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The Runaway Dog: What Not To Do If Your Pet Gets Off Its Leash

At A Glance

Dogs are inherently curious and don’t necessarily like being tethered to their leashes, especially outdoors, where there’s plenty to explore. Some smart dogs also find ways to slip out of their leashes. While running after them is what most pet parents would instinctively do, that is among the least effective ways to catch a dog off leash. Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Stay calm
  • Call out to your pet in a normal tone of voice
  • Entice it back with a toy or treat

Last Updated on: January 18, 2023




While dogs may be more obedient and trainable than their feline counterparts, they’re still curious beings with a mind of their own, prone to mischief more often than not.

And they love to chase, which can sometimes cause anxiety attacks for their owners, especially when they manage to get off their leash and take off on the heels of a squirrel, a possum, or anything that has caught their fancy.

Try not to panic. I know that’s easier said than done. And anything you might instinctively be tempted to do, like panic and chase after it, could be the least effective way to catch a dog off leash, especially one pursuing a dogventure of its own. But more on that later.

First, let’s understand..

dog running away

Why Do Dogs Get Off Their Leash?

Most, if not all, dogs are leash reactive at some point in their lives. It means they perceive the leash as something that restricts their freedom and therefore seek every chance to slip out of it.

This happens because of improper leash training or a negative introduction to it. As dog sitter Martha Bull explains, leashes can prevent dogs from being themselves or responding to circumstantial changes in how their body wants them to.

“A leash restricts a dog’s ability to flee when they feel threatened, leaving them 2 choices: freeze or fight. Many decide that fight is the best way to survive (remember, your dog doesn’t know that they aren’t in moral peril from that other dog or that person in the hat or that bike or skateboard).

Leashes don’t allow dogs to greet each other the way they would naturally; dogs normally approach each other in a circular movement. Meeting another dog head-on, as required with many leashes (and especially a short leash), creates the illusion of an aggressive move for dogs, and they are then confronted with the choice stated in the preceding point”, she explains.

In contrast, being off the leash allows dogs to be themselves – free, confident, and open to moving around to their heart’s content. That’s why they may be tempted to and even manage to get off their leash every once in a while.

Your dog could also be experiencing:

  • An intense urge to break free from routine.
  • Separation anxiety, stress, or fear. They can get off the leash to avoid situations they don’t like.
  • A hyperactive sex drive. If your pet is not neutered or spayed, it might free itself and run away in search of mates.
  • Discomfort from the leash or harness. We often don’t pay much attention to these little things which might otherwise be causing them stress.
  • Curiosity like never before. They can pick up interesting smells or have their interest piqued by noises you cannot even discern and decide to follow their nose or ears.

Whatever the reason, retrieving a pet that has managed to give you the slip can be stressful and nerve racking. Therefore, it’s important to know what you can do to get your dog back and what are the least effective methods to retrieve a dog.

How Not To Retrieve A Dog That Has Gotten Off The Leash

Scary as the situation might be, you need to stay calm. DVM Anita Patel explains, “As animals can certainly pick up on changes in body language, ensuring that movements are slow and non-threatening is crucial in high-stress situations such as these.”

Be calm and composed. Do Not…

Shout or Yell At Your Dog

Your first reaction might be to shout out your dog’s name as it keeps getting farther away from you. But raising your voice is not going to help much. Your dog is smarter than it lets on to be and can read the anxiousness in your voice.

When it realizes you’re panicking, it may perceive the situation to be threatening and run faster in response.

Angry yells won’t bode well either because your dog may feel antagonized and choose to ignore your calls. As Quora writer and dog person Stepehen Leonard explains, “If your first action is to scold or discipline your dog when it eventually comes to you, then the dog will associate coming to you with negative feedback.”

Run After Your Dog

Your pet will most likely think of it as an invitation to play. Unless you’re Usain Bolt, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can outrun your dog. Petdoggo.com founder Jack L says, “Some of the least effective methods to retrieve a dog that has got off-leash are to try and chase after the dog, to try and grab the dog’s collar.”

Most dogs are artful dodgers, and you simply won’t be able to grab them like that, not to mention running helter-skelter on the road can also lead to other accidents.

Scare or Threaten Your Dog Into Submission

Scolding your dog for being a nuisance may seem like the right thing to do, but as responsible pet parents, we should know better. As discussed earlier in the article, your dog may get off its leash for various reasons. If that reason happens to be stress, fear, or social anxiety, scolding will only make things worse.

Your dog will feel even more threatened and therefore decide not to respond to your voice at all. Remember, dogs aren’t the greatest fans of tough love. TLC works better on them.

