Updated: Apr 5, 2020
If the thought of your dog somehow getting away from you is one of your worst nightmares, you're not alone. Slipping out the door, backing out of a collar, jumping out a car window - it happens so quickly and seemingly at the worst possible times. Preparing for such a situation to happen ahead of time can make it easier to handle in the moment. Below are some tips for what to do in the moment as well as things to work on today should your dog ever get loose.
In the moment.
If your dog got away from you tomorrow, what would you do? These tips can help you secure your dog quickly and safely.
Don't chase him.
If you should remember one thing, it's this - don't chase your dog! This quickly turns into a super fun game... for your dog. Probably not so much for you. Instead, try one of these options:
• Get low to the ground. Crouching down with your arms open is naturally inviting to your dog. If you've ever tried to stretch or do yoga around your dog, you've probably noticed that most dogs also love to lick your face while you're laying on the ground - this can also be a great way to invite your dog to approach you.
• Run in the other direction. It may seem counterintuitive, but running in the other direction is an invitation for your dog to chase you. Run back in the direction you want him to go - you may even be able to lead him into your yard or home without needing to grab him or put a leash on him.
• Secure him in an enclosed area. You may be able to quickly close a gate behind him if he runs into someone's yard, or shut a door if he wanders into a shed. Be careful to avoid making the dog feel cornered, though, as this may result in him snapping or biting to protect himself.
• Use a phrase with which he has a positive association. For a dog who loves car rides, asking "wanna go for a car ride?!" may prompt him to run to the car. If you offer your dog a cookie every time he comes inside, saying "let's get your cookie!" may prompt him to run back to the door. Just be sure that you follow up with that car ride or cookie, or else your dog may be less likely to respond in the future.
If you must follow your dog (especially a fearful dog; more on that below), do so at a calm pace if he's moving slowly, keeping an eye out for a way to secure him in an enclosed area. If he's running too quickly, jump in a car to follow him instead. He has twice as many legs as you - you're not going to outrun him. Try to pull up ahead of him to cut him off. If multiple people are available, split up. Have one person in a car with another on foot, or two separate vehicles (with one in front of the dog and one behind). Keep in mind that crowding him or having multiple people coming at him from different angles may make him feel cornered or scared; keep a bit of distance to avoid this, with only his most trusted person approaching him.
Keep things light and cheerful.
It's difficult to do when you are panicking, but keeping your tone cheerful will significantly increase the likelihood that your dog will come back to you. If you shout or use an angry tone, he may try harder to avoid you in fear of punishment. Once you catch your dog, use a super happy voice and offer lots of praise and treats. This will reinforce that coming back to you is a good thing. If we yank him around, yell at him, or scold him when he returns to us, he is far less likely to come back to us should he get away from us again in the future.
Securing a fearful dog can be much more difficult. A dog who is scared is often less likely to return to you than a dog who is having a blast running loose. When possible, making a space that he considers safe easily accessible is a great option. This may mean leaving the gate to your yard open, or even your front door. Try to block off escape routes and give him space to access his safe spot without interference. Once he is safely inside, calmly close the gate or door behind him. Securing him in another enclosure, such as a neighbor's yard or shed, may also be effective, but remember that a scared, cornered dog may snap or bite to protect himself; use caution.
Some people will use live traps to capture a fearful dog. This is a large, crate-like enclosure that snaps shut when the dog enters the trap to access a high value food and steps on a lever. While this method can certainly get the job done, it tends to be quite traumatic for the dog. He may panic and injure himself as he tries to escape, lash out at the person that releases him from the trap, and/or develop a fear of people, containment, or even the food used to lure him into the trap. A trap should be used only as a last resort.
Prevention and training.
Most dogs will get loose at some point in their life, even with careful management. Start working on a plan now so that you are prepared in the moment.
Coming when called is an important skill. We have several resources on teaching your dog recall available, but there are a few key points to remember:
• Be consistent. Pick a recall cue that you'll use every time, preferably something that you will only say when you are able to immediately reward your dog for coming to you. If you find that you casually say "c'mon" throughout the day without offering reinforcement each time, it's not the best choice for your recall cue. Instead, you might use something like "now!" or "it's time!"
• Keep it positive. Coming to you should be a good thing! Always reinforce coming to you with food, play, or affection, even if your dog was doing something undesirable when you called him over. If we yell, scold, grab him roughly, or yank him around, he'll be less likely to come to us in the future. Try to avoid using your recall cue when you know that coming to you will result in something that your dog doesn't enjoy, such as going in his crate or getting his ears cleaned.
• Practice often. Building a strong recall in a variety of situations will make the cue more reliable. Start with your dog right next to you, only adding distance and distraction as he's successful; then practice when you are relaxing in the house, playing in the yard, out at the park, and anywhere else that you and your dog might go. Using your recall cue a couple of times a day and offering a high value reward each time will increase reliability in an emergency situation.
If you know that your dog is an escape risk, use two points of safety at all times to prevent him from getting loose. That could be any combination of these options:
• leash on a harness
• leash on a collar
• closed door
• locks or carabiners
Indoors, using a baby gate to prevent your dog from accessing the front door is a great option - if you need a second point of contact, consider having your dog on leash behind a gate. You may also utilize a crate in a secured room when you know that people will be coming in and out of the house. Outdoors, you might use a tie-out in a fenced in yard (just be sure that it's not so long that the dog can jump the fence and get tangled up). On walks, you may use a waist least on a collar with a handheld leash on a harness.
Use a carabiner, lock, or bungee cord to secure your gate and prevent it from getting knocked open (some dogs are also clever enough to figure out how to bump the latch open). If you have young children in your home, use child locks to prevent them from opening any outer doors. Create a clear system with everyone in your household for ensuring that your dog is secured before anyone opens a gate or door.
These tools may come in handy should your dog get loose:
• Collar with visible ID. Keep this on your dog at all times. Purchase a metal tag at any pet store or online, or simply write your phone number on your dog's collar with permanent marker.
• Microchip. A microchip is a small computer chip (about the size of a grain of rice) that is inserted just under the dog's skin. The chip holds your contact information (make sure you keep it up to date!). While a microchip can't be tracked like a GPS, if your dog ends up in a shelter or at a vet's office, they will scan for a chip. Any vet can insert a microchip, and many shelters offer low cost or free microchip clinics.
• GPS tracking collar. For dogs who are a high flight risk, you can purchase a collar with a GPS tracker on it. Most GPS trackers update every 30-60 seconds, which will allow you to track your dog's general whereabouts should he get out.
• Slip lead. A slip lead is a leash with a loop on the end that can be tightened around the dog's neck.* When catching a loose dog, it is often easier to "lasso" the dog with a slip lead as he runs by or hides behind/under something than it is to grab him and attach a leash to his collar. Keep the slip lead in an easily accessible spot, and practice putting it on your dog when you are both relaxed. You can even teach your dog that putting his head through the loop is a fun game that results in lots of yummy treats. You can purchase an inexpensive but sturdy slip lead on Amazon. *Of course, we never want to choke the dog with the slip lead. If your dog pulls on leash, once he is secured, switch to his standard leash and collar/harness.
• High value food. Have high value food (such as real meat) in an easily accessible spot. Tossing it on the ground may give you an extra few seconds to get a leash on your dog, and it's a great reward for your dog returning to you in any situation.