Can I Train My Dog Not to Roam?
Q. Sometimes my 7-year-old rescue dog gets out of our fence. Do you have any hints for training him not to take off? And is this even possible?
A. You’re facing a difficult training issue because dogs are built to explore. For thousands of years, dogs were scavengers and likely traveled great distances in search of food, water, shelter and even mates. Our dogs weren’t originally made for living within the confines of a home, a fenced yard and a leash — and they seem to know it. The sense of adventure and joy a dog has when he is free to discover a new environment off leash and without restraint is evident even to the most casual of observers.
What Causes Dogs to Wander?
There are certain dog breeds that almost have “roaming” attached to their breed description. Siberian Huskies are notorious escape artists, and once they are out, they tend to run without looking back. One Husky in my puppy class would regularly escape from the backyard and not stop until he was caught, often running for miles despite the fact that his paw pads would be rubbed raw by the cement.
Roaming behavior is also strongly linked to reproductive status and can be drastically reduced in up to 90 percent of dogs once they are altered. I was helping a family with an intact male Pit Bull who made a habit of escaping out the front door in hot pursuit of smells — in particular, those emanating from female dogs. Though we worked on teaching the dog to sit and stay rather than to bolt out the door, the first logical step was to have him altered.
In addition to these factors, many dogs are mentally and physically understimulated. This leaves them with an abundance of energy that needs to be released, and roaming is a valuable outlet for this energy. Once a dog has experienced the thrill of escaping from the house or yard, the behavior can seem to become addictive. My first dog, a Fox Terrier named Scooter, was brilliant in her escape attempts, and they were often successful. Scooter took it as her job to diligently watch the door for any chance to bolt, and she craftily made her attempts around family who were slower to react, such as my grandparents. I remember being seven or eight years old and racing wildly after her with tears streaming down my face, hoping I would catch her before she was lost or ran into traffic.
How to Keep Your Dog From Bolting
The risks of wandering off are clear. Getting lost, running into traffic and injury or death are just a few of the more serious possibilities. But the solutions to roaming are not as simple. Alteration of an intact pet is the first step. Though the clients with the intact Pit Bull had very limited funding, we were able to find a spay/neuter clinic that was willing to complete the procedure within their budget.
Increasing mental and physical stimulation of your pet is essential in helping him settle down during the times when he’s in the home. Regular walks twice a day are extremely important. Not only is it important for him to burn off some energy, but he needs time to sniff out all the smells he finds to engage the “seeking” part of his brain. This urge to explore and find new things is accessed in large part through his impeccable sense of smell.
You can also engage your dog's mind and aid in physical activity by pushing him to work for his meals by using food puzzles, scattering kibble on the grass and doing obedience work. Letting social dogs have regular dog interaction at doggy day cares or in play groups at the dog park can also help fill their need to meet other dogs, while at the same time providing an outlet for both mental and physical exercise. Certain breeds, such as the Husky, get great benefit from being involved in a sport that works with their natural behavior of wanting to run, such as skijoring.
It’s important to let your dog, well, be a dog. I believe off-leash outings in safe areas are beneficial for a dog’s spirit. I learned this with my first show horse, TJ, who would get antsy after being cooped up in his stall and small paddock for too long. Regular time off to race, buck and rear in the pasture helped him to settle down more when it came time for riding in the arena. In the same way, allowing your dog the freedom to explore an open environment in a safe way will also help him to settle down in your home environment.
Teach Your Dog That There's No Place Like Home
Finding safe places for off-leash or long-line exercise and exploration is easier in some areas than others. More rural or suburban areas may have an abundance of off-leash trails and areas for exploration, for example, while urban areas may require more detailed planning or travel to get to suitable outdoor spaces. Even one or two adventures in the wild outdoors per week for you and your pooch will serve you both well. There are even creative ways to provide aggressive pets the freedom to roam. One reactive dog in my training practice had amazing pet parents who took the initiative to find a private land owner with extensive acreage; they paid regular dues each month for use of his property to exercise their dog.
Start off with your dog on a long line to prevent him from running away from you. Regularly call your pet back to you, give him a reward such as a treat or toy, and immediately send him off to explore again. Many dogs won’t come back when called because they don’t want to be put on leash. Help your pet by teaching him that being called back results in a reward — and that he still gets to keep his freedom. Once your dog has proven reliable about coming back when called, you can graduate to having your dog hooked to a long drag line that won’t get caught on trees but will still allow you to grab onto his lead if needed.
It’s equally critical to set up your home environment to prevent your dog from escaping. If raising your fence height is too difficult a venture, you may want to look at getting a cable line that can attach to his collar for times when you can’t be out in the backyard to directly supervise him, or simply bring him in the home with you when you can’t be there to watch. Also remove any tables, garbage bins or other high items that your dog may jump on to make the leap over the fence line easier. For dogs who dig under the fence line to escape, prevent this by building the fence line farther underground or using chicken wire buried underground.
It is also possible that a degree of separation anxiety in your dog is prompting some of his escape behavior, which should be addressed by your veterinarian, a veterinary behavior specialist or a certified professional dog trainer.
The above strategies should help your canine settle in to your home and make him less likely to venture out on his own.