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Tips for Dogs Running Away from Owners

Updated on May 1, 2014
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Come and catch me!

Why is my dog running away from me?
Why is my dog running away from me? | Source

Why are Some Dogs Running Away from their Owners?

Is your dog always running away from you? Granted, between the two of you, you'll be the one ending up getting breathless, frustrated and tired. Truth is, no matter how fast you think you are, outrunning a dog is not something achievable unless you have some sort of super powers. Even considering the fastest man, Usain Bolt's capability of attaining ground speed around 23.35 mph - 23.72 mph, he wouldn't be able to compete with a greyhound reaching the average speed of 39 mph. Average dogs are estimated to run between 16 and 31 miles per hour. And don't forget about those sudden turns that would add more challenges. So trying to outrun is a pretty useless activity, unless you are planning to lose weight or increase your stamina, so if Rover bolts away anytime you move near him, what's left to do? For starters, it's a good idea to determine why your dog is running away from you in the first place. This gives you a general idea on what you need to do next to tackle the issue. So why is your dog running away from you? Following are some pawsibilities from your dog's perspective.

" I am scared of you".

This may take place if you rescued a dog from a shelter and you don't know his past. The dog may have had negative experiences and may dread being caught or may have been poorly socialized. It would be wonderful if these dogs could talk and tell us what exactly is going and how their past is affecting them. Yet, they can tell a lot through their body language. If your dog keeps his body lowered, holds its tail between his legs, the ears are flat against the head, you may be looking at a fearful dog.

Your dog may also be scared of you if you have punished him in the past. If you have ever punished your dog in the past when he came to you, you may have ruined his recall. If you have caught your dog in a rough manner this may have also scared him. Dogs may also sense our anger and frustration, so if we move nervously they may be intimidated by us in this circumstance.

"Bad things happen"

Dogs learn through associations, so if you went to get your dog to only give him a bath, which he dreads, or if you got him only to have to close him in the crate, which he hates, next time granted, he'll eventually smarten up and play hard to catch. Same goes with the famous dog park cliche'. You call your dog at the dog park, your dog comes running to you, and then you put his leash on and pull him back to the car. Your dog will soon get smart and refuse to come when called because he wants to stay with his buddies and doesn't like being pulled into the car. So when you decide to go get him, he soon learns to move away and soon you'll be there playing the chasing game. Dogs with collar sensitivity may also decide to not come when called and play the hard to catch game if they see you with the collar in your hands. The body language of these dogs may not necessarily be clearly fearful, but you can see that they are moving away and giving distance increasing signals to avoid certain situations.

"It's my Favorite Game!"

And then you have those dogs who have simply fun with it. "Catch me if you caaaaan!" they seem to say. If you watch dogs playing this is a common game. One dog runs off, and the other tries to catch up with him. At times, one dog may grab something and run away with it, enticing the other dog to try to get it, in what is known as the "keep away" game. In this case, the body language is playful, the dog often spins, wags it's tail, does a play bow and moves suddenly right when you feel he is in reach.

Tips for Dogs Who Run Away and Play Hard to Catch

So we know that us humans cannot outrun a dog. Some trainers will say "if your dog doesn't come when called, go and get your dog." OK, this may make sense as you want to make a point that there's no getting away, but what point will you have made if the moment you get near him, within collar reach, he bolts off? He will likely learn a valuable lesson" I can get away from my owner! and it can be fun too!" So what is left to do when we cannot catch a dog?The correct way to deal with a dog who is difficult to catch, largely depends on the underlying cause as to why your dog is running away from you in the first place.

  • For dogs afraid of you.

This is not an easy task and requires loads of patience. What is your dog afraid of? Many dogs do not like people looming over them or being picked up, especially the smaller ones, and the larger ones may not like to be grabbed by the collar. For dogs who are rescued, who knows what they endured in their lives and negative experiences can influence the present and the future. If you ever punished your dog for not coming when called, or if you ever yelled at him for playing hard to catch, stop! These behaviors are the number one killers of a good recall command. Your dog will lose trust in you, and will be more and more reluctant to come near you when you need it the most.

