Helping Houdini: Our Tips to Change Escape Artist Behavior

All too often we read on social media about dogs that go missing.  Many times the missing canines have escaped from their home, garden or car and this is how they ended up on the run.  It is a serious problem, the dogs can risk injury or death and they are also putting others at risk. Often these dogs end up being picked up and taken to rescue shelters.

Whilst there is a chance that any dog, given the opportunity, may choose to go for a wander, there are dogs that become serial escape artists.

If you have a hairy Houdini and you are struggling to cope, we hope that this guide will provide you with some practical guidance on how to manage this issue.

1. Understand what is motivating your dog to try to escape?

Dogs are natural roamers. This is an instinctual behavior.  Don’t forget that wild hunting and scavenging dogs would naturally travel across very large territories.  

If your dog has an opportunity to escape and they had a good experience when out on their ‘adventure’ it makes sense that, given the chance, they will want to do this again.

There can be a number of reasons why you may have a dog that is constantly striving to get loose. By working out what is driving your dogs drive to escape this can help you develop an appropriate plan of action. Some of the most common reasons are detailed below:

a) Because they found something rewarding the last time they did it

The first time your dog got out perhaps they found a rubbish bin full of tasty morsels, maybe they found a friend to play with, they might have found access to their favourite playing field or a fun river spot to splash around in.  For some dogs, it is as simple as there being something they like and want to get to on the other side of the fence.

Your dog may have found something they absolutely love after their first escape adventure so they will want to do it again 

b) Boredom/Frustration

This is the most common and most simple to resolve.  If your dog is not getting enough stimulation in their home/garden, it is natural that they will seek other ways to keep from getting bored.  

c) Isolation

Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety can be escape artists.  Their fear of being left alone can drive them to try to get out to find companions.  

In order to resolve your dog’s escape attempts in this scenario, you will have to work on a training programme to treat this. For more information on how to tackle this refer to our detailed article on dealing with separation anxiety.

d) Sexual Roaming

If there is a bitch in heat nearby, this can drive unneutered male dogs into a frenzy and make them determined to get to the female.  This is one of the most common reasons for roaming and a very good reason for getting your dog neutered or bitch spayed. If you leave your dog unneutered you may also be accidentally contributing to creating a litter of unwanted puppies.  Be responsible!

If your dog is unneutered they may have a stronger desire to roam

e) The dog’s history

If you rescue a dog that has been a stray, they may have been used to roaming every day.  Coming into the restricted environment of an enclosed home and garden is then unnatural for them and can be a difficult adjustment.

If a dog has had a history of escaping and then finding something rewarding outside of the confines of the house this can also make them more determined to escape.

If a dog has had a history of being treated cruelly, they may also be looking for an escape route and, until they learn to trust their new owners, this pattern can continue as a result of their fear.

f) Phobias

Dogs that have certain anxieties or phobias can be more prone to bolting as a result of their fears.  For example, many dogs are particularly frightened of fireworks. During fireworks times, the number of dogs that go missing increases dramatically.  

Thunderstorms, noisy neighbours, nearby roadworks can all be triggers for fear and bolting behaviors.  

It is important to understand what triggers fearful behavior in your dog and work on reducing their anxiety around these things.  In the meantime though you should manage the situation so your dog does not have the opportunity to escape. For example, don’t let your dog out in the garden when fireworks are expected.

g) Because you have given them the opportunity before

One time you left the gate open and your dog got out.  They had a blast and so this means they want to do it again.  They now look for the gate being opened and then make a run for it.  Maybe they have figured out how to open the gate.

Don’t give them the opportunity to escape in the first place.  If you have done this though you will need to be extra careful about garden security and supervision whilst you work on reminding your dog why they love staying in their space.

h) Breed traits

There are certain breed types that are more naturally predisposed to roaming/escaping.  Breeds like herding or guarding dogs tend to stick close by their people and their home.  

Dogs that are used to running as part of a pack are more likely to stray.  Huskies are one of the most common escape artists. They are used to roaming over large areas and running as part of a pack.  

Dogs that have a high prey drive are also more likely to be escape artists.  For example, if you live in an area that is surrounded by trees with squirrels in them, your dog may try anything to get out to get them!

