Help! My dog keeps escaping!

I don’t think there’s anything more worrying than a dog who is an escape artist or a dog with poor recall. When our dogs are out and about, our modern world turns into a nightmare – one filled with any number of ways our dogs could get into trouble, become an anti-social menace, get into an accident or even end up dead. I’ve written about digging and escaping before, but today I wanted to take a closer look at the reasons why dogs escape, including four more serious reasons.

I really hadn’t thought about escape problems until I started getting the figures through for our local pound. When you see as many animals as we do at the pound coming through, you come to see the many number of reasons dogs have to escape, and the problems it causes – mainly for the dogs, for the community, for other animals, for those who are charged with capturing them and for motorists. Even for those who wander without causing harm or getting harmed themselves, it can also cause a problem if your animal is in need of daily medication.

But it’s not just about those who arrive at the pound – it’s about those who don’t, whose owners spend years looking for a fearful dog who was never captured, or owners who receive the most terrible news of all.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the corpse of a husky was found by the road near our shelter, having been hit by a car. There are several dogs who meet such a fate every single month. Barely a month goes by at the pound without an animal coming in seriously injured from a run-in with a car, a van or a lorry.

And vehicles are not the only hazards.

A hungry animal is more likely to accidentally poison themselves.

A loose dog is more likely to come up against other animals, be they wild or domesticated. You might not think a dog in a horse field is a problem until you’ve been asked to identify the corpse of the dog the next morning.

Some fearful dogs become impossible to catch, and it is only through our luck or near starvation that they find themselves trapped, as others are never caught.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you about the terrors that await a loose animal, even one that is road-savvy. You’re reading it because you already know the possible fate of dogs who escape.

And you don’t need me to tell you the feeling you have of sick dread and anxiety that you have when your dog has absconded.

You do want to know why your dogs escape and how to best deal with it.

So why do dogs escape?

There are lots of Fs involved here: fighting, fleeing, fornicating (I’m being polite because I know how uncouth I am at heart), food, friends, fun and following something.. That’s not any order of rank or merit. I would hazard a guess that fun & friends, fleeing, unexpected freedom, following something and fornication are the top reasons, but there are few statistics available based on why dogs escape – I can only go off the dogs we get through the pound and those who are returned to the shelter.

Those five reasons are behind why dogs escape – many of them emotional or instinctive. This is going to affect the choices you make on how to prevent their escape, so knowing the emotions or instincts behind the behaviour to solving the problem completely. This is about the one behavioural problem that doesn’t come with an absolute need to get a vet check – although some of the solutions may call for a vet.

The biggest risk factors of severe accident or death statistically for our area are for elderly dogs and for those who abscond together. I don’t know why that is for dogs who go off as a pair, but the risks for a pair of dogs who go are much, much higher than for dogs who go alone. The risks are also much higher for elderly dogs, although the reasons behind that make more sense. Poor eyesight and hearing, dementia and poor response times are all health factors that negatively impact your dog’s chance of survival.

I’ll explore some of the five reasons in more detail. Some I have already explored in my previous post on the topic.

One of the very first things to consider is if your dog is escaping TO do something or escaping FROM something. Many dogs are attracted by something over the boundary fence, but some of the saddest cases I know are the dogs who are escaping from a perceived threat in the place where they are supposed to feel safest.

Let’s start with the easier stuff…. escaping to do something on the other side.

One of the reasons a dog might escape is hormonal. It’s not the call of nature, it’s the call of hormones. It won’t surprise you that a lot of roaming is based on our number one biological urge: procreation. Whilst female dogs won’t be responsible for bringing all the boys to the yard when they’re on heat, if they are walked regularly or they are loose, the smell of their hormones in urine and in the air may be enough to sway the usual direction of a male dog. So it’s unlikely that your male dog will wander from the yard unless a female in season is in fairly close proximity, but if your male dog catches a scent, it may be enough to cause them to wander. In one village near me, when three local females would wander around when they were in season, the number of intact male strays suddenly increased massively. That’s not a shocker, is it?