It may take time to make your dog less fearful of you, so please be patient and reward every baby step. Ian Dunbar in this case recommends to "get sweet and small" when calling the dog by backing up and tossing treats if necessary. If your dog is sensitive to your movements and collar grabs, you will need to take a systematic approach through desensitization and on top of that, you want to change your dog's emotions by adding counterconditioning into the mix. Have a reputable behavior consultant help you out.

  • For negative experiences

As mentioned, dogs live through associations. This is how we train them, dogs learn "If I sit, I will get a cookie", "When my owner gets the leash, I get to walk" but they also inevitably learn "If my owner grabs me, he will trim my nails, which I hate!" or "when my owner has the towel in his hands, it's bath time, yikes!" which then may transform into "if I run away, I may avoid the nail trim or if I hide I may skip bath time." The secret to avoid these behavior sequences, is to break up these associations.

Let's delve a bit deeper in animal behavior and how animals think. Learning theory has it that a series of steps occur when your dog engages in a behavior. We therefore have the ABC's of antecedents, behaviors and consequences. Let's take a look at each of these pieces.

Antecedents are signals or triggers that put your dog into action. Examples? The sight of the leash gets your dog running to you, the bath towel or nail trimmer has your dog running away from you, the mailman has your dog going in a barking frenzy and the sight of liverwurst has your dog drooling. In dog training, the cue "sit" is an antecedent that gets your well-trained dog lowering his rump on the floor.

Behaviors, are just what you think, behaviors. Running, hiding, barking, drooling are all behaviors that take place right after exposure to the antecedent. In dog training, the action of lowering the rump to the floor is the behavior that follows the verbal command sit, which is the antecedent.

Consequences are just what you think they are, consequences. The consequences are ultimately what will increase or decrease behaviors from happening. Generally, pleasant consequences increase behavior, unpleasant consequences decrease behavior. So if you call your dog to come (antecedent) and he comes to you (behavior) and you give him that dreaded bath (consequence) the coming to you behavior risks decreasing over time. And if your dog sees your bath towel (antecedent) and he runs away from you (behavior) and you stop looking for him (consequence) he'll likely feel relief and run away from you more and more. In dog training, when you tell your dog to sit (antecedent) and your dog places her rump on the floor (behavior) and you give her a cookie (consequence) the sitting behavior should increase over time. Remember: dogs are the ones to determine if consequences are pleasant or unpleasant. If your reward your dog with a big pat on the head after he sits, you may expect the sitting behavior to increase, but what if your dog doesn't like that big pat on the head? Chances are, in that case the sitting behavior will decrease.

So what does this tell us about dogs who run way from owners? It tells us, we must break up the negative associations, work on removing the dreaded consequences and change the emotional response. As with treating dogs from separation anxiety, we want to break up the associations that something negative is about to happen. And we can't blame dogs, as we also react negatively when we are exposed to antecedents that predict something bad is about to happen! How do we feel if we fear flying and we hear the announcement for boarding our plane? Or when the dental assistant calls our name to let us in the office where the dentist awaits us for a root canal? These are situations, we may likely want to avoid, but as humans we rationalize and can talk ourselves through them. "I really need to fly in order to see my sick brother" or "I really need that root canal, so I no longer have that throbbing pain." Animals don't have these cognitive capabilities. A dog cannot think "I really need a nail trim or my nails will affect the way I walk." or "I need a bath to get this skin problem under control." So they resort to their primal instincts which is avoidance, which is also necessary for survival.

Moral of the story, these are the steps that need taken:

1) Stop from presenting the negative antecedents prior to the event. This means stop grabbing that towel or grasping the nail trimmer before bathing or trimming before calling your dog and trying to get him. For owners of cats, stop getting the carrier out when it's time to see the vet. (I have a long list of stories of vet appointment cancellations caused by cats gone AWOL at the sight of the carrier). All these actions will cause your dog to no longer come when called or will cause him to be reluctant to catch and hide in his favorite hiding spot.