Dogs with naturally more nervous dispositions can also be more likely to bolt out of fear.

Huskies are one of the breeds that are most commonly associated with being expert escape artists 

What kind of escape artist do I have?

As well as understanding why your dog is wanting to escape, it is also important to understand how.  This can be important in helping you work out what sort of management and training techniques you are going to apply.

Some dogs are jumpers and a very high fence is enough to curtail their roaming.  Others may be climbers and they can scale even the highest fences.

Diggers will find the soft areas of ground and keep going until they have burrowed through to the other side.

If you have a nervous dog they may be a bolter.  If something is frightening them they will make a dash whenever they see an open gate or door.

Perhaps you have a Guarder.  Whilst guard dogs often don’t stray from their territory, sometimes they may end up straying too far in their attempts to protect their people or property.

There are some dogs that are extremely talented problem solvers and they will work out how to open the latch on the gate or find some other unusual escape route.

Some dogs are serial diggers and you may need to change your fencing arrangement to help prevent them escaping

2. What can I do to prevent it?

Alongside employing general management techniques there are a number of steps that you can take, depending on the reason for the escaping, to minimise this happening going forward.

a) Keep your dog well exercised

Ensuring that your dog has an appropriate amount of daily exercise if something that you should be doing regardless of any escape artist behaviors.  

Even if you feel that your dog is already getting enough exercise, it could be worth trying to increase their walk length to see if this makes a difference. If they have a reliable recall give them the opportunity to have some off lead time.  

If they have to be kept on lead it is important to give them some loose lead time.  Don’t always walk with them to heel. Give them the opportunity to sniff and explore.

If you have an extremely active dog you may also want to consider giving them the opportunity of others ways to let off steam.  Perhaps get involved in a doggy sport like Cani-Cross or agility.

Consider a dog sport like agility if you feel your dog would benefit from extra enrichment 

b) Keep your dog entertained

In the home or garden consider using treat toys or playing games that will also help to keep your dog appropriately stimulated and distracted.

The good old reliable stuffed Kong or another treat dispensing toy can be really handy to have in your arsenal.  See our article recommending treat toys for further ideas.

Don’t forget to rotate the toys to keep them from tiring of them.

You may want to consider doing short training sessions with your dog.  Not only will it build your bond but it also tires your dog out.

Play ball or another game in the garden too.  This teaches your dog that the garden is a rewarding to place to stick around in and also helps reduce any boredom issues.

You want your dog to associate the home and garden with good things. It needs to be an enriching environment rather than one without anything interesting.  If they know they will get everything they need there they will be much less inclined to want to roam.

Don’t leave your dog home alone for prolonged periods.  This can increase boredom and potential issues with separation anxiety.  If you have to be out for longer periods of time we would recommend getting a friend, relative or dog walker to pop in to take them out and give them cuddles.

c) Introduce appropriate socialisation

If your dog has taken to escaping to meet up with doggy chums then it is important that you give them the opportunity to meet up with other dogs in a more appropriate environment.

Meeting up to walk your dog with other dog owners or visiting a doggy park may be something to consider.  Remember to keep a close eye on any socialisation. You always want to make sure your dog is comfortable with interacting with the other dogs and vice versa.  In a doggy park, things can sometimes become too unruly so it is also important to keep an eye on this too. Calm and well-mannered interactions are what you are aiming for.

d) Reward the behavior that you want

If you see your dog starting to dig in the garden, call him away and then reward him when he responds.  Offer him a super tasty treat or play with him with his favourite toy. By teaching him that not digging gets him more of what he wants he will be less likely to continue with this behavior.

If you have a dog that bolts out the door, work on asking them for a sit stay whilst you go in and out and reward them for offering you a reliable one.

Not only are you showing your dog what you want but you are also helping to build a strong bond with your dog which means they are more likely to want to stay with you in the space they should be in.  This is particularly true for fearful dogs.

Teaching your dog to have a reliable sit-stay at doorways can help to reduce instances of bolting

e) Work on addressing any fears or phobias

If your dog is escaping as a reaction to something they are frightened of it is very important to identify what they are frightened of and work on a desensitisation and counterconditioning programme to reduce their fear.  Click here to see our detailed article on helping dogs deal with their fears.