Sterilisation may reduce wandering which is caused by hormonal drives, but it won’t reduce wandering that’s rooted in other behaviours. If your dog can get out, though, sterilisation will not just inhibit their likelihood to wander, but it will also stop them taking part in any unplanned matings. A question to raise with your vet, for sure.

But if you are hoping sterilisation will stop your dogs going for a wander, you may be in for a shock if it has little effect.

Escape can be related to genes and training as well. There is a reason why my neighbour’s hunt hounds are kept in a secure pen – biology is not something that is always easy to bring under control if you’re a dog who has been bred for independence and for ability to follow smells. If gallumphing through the undergrowth as part of a team is in your blood and you’ve been trained to do it, if you’ve got wildlife regularly roaming past your home, it’s not impossible to think that it may cause some animals to go off on their travels. After all, an ice cream van will get me out of the house when nothing else does.

Roaming cats or other wildlife can be a problem for the untrained dogs who become self-employed. Cats are often lucky that dogs are secure, as they aren’t always shy of coming into gardens where dogs live. You’d think with the number of dogs I have, it’d put cats off for good. Not so. Plenty of dogs are capable of chasing a cat or a squirrel over or under a fence that they’d never normally breach. And other dogs have a better genetic sense of ‘stay put’ like lifestock guarding breeds or those used for protection work. A dog that couldn’t be left independently to stick with a flock of sheep wouldn’t be good at its job. But that is not just a question of genes, but a question of training as well. Your Grand Pyrennees may well be a homebody, but unless they’ve been specifically trained to stay with the flock, they too may wander.

Genes and hormones are only part of the equation. Learning is the rest. I’ve had two shepherds that patrolled happily or never thought to abscond, and two who did one when opportunity presented itself. You may have the right ingredients to be a homebody, but it’s not a thing dogs just do by instinct.

Much of that is about the original incident in which escape happened.

I did it once. It was high amounts of great dog fun. I’ll do it again.

I had a few weeks about four years ago where my shepherd cross Heston was always buggering off through a hole. Since the behaviour increased, I can only assume that it was very rewarding out there, otherwise he’d not have done it again.

It’s now been a good three years since he went off for a wander, even though there are certainly holes he could get out of if he wanted. Very little actually changed other than I broke the habit. I’m always vigilant for the moment where he ‘remembers’ and that epic learning experience is remembered, but it’s not a surprise that he started doing it because he was young, he was unsupervised and he had means, motive and opportunity. The holes were there. There is still a lot of game that comes via my garden. He was unsupervised. A learning trifecta that led to some very enjoyable roamings indeed.

And because it was such epic dog fun, it was likely to be repeated.

Once a dog has sussed out how, they’re quick to repeat it.

Epic dog fun is one reason a dog might hup a fence and bugger off. One of our dogs was returned after an 18-month adoption for constantly getting over a 2m fence to play with the dog and the kids next door. Another dog was returned for a very similar thing. Dogs are social species. For those kept in isolation outside, don’t be surprised if the dog suddenly finds a burst of motivation to escape if there is something willing to play on the other. Of course, there are other emotions at work here. There is a reason those dogs are not secure in the house, often. Usually that is because they are destructive indoors. There can be different emotions behind that, but if one of them is boredom, don’t be surprised if a dog finds the outside way less boring because they can get out and make their own fun. Lack of supervision with a young, energetic, bored dog and you have a recipe for an escape artist. The desire to have fun and to play can be a very powerful motivator indeed for a social animal. If all that social fun is on the other side of the fence, then you have a situation where it is not unlikely a dog will decide to

What would pull Heston out of the garden again? Threat. If his barking and growling at the fence didn’t make the threat put some distance between them and the boundary, it’s not unreasonable to think that Heston might up his own level of threat.

If you watch anything like Ring, Mondioring, French Ring, IPO, Schutzhund with shepherds, you can see at the ‘Guard of Object’ trial how they take a dog who has been bred to stay put and use training to refine and hone those skills. Basically, the dog has to stay put on an object whilst an ‘attacker’ comes to retrieve it. Well-trained dogs will circle the object, staying right on top of it and only come off to attack when the threat becomes imminent. What makes them breach that invisible boundary? Threat. And then they return to base.