2) Remove the negative consequences. Let's say Fido knows for a fact that at 9PM every evening you will get up from the couch and then grab him by the collar to put him in the crate--which he doesn't like. A day comes and he swerves away from you as you try grabbing the collar. So next, you decide to get up from the couch, put the leash on him and put him inside the crate. A day may come where your dog will start running away the moment he sees you grab the leash or even place your arm on the armrest to get up or when he hears that little noise the couch makes when you move. What to do? Make these predictors irrelevant, by removing the negative consequence. In other words, put your arm on the arm rest several times, move as if getting up, grab the leash but then don't go anywhere.

In the case of the nail trimmer or bath towel, keep these items in plain view during the day, or grab them and then sit on the couch or place them by the dog's dinner bowl. Your dog may perhaps run for cover the first times, but then soon will start realizing that these actions no longer predict that something dreadful is about to happen-- so he will eventually stop responding to them in this neutral state.

3) Create a new sequence. OK, so we are still stuck with the problem of having to crate the dog, give him a bath or nail trim. Let's now create a new positive consequence to the behavior. Instead of getting up from the couch and chasing the dog to put the leash on right away, let's get up and go in the kitchen. Call the dog and let the dog have a nice snack. Put the leash on and reward him for the cooperation, go for a brief walk outside and then place him in the crate and give him a cookie. With all these new sequences, it will be more likely that Fido will start associating getting up from the couch with the kitchen snack and perhaps even with the pleasant walk.

For cats: keep the carrier around the home even when not needed. Move it around every now and then. For the dog park. Call your dog to you, praise lavishly and then send him back to play.Your dog must think you are the best dog owner on the planet or you have gone insane. Then call him again put the leash on and let him walk with another dog or take him to an area where you can play fetch or let him go to a favorite sniffing area. Anything your dog loves to do. Then after all that, go home.

* Note: dogs can chain up sequences pretty well, so at some point if there isn't much time apart from each sequence and variety, you risk your dog learning that A+B+C eventually equates to going in the crate, going home from the park or getting the dreaded nail trim. You may need to mix up things every now and then. Just think that dogs suffering from separation anxiety may get nervous when their owner puts on lipstick as it means that she will then put on her shoes, grab the handbag, kiss her husband goodbye and leave. This is why we must really go to the root of the problem, which is changing the emotions.

4) Change the emotions. The above tips may work, but are good temporarily, because you really need to get to the root of the problem so this is the most important step. If your dog dreads baths, help him learn to love baths through desensitization and counterconditioning. If your dog hates nail trims, work on the issue. Make sure you make the crate a comfy, place to be by feeding him his favorite bully stick when in there and not making him feel isolated. Make the come command become music for your dog's ears, as always make positive things happen! For cats: keep the carrier open when not needed and place your cat's favorite toys and treats in it. Work on making vet visits less stressful. Take your cat on car rides that don't end with a vet visit. All dogs benefit from learning that collar grabs are a predictor of good things. Get your dog used to you occasionally getting a hold of his collar and let treats fall to the ground when you do this. With time, your dog will look forward to you touching his collar, so he won't give you a hard time if you ever need to do that in a critical situation.

  • For Dogs who Love to Play. The top biggest rule in this case, is to stop chasing your dog around, even if in play. You will have a hard time catching him as you cannot outrun a dog. Yes, you may block him, corner him and grab him, but this only exacerbates the behavior. Depending on your dog's temperament, he may have the fun of his life, or the chasing game may turn out scary when he feels cornered and feels your frustration. This means that next time, he'll be even more difficult to catch because he will be scared on top of it. This is a very scary situation! Say your dog gets loose on a walk, he may bolt towards a trafficked area. So how do you deal with these dogs who love to be chased? You ignore all their invitations to play and you invert the game. Teach him to chase you instead. Back away, make funny noises to grab his attention, let him come near and then bolt away. Run if you can. This game will turn valuable if you need to move him away from a dangerous area or if you must get him to come inside. Most playful dogs will love to chase their owners. For dogs who run away from owners when they steal stuff read "how to stop dog from stealing your stuff."

Note: dogs who are hard to catch and don't have a reliable recall should never be off leash or in unfenced areas. Consider that some dogs are more likely to wander off and ignore your recall when attracted by scent or prey.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.

Dog playing keep away with toy, notice how moving closer makes dog bolt away


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