[From Tufts May 2010 Issue]
You open your front door to accept a package, carefully body-blocking your dog so he doesn’t escape. Just as you’re closing the door, your mail carrier asks you a question. Distracted, you forget Scooter and open the door to answer. And there he goes. He’s out the door, dashing down the sidewalk before you can stop him. Heart pounding, you rush out to try to capture him before he’s injured or vanishes altogether.
Countless hazards lie in wait for dogs running the streets. A client of mine lost her beautiful Belgian Tervuren when her long-line snapped and the dog ran off. She was later found badly injured, hit by a car. Linney died at the veterinarian. A recent news article told of a Pomeranian who, terrified by thunder, darted away from her owner into nearby woods. Early the next morning when a woman was driving to work, a horned owl flew over the road and dropped the hapless dog in front of her car. The driver slammed on the brakes, jumped out and scooped up the little dog just ahead of the owl, who was swooping back for a second grab. Miraculously the dog had only mild injuries and was safely returned to his owner.
I could fill a book with similar stories of dogs who dashed away from their humans, some with happy endings, some tragic. Instead, let’s look at how to keep your dog out of that book.
An excellent recall — teaching your dog the “Come” cue — is superb insurance against a dash-away dog. If your dog comes reliably when you call, a slip out the door is no cause for alarm — simply call him back. If you have a young pup, a solid recall can be reasonably easy to teach. With an adult dog who’s already learned the joys of dashing away, your job will be considerably more challenging.
In either case, start by teaching him that the word “Come!” means he gets a delicious treat. Don’t be stingy — use something wonderful like chicken. Say “Come!” in a cheery tone of voice, and feed a treat. Repeat several times. When your dog’s eyes light up at the word “Come!” run away as fast as you say it, and encourage him to run after you. (Be sure he’s on leash or in a safely enclosed area) Then give him his bit of chicken. Repeat until your dog is programmed to think “Come!” means “Run after my human as fast as I can for really good stuff!”
Now call him when he’s slightly distracted — looking at something or sniffing the ground. Say his name, and when he looks at you, say “Come!” and run away. Remember to feed him a high-value treat when he gets to you. You can also add other high-value reinforcers. If he loves balls, when he comes to you, whip out his tennis ball and ask him to sit. When he does, toss the ball for him to chase. If “tug” is his favorite game, magically produce his tug toy and engage him in a rousing round. When he’s convinced “Come” is a wonderful game, gradually increase the level of distraction until you can call him away from really good stuff — a cat running across the room, a child bouncing a ball, playtime with a canine pal.
The next step is to move your training to the real world. On a long line — a 20- to 60-foot cord or leash — practice your recalls in safe outdoor areas such as a dog-friendly park, a friend’s big yard, even an unused tennis court with permission. Start by calling him when he’s still close to you. Remember to run away fast, and deliver one or more of his favorite reinforcers when he comes to you. Your goal: You want your dog to think “Come!” is always an invitation to run after you, play, eat good stuff and have lots of fun. When he comes running happily to your call 100 percent of the time on the long line, even with distractions in new places, you’re ready to try off-leash recalls in safe places.
While you’re working on your dog’s recall (maybe forever, if you don’t get the recall as reliable as you’d like), take management steps to minimize dash-away opportunities. If your home design allows, create indoor “airlocks” — fenced-off zones that decrease the potential for door-darting. Baby gates can block off access to the entry area. Some dog-supply catalogs have attractive designer gates with walk-through features so you don’t have to climb over them.
Another product, resembling a retractable window shade, attaches between the door and door frame and opens up when you open the door, creating an instant barrier. You can unhook the device, when appropriate, to allow humans to pass through, and it automatically retracts when you close the door. (It’s called The Pet Barrier, available for $69.99 at www.thepetbarrier.com.)
Create an ‘airlock’
Outdoor airlocks are also invaluable. If you have a front porch or deck, install a gate with a self-closing spring across the opening, so your dog is still enclosed if he dashes out the door. If your front yard is fenced, do the same with its gate. Now you have a double airlock! If you have no porch or fence, consider building a small enclosed area around the front door. You can even make a temporary inexpensive one using several exercise pens hooked together.
Other management steps include always leashing your dog before taking him out and, if you have previously had an open-door policy for friends and neighbors, advising them that they need to let you know before they arrive, so you can corral your dog before the door opens. You might also teach your dog that the doorbell or a knock at the door is his cue to run into his nearby crate, where you can latch him inside before opening the door.
Now that you’ve put up baby gates, install self-closing springs, make sure he’s wearing his collar and tags, take a few moments to breathe, and then get started on his training program.