For some dogs, were a threat to come too close to the boundary, be it canine or human, then they would be more likely to go off territory to increase the distance between the threat and the territory. Mondioring and sports like this just capitalise on a fairly usual dog behaviour. It’s in the canine repertoire, and dog sports just capitalise on that, polishing and refining it.

Now, this is just a hypothetical situation. Heston is not that territorial that he’s ever likely to do that, but if there’s a bit of faulty wiring or a lot of stress, it’s not unreasonable to find dogs darting out of secure spaces to force a threat to make some distance, before they return once again to their territory. The aim of this behaviour is not to escape. It’s designed to protect a territory from threat. Territorial aggression and its relation to escape needs very careful management because the risks are very high. But how you address it may be very different than how you deal with a dog who is escaping to go and chase squirrels. One of those dogs is going to need a lot of motivation to stay put and one is going to need ways to minimise their sense of threat from the outside environment.

Aggression and predation, then, can be other factors that influence a dog’s behaviour around boundaries.

Most of these situations are ‘escape to’ situations, in which something over the fence is more attractive than staying put would be. Given the choice, it’s more appealing to get out. Fun, friends and fornication make up a lot of the reasons why a dog may escape.

But some of the harder cases to work with are cases where dogs are ‘escaping from’ something in the home. There are several conditions in which a dog may feel the need to escape from a situation, and many of these happen in great homes where the dogs should feel safe. Four of these behaviours present such a level of distress that they almost certainly will need some degree of professional support, be that from a vet or a behaviourist.

Containment phobia is one such phenomenon. This is the dog who hates to be confined to such an extent that it is a very real phobia or fear. This can be a biological instinct for self-preservation – feeling cornered often makes us fearful and anxious. We want to know where our escape routes are if we are under threat. If some kind human has gone to great lengths to make it impossible for us to escape if something startles us, that is going to add to our anxiety and our fear response. These are the dogs who may trash a crate or small room, but feel happier with an open house. I know there’s a view that crates create a sense of ‘den’ for dogs, but a locked crate is not a den that a dog can choose to get in or get out of… it is a prison. If you’re used to transporting dogs in transport crates, you’ll know the sound of a panicked dog who is frantically digging at the crate or biting it in hopes that something will give. It doesn’t happen often, but the frantic scrapes of a dog who will wear its claws to the quick to get out are not sounds you want to hear if you’re moving dogs about. Vet techs and vets will know these dogs too: the ones who panic in crates and on whom sedation rarely works. When we feel trapped, we’ll go to desperate measures to secure our safety, which is why a 5kg minpin trashed a crate that has safely housed a 45kg shepherd.

For some dogs, containment phobia isn’t just claustrophobia – an enclosed space doesn’t have to be small. These are the dogs who focus their destruction on doors and windows or on gates. It’s not just generalised distress, but a very focused, targeted destruction in panicked attempts to get out.

If you think you have a dog with containment phobia, you will see that whether someone is present or not. It may present as separation anxiety or isolation distress, but a dog who has a phobia of being confined will present that behaviour when they are in company or when you are home. Don’t get me wrong: this is not just a dog who doesn’t want to be in a crate or behind a door because they want to be near you. This is a dog who is panicking because they feel trapped. This is dogs who panic when they are confined or constrained, even on a lead sometimes. No one wants to see their dog upset and panicked. It is not a nice feeling at all. But this doesn’t mean you have to go through this alone. There are professionals out there who can help dogs (or any pet) who suffer from separation anxiety or stress. The sooner it is taken care of, the easier it should be for you and your pet.

It can be hard to work out the difference between containment phobia, desire to get IN to a room, desire to get OUT of a room, even to understand who is doing it if you live with a number of dogs. Video is your friend here, and the help of someone who can identify the probable motivation behind the behaviour.

