Why Dogs Run Away And How To Stop Them

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Ronja von hinten

We’re going to look at why some dogs start running away, and at what you can do to stop your dog ignoring you and running off when you remove his leash.

Running away tends to creep up on you unawares.  Small puppies don’t run away because they need your company to feel safe.  Bigger dogs, not so much!

So why is it that some big dogs come when they are called and others do not?

When recall breaks down

Do you remember a time when your labrador would rush towards you each time you called his name?

Is all that changing now?

Does he take his time, stop to sniff a leaf, or examine a place where another dog has peed?

Does he sometimes look directly at you, then turn away and carry on walking in the other direction?

Are there times when he doesn’t even offer you the courtesy of a glance?  You take off his lead, and he takes off over the horizon.  And is often gone for several minutes!

If so, you have the makings of a runaway dog. So what can you do to fix this?

Let’s find out how this problem got started.

Why do dogs start running away?

Running off, ignoring the recall and other commands often begins towards the end of a dog’s first year.

Is my dog a terrible teenager?

In this situation, it is normal to ask yourself – is my loyal friend turning into a stroppy teenager?

Is he ‘taking me for a fool’?

Unfortunately, putting these problems down to adolescence and hoping the dog will grow out of them, is a very flawed strategy.

He won’t.

His growing independence is certainly part of the growing up process, but it isn’t the cause of the running away, and it isn’t temporary.

And if you ignore it, the running off will probably just get worse.

Doesn’t my dog like me?

Another common concern from owners of young dogs, is that running off, and ignoring their calls means their dog doesn’t like them.

stop-dog-running-awayThis is unlikely to be the case unless you have been treating your dog unkindly.

Even then, most dogs are very forgiving and really do like to be with their owners a lot of the time.  Just not when there are better things to do outdoors.

Is my dog trying to take charge?

Worse still, people often worry that perhaps their dog is becoming dominant.

“Maybe my dog thinks he is the boss.  How did this happen?”  and “Do I need to show him who is in charge?”

Fortunately, running off has nothing to do with dominance, and it doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t like you.

It has little to do with adolescence, and everything to do with a great big hole in your training. Before you get disheartened, the good news is, you can fix this!

We’ll have a look at that in a moment.

But first, let’s consider what a working recall actually is.

Close up on the reliable recall

The recall consists of three components

  • The cue
  • The response
  • The reward

The cue

We used to call cues ‘commands’.  Cues are just signals that tell a dog what is expected. You provide a cue that let’s the dog know what is required.

The response

In theory, the dog then provides the correct response to that cue, and in this case, heads towards you at speed.

The reward

And when the dog arrives, you provide the reward that reinforces that response.   Or at least you sometimes do (we’ll look at the ‘sometimes’ part in a moment)

How recall training works

Here’s the really important part.

Of course, this cue -> response -> reward  process doesn’t happen by accident.

You trained your dog to do this. Didn’t you?

Let’s have a look

An automatic recall response

This recall response,  this ‘happy dance’ between you and the dog can only take place reliably, when the dog’s response has become ‘automatic’.

That is to say, the dog does not have to go through any kind of decision making process when he hears the recall,  he just automatically begins to move towards you.

The objective of dog training is to get this unthinking, unquestioning response to our cues 99% of the time.

Many times,  people think they have reached this happy point in training, when they have not.

In fact, they are nowhere near it.

Yes, the dog comes when they call, but he is still making a conscious decision to do so.

He is thinking to himself   “Ah,  the whistle!  That means cheese! Well, there’s nothing better to do, and all this running has made me hungry, so I’ll go and get some of her finest cheddar!”

You can see that when something better than ‘cheese’ comes along, or when he is simply not hungry, or is bored of cheese, the dog may well make a very different decision.  So how do we get around this?

Training and practice

To get to the point where the dog responds to your cue without thinking, you need to create an automatic response in your dog.

He doesn’t think, he doesn’t choose, he just responds. Automatically.

