tailored approach for keeping your dog happy at home. “You can train any breed—you just might have to work potentially harder at it,” Lindell says.

Call your veterinarian or trainer if you suspect separation anxiety. It’s one thing if your dog mopes when you leave, but if he shows signs of extreme distress about being alone, such as leaving scratch marks on the door or jumping through a screen or window, seek professional advice immediately. “The sooner those dogs get help, the better,” Lindell says.

Create a home dogs don’t want to leave. “It’s a habit to stay home—that’s really the bottom line with dogs,” Lindell says. “They should learn it’s a really good habit to stay home because there’s so much value in our home that there’s no reason to go.”

Award-winning pet writer Jen Reeder wishes all lost dogs were microchipped.

Photo courtesy of Jen Reeder

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