As you can see from this image, there are lots of ways dogs can cause damage around doors. Want to tell me which one is caused by containment distress during a storm, which one was caused by a greedy dog getting into the place the food is kept and which one was caused by an over-excited dog who knew his owner was on the other side?

Just because your dog is causing damage near doors, gates or crates when unsupervised is nothing in itself. A good behaviourist is looking to understand the motivation behind the destruction and to understand exactly what is happening and when. They’re also looking for other behaviours that form a part of the habit. For instance, I’m working with a dog at the moment whose owner told me the dog suffered from separation anxiety. It had one symptom (escape was not part of it, nor destruction to doors) and when we videoed the dog, it turned out the dog was actually fine when alone. The behaviour was unrelated to anxiety from being left alone and was related more to lack of supervision at that time.

The moral is that you’ve really got to know what’s going on before you make a judgement.

Often, there’s evidence that containment phobia or distress at being confined is the result of a fearful dog having a one-off learning event in which they were confined. A very poor vet experience, poor crate training, being found roaming and trapped into a transport cage, being cornered, being moved about in a small crate or being kept in a small crate during trauma may cause this, but so can being confined during a storm or some other event that the dog considers to be traumatic. If the dog associates the fearful event outside the crate or space with the crate itself, then it may well panic if unable to escape.

The key thing here is that you will see this panic whenever the dog is contained or confined, or in a small space. Other than that, it may manifest similarly to separation anxiety or isolation distress. Attempts to escape are rooted in panic and a sense of relief from the choices the real world can have. If you’ve saved a streetie, you may find they panic in the home if they’ve only ever roamed. For dogs who have not been used to walls and doors, it can be very distressing to have an event occur that scares you and then not be able to get away, especially if your journey to your new home was also under stressful circumstances in a small transport crate. You can see how easily those things can be linked – the movement, darkness, other animals who are also afraid and the sense of confusion only happen when you are in the crate. It is rare, but increasingly more common because of the number of fearful free-ranging dogs being rehomed. How you deal with containment phobia or claustrophobia should only be worked on with a vet and a behaviourist if symptoms are extreme. For my dog Amigo, who hates storms and confinement, he copes with storms as long as he can find his own safe spot, but his symptoms are minor compared to some dogs I know.

Separation anxiety can also cause a dog to want to escape from confinement. It is not the fact that they are contained that they are fearful of, but the fact that they are not with you. Again, escape is only one factor in this and you will no doubt find other symptoms. Video is the quickest way to clear up whether your dog has separation anxiety or not. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, you may also wish to get expert help. It is not easy to deal with on your own, and a planned programme is more effective than hit-and-miss attempts to help your dog feel secure. How you treat separation anxiety is different than containment phobia. One relies on teaching your dog to feel okay on its own. The other relies on teaching your dog to feel okay in confined or closed spaces. And the two behavioural labels are not mutually exclusive: it’s not uncommon to find dogs who have developed a sense of containment phobia because they associate it with separation.

Isolation distress is another reason a dog may seek company and seek to escape from a situation where they are on their own. Dogs are social species. Whether they feel most comfortable with their owner or are happy as long as there’s a familiar creature around, separation anxiety is different from a dog who just feels anxious because they are alone. Malena diMartini-Price, who wrote the excellent Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs says that, often, mild cases of separation anxiety do not involve hyper-attachment to the owner (ie your dog isn’t trying to escape to find you specifically) but for my old mali, he certainly had isolation distress (any old warm body would do for company) but he also had some hyperattachment/shadowing, and his distress was certainly not mild – it is not mild when a 14-year-old dog who is crippled with arthritis will move furniture, destroy window fittings and break gates to come and find you. On the whole, though, I do tend to agree. Isolation distress is an easy rule-out as well. Is their behaviour different when left with a friend than it is when they are left alone? Tilly howls constantly when left alone, but sleeps in company. Amigo paces when alone, and sleeps in company. Though they are relatively mild symptoms, they are both relieved completely by being left with other dogs.