This takes a lot of practice and repetitive training.  There really are not any short cuts.  And what is even more annoying, you need to train in all the different kinds of situations in which you and your dog are likely to find yourselves.

On the beach, at the park, when other dogs are around, when other people are around, etc.  Failure to do this lies at the heart of recall problems.

Dog recall problems explained

Labrador Retrievers and other gundog breeds are particularly prone to recall problems.  Partly because they have been bred to hunt and chase.

And partly because they are often very friendly, sociable dogs, that love nothing better than to play with other dogs and meet new people.

Even Labradors bred as pets or for the show ring often have relatively strong natural drive to hunt the scent left behind by wild animals, such as rabbits. And game birds such as pheasants, both common in many parts of the British countryside.

Controlling your dog’s hunting instincts

Specific gundog training programmes are designed to control these natural urges and instincts.

And to manage the way in which the dog behaves so that the handler is able to decide when and where the dog hunts,  and when he is required to ‘remain on standby’.

When gundogs are kept as pets however,  their instincts are often allowed free rein in the countryside.   The high level of distraction and resulting excitement are conditions for which  many people fail to prepare.

Things frequently start to get out of control as the young dog matures towards the end of his first year, and becomes bolder and more independent.  This is when recall is most likely to break down and running away problems emerge. 

Most people whose dogs are running away have one or more of the following four problems

Running away problem 1 – your dog has no basic recall training

This may seem obvious, but as we have seen, the automatic recall response has to be trained.

Dogs don’t automatically know how to do this.  Even though they may trot around after you as puppies, a good reliable recall response has to be thoroughly trained and rehearsed.

But don’t worry  –  this can be fixed! You can start training that recall response today. That link will takes you through the whole process. Without it, things will only get worse.

Running away problem 2 – your dog’s recall has not been proofed

This is the most common recall problem of all.  This dog comes beautifully when he is called, unless there are better things to do.

Trying to call him away from other dogs is often the hardest thing of all.

Sadly,  dogs are very poor at generalizing that the recall whistle means the same on the beach when he is playing with that poodle,  as it does in the garden where he is moping around, hoping you’ll finish watering your flowers, and go make his lunch.

If your Labrador  is under a year old,  and your recall is breaking down,  it is highly likely that you have not yet finished proofing that all important trained response.

Running away problem 3 – your dog has a poisoned cue

Another, very common cause of recall failure, is the ‘poisoned cue’.

What do we mean by that?

In order to be effective any ‘cue’ that you teach your dog, needs to be firmly associated with the response that you require. With recall, we want the cue to become associated with running towards you.  Fast.

If the cue accidentally becomes associated with some other behaviour (such as running away from you),  the correct response will become weakened and die.

With recall,  this poisoning of the cue commonly occurs because people use the recall cue in situations where a recall response is unlikely, or cannot be ensured.

Why is my dog ignoring my commands?

For example,  if you have not trained your six month old Labrador puppy to recall away from other dogs, he won’t respond to your shouts when he is playing with, or running towards, a dog he has met out on a walk.

This is not your dog’s disobedience.  It is your faulty use of the recall cue

Unfortunately the results are more far reaching than you having to sprint after your dog.

Because he now has in his brain, a new link or ‘association’ The recall cue is not just associated with running towards you.

It is now also associated with playing with other dogs.

Next time you call, or blow the whistle,  he will have two competing associations in his head.  And this is not a good thing.

How to stop your dog ignoring you

Put simply, a poisoned cue has lost its meaning.  And it can be difficult to regain the original meaning of that cue for the dog.  Sometimes,  the simplest solution is to retrain the recall with a completely different cue.

It depends how much damage has been done

If your dog has ignored the cue just a few times, you may be able to save the situation.

Yellow labrador retriever running towards the camera on a sunny day.

But it is really important now that you generate lots of scenarios in which the dog is able to complete a great recall in response to your cue.

