Written by Tamsin De La Harpe
Dogs that run away can be a cause of both worry and frustration. The fear of losing a dog that sprints off into the distance at the beach or having them potentially get into an accident if they escape your yard is deeply distressing. It's also frustrating (and embarrassing) dashing around a park trying to retrieve a pet blissfully ignoring our calls.
So how do we stop dogs from running away, and what causes dogs to run off in the first place? First, we need to clearly define the difference between a dog that runs away and a dog that just runs off.
It might seem like nitpicking semantics, but it's essential to understand when a dog is genuinely running away and when they are just going on an adventure. Running away implies that a dog is actively trying to escape.
This usually happens because something frightens them, such as fireworks. Occasionally a dog with separation anxiety may escape the home to look for their owner. These are fear and anxiety-driven responses that lead a dog to desperately escape a situation.
If you have trouble with anxiety in your dog, you can read our article here for more help.
However, our dogs are not genuinely running away most of the time. They are running off or after something. This usually happens if you go on a hike or to a park and your dog shoots away the second they’re off-leash. In these instances, they are ridding themselves of extra energy and excitement or chasing something they either smell, hear or see.
If your dog keeps running away, several factors may be at play. In most cases, your breed's genetic disposition and individual training are the two main culprits.
Breed and genetics play a significant role in the odds that your dog may run away and run off. Why is this? Well, low-energy breeds such as pugs or bulldogs rarely have much instinct or ability to make a run for it. Furthermore, some breeds, such as Neapolitan Mastiffs, are close quarter guardians. They naturally prefer to stay as close to home as possible and can even grow anxious if they leave their home.
On the other hand, some breeds are notorious escape artists with a strong inclination to explore. For instance, Huskies and Labradors often have an uncanny ability to Houdini their way out of the most secure yard to take themselves on adventures in the neighborhood.
Breeds with a nervous disposition, or dogs with a hereditary tendency toward noise phobia or anxiety, are more likely to run away during a 4th of July fireworks display or if the owners are away on vacation.
Active working breeds such as Vizslas or Border Collies may well take off due to the sheer amount of energy they have to burn when it comes to going for walks. Meanwhile, scenthounds such as Beagles or Bassets will merrily disappear over the horizon, baying happily, if they catch the smell of something interesting. Their tendency to follow their nose can be a problem when they are off-leash.
Dogs with a strong prey drive, such as American Pitbull Terriers, German Shorthaired Pointers, or sighthounds, tend to take off after anything that looks like a moving animal. Their instinct to give chase usually overrules any frantic, shouting owner.
If you are interested in sighthounds, you can see our guide here.
The second and most pressing cause of dogs running off is a simple lack of obedience training. A fully trained dog should have an excellent recall, and they should come the second you call for them. Dogs should also have a reliable "heel" where they can walk by your side regardless of distractions. Other essential commands are "stay" or place training.
Obedience training is a lifelong commitment and should start during puppyhood. Dogs that only sometimes come when called are not fully trained, which means that recall training should start from scratch. Sadly, this level of obedience training is mostly neglected.
The problem with having dogs that do not respond to basic commands is not just about having dogs that can reliably perform tricks. Instead, it is about a dog who will come when you call rather than run into a potentially dangerous situation, such as a busy road.
For any responsible dog owner, complete obedience training is really an important way to keep your dog safe and out of trouble.
One of the most common reasons dogs take off and refuse to come when called is that they had a negative experience returning to their owner in the past. This usually happens when an exuberant young dog is allowed off-leash without proper training and zooms around an open area in excitement.
An owner that’s frustrated and angry trying to get their dog back may punish their dog for running off when they finally do get hold of them. The problem with this is that it teaches the dog that coming to their owner is dangerous and discourages them from coming when called in the future.
Similarly, suppose a dog is not properly trained to return when called. In that case, an inexperienced owner may simply call and call and call. This repeated calling teaches them to ignore the command altogether or see it as optional. They may choose to only respond when tired and have nothing better to do.
Remember, repeating a command to a dog that isn't reacting to it makes the command less and less effective. Suppose your dog does not respond to a command. In that case, it's better to go back to the basics and begin training the command again, probably using a different signal word.
Another huge factor encouraging dogs to run off and not turn back is that their owner is running after them. Of course, we want to try to get our dogs back before they cause some kind of mayhem or run straight into another dangerous dog or a busy road. However, running after your dog is the worst thing you can do in most cases.
From the dog's perspective, knowing you are right behind them, probably making shrill and exciting sounds, signals that you are actually joining them on the chase. They have no need to go to you because you are clearly going with them.
Athletic dogs bursting with energy are particularly prone to running off when they get the chance. Not only is an overexcited dog with a lot of pent up energy less likely to listen to you, but they are also far more concerned with interesting smells, sights, and sounds that they want to run after.
For most breeds with a strong prey drive, once they start running, nothing is going to get through to them. The further away they are, the less likely they’ll be to acknowledge you. If they’re across the other side of a field, beach or any open ground and they’re on the chase, that’s all their brain is going to let them process and they’ll often not even think of their owner until they’ve stopped and realized what they’ve done.
One way to deal with this is to always tire your dog out on a leash before letting them run free in a safe and closed-off area. Depending on the dog, this could mean a long walk, hike, run, or more intensive activity such as bikejoring or cane cross. A tired dog is much easier to control off-leash. If you know your dog is prone to have a red mist descend over them once they’re on a chase, you might have to accept they’re never allowed off lead except in an enclosed area.
When it comes to actually running away, dogs usually only do so under severe stress. The most common reason for this is dogs that are overwhelmed by noise such as thunderstorms. However, other sources of stress, anxiety, or fear may lead a dog to run away.
Suppose you adopted a dog from a shelter or are away on vacation and have left your dog with a friend or at a kennel. In these cases, it occasionally happens that an attached dog could run away looking for you or for their previous owners. This is usually a profoundly distressing situation, especially if the dog gets lost in the process.
Finally, another reason a dog may escape and run away is if they are an unneutered male and smell a female on heat. In these situations, dogs can often stay away for several weeks before returning on their own.
Of course, they are vulnerable to accidents, being stolen, or being picked up by animal control at this time. Therefore, males should be neutered, and enclosures for unneutered males must be doubly secured.
Dogs do not typically run away because they are unhappy. Sadly, many abused and neglected dogs are more likely to stay in their environment than leave even if they can, unless hunger compels them to. When dogs run away, it is usually because of a terrifying event like a severe storm, and it is more likely to happen when the owners aren't at home. Other reasons include dogs that simply get out of their yard to go exploring and get lost.
Dogs that run off the moment they are off-leash are usually just running off some pent-off energy or chasing something in their environment, such as a squirrel.
There are several steps to put in place to stop dogs both running away and running off. These include:
Dogs that run away from home are naturally at risk of not finding their way back. Likewise, dogs that sprint away from their owner on a walk are also in danger of getting into accidents. For this reason, it is vital that we secure our yards against escape and only allow our dogs off-leash in safe and fully enclosed areas. Even if you’re confident your dog will find their way home and there’s nothing in the vicinity that could hurt them, are you also confident they won’t be stolen?
Prevention is always better than cure. Ensuring that our dogs are fully obedience trained is necessary to avoid problems off-leash. It is also worth investing in a GPS tracker if your dog gets lost.