In most cases, a gradual and carefully planned programme of desensitisation will help your dog habituate to isolation, separation, small spaces or confinement. However, it is what you are desensitising them to that will change. No point desensitising a dog to small spaces if they are not claustrophobic, or to isolation if they are not distressed when alone.

With programmes such as these, it can also be easy to inadvertently sensitise the dog more to the situation, making them worse not better. You need a ‘Goldilocks’ of a programme: not too challenging, not too easy. That in itself can be hard to do, which is why for these four types of behaviour, working with somebody else will really help. Accidentally making the dog worse is not something you want to happen!

Just a final note on how you secure your distressed dog… I’m becoming less and less of a fan of invisible electrified boundaries (or even visible ones). For a dog who hups a fence in search of fun, the motivation to cross the fence in search of it can be huge. Because you’re pairing a negative stimulus that is then followed by a positive one, the negative stimulus risks losing all its power, as it’s just a clue that fun will happen. For a dog who hups a fence to escape from something, the shock also precedes the sense of freedom, and will not prevent a distressed dog from seeking out the relief of space. Negative experiences followed by positive ones may only serve to take away the power of the punisher. That means you’ll need more and more power to that punisher. Are you prepared to keep turning the level up and up until you reach the maximum?

Funnily, I was just watching Mondioring trainer Michael Ellis (I wanted a photo of mondioring object-guarding) and he talks about shock collars in the world of mondio. Now I don’t share aversive stuff (which is why you don’t have a photos of a mali guarding a stop sign with this post) but I do listen to trainers talking about the use of bad stuff, as I hope they listen to us about the use of good stuff. He talks about when they use shock and when they don’t, but he also talks about the accidental factor of causing superstition when you use electricity. He says, and I totally agree, that using electricity is like no other sensation a dog has, and he talks too about how that can inadvertently cause a dog to generalise about the wrong stuff. Because it is such a novel punishment, it has to be used so, so carefully – more carefully than I think most people are capable of doing, or more carefully than most dogs are able to experience.

I think that what he said about superstition is SO true of invisible fencing. Mostly, when a dog will approach a boundary is when it wants something on the other side. Now that may not be such a horrible thing if the dog is seeking a squirrel or a snake compared to if a dog who hates dogs has seen another dog on the other side of the fence. I have much less of a problem with Lidy the Lou learning that if she tries to chase a cat over the fence, she will get a bad thing happening than I do with Heston learning that every time he approaches the fence to bark at the postman or a dog on the other side. I absolutely do not want, at all, my dog to feel WORSE about stuff he already feels bad about. Now I’m not about to use shock on Lidy to tame her predatory instincts, but it would be way, way worse if I tried to use shock with Heston. Do you think he will feel BETTER about the bad stuff outside if I add shock, or WORSE? Imagine if, for some easily understandable reason, he comes to associate the passing dog outside the fence with a punisher such as a shock? Horrific learning consequence right there.

Not only that, electric fences are completely incapable of determining whether your dog is coming or going. If a dog goes over, how do they get back when their motivation to be inside the boundary wasn’t so great to begin with? If I ran off because of a storm, and the pain wasn’t big enough to keep me in, do you think I’ll risk crossing back again once the storm has gone? If I escaped to have fun with my mates and risked a shock to do it, do you think I’ll hup back over it to get back into a place I didn’t want to be in in the first place? Were they one-way, that’d be different than indiscriminately shocking a dog whether it’s coming or going. For the time it teaches the dog to use an invisible electric fence properly, you can easily have taught other behaviours. Makers of invisible boundaries – or even visible ones – don’t tell you that, do they? Nor do they make clear the risks associated with the fact that their fences don’t distinguish between coming or going. Now you don’t want them to go, that’s for sure, but if they do, you definitely want them to be able to return.

If your dog is reactive, fearful or aggressive towards things outside the boundary, a shock collar or electrified fence is not the answer. If they are attracted to the world outside and the shock is just a precursor to fun, don’t be surprised that they don’t feel motivated to come back under their own steam and if that threat of shock is enough to keep them out when it wasn’t enough to keup them in.