Creating automatic responses are about building up great pathways in the brain.  And just like pathways through a field,  the pathways in the brain become clearer, more obvious, and more easy to follow, the more frequently they are used

You are effectively rebuilding those good pathways in his brain,  cue leads to  response ,  without hesitation

Running away problem 4 – you are not rewarding your dog effectively

The final problem we are going to consider, is the problem of dwindling rewards.

Whilst it is good practice in dog training to fade rewards to some extent, once a skill has been learned,  it is not good practice to stop rewarding a dog altogether.

Yet this is what many of us do to our dogs, once they have learnt a new skill.  Not just with recall.

We just stop bothering to reward them.  Or we offer them rewards that they don’t actually value (like a ‘pat’ or a ‘good dog’)

It is important to remember that responses to a cue that are never reinforced, will eventually die out.   No animal will keep on indefinitely doing something that is of no benefit.

Infrequent or low value rewards are a common cause of recall breakdown in an older dog.

Just like us, dogs need to have their good behaviour reinforced.  So we need to ensure that sometimes,  those responses are followed by a really valuable reward.

So from time to time,  when you set off for a walk, slip a delicious treat into your pocket.  And give your dog a surprise reward after a really fast and enthusiastic recall.

You can find out a lot more about using rewards effectively in this article   How To Choose And Use Rewards Effectively

Why is your dog running away?

Your dog could be running away for one or all of the above reasons.  The solution to running away is the same.  You need to train and proof an automatic recall response.

If your dog’s recall is getting sloppy, or never really got going, have a think.

Did you really finish training that automatic response?  Did you ‘proof’ in lots of different situations?  Or do you need to do a little more work there?

Did you poison your cue by calling your dog repeatedly when he wasn’t going to come?  Then maybe you need to start again with a nice ‘clean’ cue.

Or did you forget to reward your dog from time to time?  If so, surprise him with some really tasty treats next time you go out.  Remember no-one (and no dog) will be repeatedly co-operative, if there is never anything in it for them.

How to stop your dog running away

Here is that important training guide link again: Teach your dog to come

It takes you through the training process step-by-step.  Including the all important part where you teach your dog to recall even when there are lots of distractions around him.

TRWhilst you are out and about with your dog, you might also like to give the About Turn Walk a try.  It works wonders for a jaded recall response.

You can find lots more ideas and information in our Recall Training Centre.

And don’t forget to join the forum and get lots of support and encouragement from other Labrador owners

This article was written by Pippa Mattinson.  You can find out much more about recall, and why it isn’t happening for you in her book Total Recall, and her Labrador Handbook is packed with training information and ideas. 

 
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Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of several books on dogs. She is the founder of the Labrador Site and a regular contributor. She is passionate about helping people enjoy their Labradors and lives in Hampshire with her husband and four dogs.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I have a very friendly and playful 7 year old female LABRADOR and my yard is large but open. She will stay around me for awhile sniffing the ground and then she takes off like a bullet. We live by two very busy highways and I nearly have a heart attack every time she darts across the street. She NEVER listens her entire 7 years!!! I FEEL HOPELESS. She completely ignores my recall even when I say treat…. I need Help.

  2. I was given a lab 2 years ago. He is now almost 4. He started running to a dog that was in heat that lives 5 miles away. Now my dog will just run there because they let him into their house and give it tons of attention and love( which I also do). How can I stop him from running? My family and I love the dog, but I’m afraid because they treat him like family, he’ll continue to go there..

  3. I do not have a lab, but a lunatic German Spitz, but very nose-focused like a retriever. He was a rescue, so missed the puppy training stage. About 30 escapes in 2 years – some potentially fatal. I have been looking for advice for a very long time and yours is the most sensible I have found. Maybe one day I will be able to let him off the lead. Thank you

  4. I am very thankful to read your replies. My dog from Romania has “regressed” the fitter and happier he has become to the point where he has regressed—despite lots of professional training–4 years old—-did recall at first as he got fitter etc—got worse on recall–for now—still working on it—do not want lead forever.

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