A few weeks ago, my friend Greg found a stray dog.
“I was just stepping out of my house to get in the car and go to a movie when I saw him walking in the street,” Greg says. He signaled to oncoming traffic to stop and followed the dog onto a neighbor’s porch, where he was able to gain its trust with patience and kind words.
This stray dog probably has a family somewhere. In fact, most “strays” belong to someone, somewhere. According to the ASPCA, “many strays are lost pets who were not kept properly indoors or provided with identification.”
“Many strays are lost pets who were not kept properly indoors or provided with identification.”
We hope it never happens to you, but every year, many dogs get away from even the most attentive and loving owners. Prevention is key to avoiding this heartbreaking scenario. Read on to learn the most common reasons dogs run away, and how to keep your own beloved pet safe.
1. Easy Dog Escape Routes
Not every dog is a runner, but genetically, our four-legged friends are built to roam. According to veterinarian Sharon Crowell-Davis of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, “As a species, the majority of dogs are curious and want to be active and explore and discover” (source). And a too-low fence, broken gate, or open window makes it especially easy for a curious dog to set off exploring.
“As a species, the majority of dogs are curious and want to be active and explore and discover.”
Of course, on a lovely spring day, it’s nice to fling open the windows and doors and let in the cross-breeze. Just make sure those windows have secure screens or security bars and put up a baby gate or door barrier to keep your dog from springing out the open door.
It’s also a good idea to supervise your dog in the yard, and periodically check the fence for holes or weak spots.
My dog Radar has an incredible prey drive. If I didn’t keep him on a double collar and harness at all times, he would chase a squirrel straight up a tree, or run as far as his little legs could carry him in pursuit of a stray cat.
Some dogs could care less about running after potential prey, but if your dog likes to chase, it’s important to take extra precautions to keep him safe. No matter how diligent we are as owners, a prey drive is hardwired, so prevention and appropriate tools can go a long way to keeping your dog by your side (and keeping smaller neighborhood mammals safe).
3. Nature Calls
Reproductive drive is a powerful thing, and intact male dogs especially are driven to roam in search of a mate. Even the most sensible, well-trained dog can be overwhelmed by, ahem, natural urges. If the neighbor’s un-spayed Lady is hanging out on the sidewalk, and your un-neutered Tramp catches a whiff, the urge to mate could lead them straight through the fence and down the road together in search of conjugal bliss.
Of course, supervision and secure fencing can prevent a runaway hound. But the easiest “fix” of all is to have your dog spayed or neutered ASAP! According to the Dumb Friends League, “Studies show that neutering will decrease sexual roaming in about 90 percent of the cases.” Once your dog’s hormones chill out, they’ll be far less likely to go chasing neighborhood tail.
“Studies show that neutering will decrease sexual roaming in about 90 percent of the cases.”
The timeline for having your dog fixed is somewhat flexible; most vets agree that dogs can be spayed or neutered as early as eight weeks, but some recommend waiting until a dog is six months or older to allow for full development. Learn more here, and if you make the decision to hold off on having your puppy fixed, you’ll want to be extra careful about letting them roam unsupervised.
It’s not just nature that calls dogs out of the yard; some hit the road out of sheer boredom. You can help calm your dog’s exploratory instincts by providing “the three E’s”:
- Exercise. At least one good walk during the day (the duration and intensity of a “good walk” will vary depending on your dog’s age and activity level) can help calm your dog and set them up to relax while you’re out of the house.
- Enrichment. Give your dog’s brain a workout with puzzle toys and games.
- Entertainment. A lonely dog is more likely to become bored and seeks greener pastures. Keep your dog active and engaged with lots of socialization. For some dogs, this may simply mean spending some quality couch time together at the end of the day. If you have a higher-energy pup, consider doggy play dates or trips to the park to burn off the blahs.
A note of caution about yard time: of course, a yard can be a great tool for exercising, enriching, and entertaining your dog! Just remember to limit yard time to when you’re home and can supervise your dog (and double-check those gate latches).
5. Scary Sights and Sounds
According to a report released by PetAmberAlert.com, “animal control officials across the country see a 30-60% increase in lost pets each year between July 4th and 6th.”
The main culprit? Fireworks.
Loud noises, bright lights, and big crowds can frighten even the happiest dog. Of course, you should go ahead and celebrate holidays with family and friends. But for your dog’s safety, consider keeping them securely indoors at home while the party rages elsewhere.
Scary sounds and sights aren’t limited to holidays. Thunder, gunfire, and car accidents can all send a scared dog running. If your dog spooks easily, there are several simple things you can do to keep them secure throughout the year:
- When outdoors, secure your dog with a well-fitted collar and leash (you may even want to use a backup collar or harness if you anticipate being in an environment with potential fear triggers. You can use a secure carabiner to attach the collar to the harness.). Scared dogs can back out of loose collars, which explains why so many strays are found in the nude.
- Work on recall training every chance you get! A panicked dog may not respond to her name, but the more you can make her recall reaction instinctual, the easier it will be to call her back.
- Create a “safe space” or den for your dog at home (a crate or room with a closing door is perfect). Keep your dog indoors during thunderstorms and loud celebrations, and be sure doors and windows are secure and locked.
- Try a ThunderShirt or other calming device to help soothe your dog in stressful times.
As curious as dogs can be, they’re also social animals who love to stick by their people. With a little foresight and prevention, you can keep your dog safe at home.
If the unimaginable happens and your dog does run away, don’t panic. As the ASPCA notes, over 500,000 lost dogs are reunited with their families each year.
For instance, try signing up for the Nextdoor Pet Directory to help your neighbors virtually “meet” your dog and understand his quirks.
A little preparation can go a long way towards a happy ending for you and your four-legged best friend.