3. Make sure you implement appropriate management techniques

Whilst there are things that you can work on to try to help train your dog not to escape, management is extremely important.  Some of the measures you can be taking include:

a) Appropriate fencing in the garden

Expecting your dog to stay in a garden with a very low fence is not realistic.  Unless you are supervising your dog at all times then we would recommend making sure that you have high enough fencing.  Anything lower than 6ft can usually be scaled by most breeds. Some real Houdini’s can even scale this so don’t expect it to be a foolproof solution.

The fencing needs to be fitted well too.  If there are gaps at the bottom or soft ground that can be dug up it may not be as secure as you think.

If you have a gate, make sure that latch is effective and that it is always securely shut.  You may want to consider a self-closing gate to avoid the chance of it being left open by a postman or delivery driver.

You may also need to remove any items that could be used to climb up on to find an escape route.

If you have a digger you may need to fit chicken wire or some other blocker along the bottom on the fence. For extreme diggers, this may not be enough and a serious training and supervision plan may need to be implemented.

If there is damage to a fence this can be easy for your dog to start to chew and make the hole big enough to escape through 

b) Don’t leave your dog in the garden unsupervised

It may sound obvious but many dogs are left for prolonged periods on their own in the garden. We don’t recommend this generally anyway and, if you have a Houdini this is even less of a good plan.  They should only have access to the garden when they are being supervised and it is important that the garden becomes a place of fun and rewards. If your dog is constantly left out there for long periods without any attention or exercise, of course, they are going to look to try to find other options.  There is also the risk of them being stolen.

c) Use baby gates

If you have a dog that is prone to bolting out of the door in the house you may want to consider extra security whilst you are working on training.  Baby gates can be handy extra insurance.

d) Use slip proof harness

If your dog often bolts on leaving the house or the car, even if they are on the lead they can still escape.  They can sometimes slip their collar or harness. If this happens, you may want to consider using a harness that is more secure.  The Ruffwear Webmaster Harnesses cannot be slipped.  You can also consider using a double ended lead with one end attached to a collar and the other to a harness.

e) GPS and microchipping

If you have a serial Houdini, whilst you are working on escape proofing and training you may want to consider having a GPS tracking collar on your dog as an extra back up.  This will make it easier for you to track them down should they go astray.

Every dog should be microchipped anyway but it is especially important that all the details are up to date if you have an escape artist.

4. What NOT to do

a) Punishment

We know that it will be a worrying and frustrating experience if you have a serial escape artist.  When they return home it will often be the owners first reaction to tell them off for “running away”.  Your dog won’t understand that you are punishing them for running away and it can actually make them less likely to want to return if everytime they come back they are scolded or worse.  This is especially true if you have a fearful escapee.

b) Why we don’t recommend shock collars or fences

Invisible electric fences are still surprisingly popular.  This means that no full fence is used but if the dog goes past the electric boundary they will receive a shock and this will stop them from crossing.

Please don’t consider using this technique.  Whilst it can sometimes seem like this offers a quick fix solution there are so many ways in which this can backfire.

It can teach the dog to be afraid to even go out in the yard anymore.  It can make a dog react aggressively. For example, if the dog is guarding the garden and a postman goes by and they move forward to protect their patch and hit the barrier, they can associate the shock with the postman and it can make them act more aggressively to postmen going forward.

If a dog has a very high prey drive their adrenalin levels may be so high when they see a squirrel they will go through the barrier and put up with the shock but then they will not come back through the barrier afterwards as they don’t want the shock again and they will then wander even further.

c) Why we don’t recommend tethering

Unless you are there to constantly supervise your dog, we don’t recommend using a tether for your dog to prevent them from escaping the garden.  Your dog can easily become tangled in the tether risking injury. It also restricts their freedom and, especially if they are already nervous, it can give them a negative association with the garden.  If they are unable to flee to a safe space if they are frightened they could become even more nervous.

We don’t recommend leaving a dog tethered when unsupervised.  It is too easy for an injury to occur

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