Punish Your Dog

Dogs are trusting animals with astounding emotional intelligence. Do not take them for fools. They might appear goofy and adorably stupid, but they’re really not.

Punishing a dog for running away without considering the underlying cause is a mistake many pet parents make.

We erroneously think we can discipline them into submission. What we’re effectively doing is making our dog more stubborn and hostile.

That’s a situation no dog owner wants to be in! Therefore, avoid any action that’s not gentle. Yes, the situation may cause you to panic, but such incidents are a part of being a dog parent. You’re going to have to accept that.

So then…

What Is The Most Effective Method To Retrieve A Dog That Has Gotten Off Leash?

Admittedly, no two dogs are the same; therefore a trick that works for one may not work for another. Even then, what to do if your dog gets off the leash? Try the following tricks:

Call Out Your Dog’s Name Calmly

No, you don’t have to croon like The Weeknd. Simply use a calm and cheerful voice to call your dog by its name. Make sure you keep the panic and worry out of your voice.

If your pup is well-trained and generally responds to its name, it will turn, and you will have caught its attention. But if you expect it to come running back to you, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

You may be fretting or fuming, but you’ll have to coax your pet to return. And that, my dear reader, might stretch your patience to its limits. Consider yourself warned!

Lure Your Dog With A Treat Or A Toy

This is one of the most effective ways to get back a dog that has slipped off its leash. Use its favorite toy or treat as a lure to get it back. Try sitting down on your hunches, extending your arms with the toy or treat forward, and signaling your pet to walk towards you.

If the toy or treat you’ve chosen is your dog’s favorite, you have a higher chance of it turning back and returning to you.

In my experience, smelly treats work like a charm. However, if you don’t have any treats at hand, a hot dog can save the day! Grab some from a streetside vendor before embarking on your rescue Fido mission.

Also Read: Best Dog Training Treats

Lie Down on the Ground

That’s right; you must stoop to their level to have them come to you. Jokes apart, dogs find it amusing when their humans lie down on the ground, which arouses their curiosity. They’re typically used to looking up to us and seeing us stand taller than them.

That’s why your dog may rush back to check on you.

Certified professional dog trainer Louise Holder explains, “One thing I teach my training clients is that if your dog is not coming when you call and he’s pretty far away, then all you have to do is lay down. The dog will be puzzled and will come right away. Guaranteed. (Of course, this is best done in the summer).”

Walk In The Opposite Direction

Although walking in the opposite direction from your dog sounds counterintuitive, it works! Stay calm, turn around, and start walking like you have no cares in the world. This works better after you’ve actually caught your dog’s attention while calling out its name.

You can even pretend to act interested and excited in something to fool your dog into thinking it’s missing out on something that’s even better than what it was chasing after.

Whistle or Use a Verbal Recall

This technique might not work on all dogs, but if yours has been trained to respond to a whistle or other types of verbal recall, this can come in handy during emergencies. Recalls are verbal commands or sound cues that immediately prompt your dog to come to you. Ensure you teach your pet one during its training.

No matter where your dog runs off to, as long as it can hear you using the verbal cue or whistling, it will come running back to you.

Don’t forget to reward your dog with a special treat or some pats to show it that you are rewarding it for being a good boy or girl.

Pro Tip: Choose a recall word that is not a command but is unique in your dog’s woofabulary.

Commands are commonly used words and can confuse dogs when used in the context of a recall. But a standout word your pet associates with something positive, like a treat or a toy, works better in this context.

Act Like You’ve Gone Nuts

I know pet parents can go to great lengths when it comes to their pet’s best interest, and this next trick banks on just that.

If your dog is running leash free and you have no idea how to retrieve it, act crazy. Throw a hissy fit, do the chicken dance, or make random, weird noises. When your dog notices you acting strange, it will be curious to discover what you’re up to and therefore come running back.

Making a fool of yourself in public takes some nerve. But if it gets your dog back, that’s worth a try.

Go Looking for Your Dog and Alert Neighbors

If all of the above tactics have failed and your dog is missing, you need to prepare for chances that it may get lost and be unable to find its way back to you. The most pragmatic course of action in such a situation is to alert your neighbors. Then get into your car and drive around the neighborhood.

If you spot your pet, slow down and follow it slowly, while gently calling out to it. Once it stops, roll down a window or open the back seat door to help your pet hop in.

Drive them to the next McDonald’s and buy them a pup cup. I’m yet to come across a dog that doesn’t dig a pup cup. I know many of you are things – “no, it doesn’t deserve a treat, especially after all the trouble it has put me through.”

Irrespective of which of these tactics help get your dog back, there’s a reason you should celebrate its return with treats and cuddles.

Doing so will help condition your dog into making a positive association with returning to you. Should something similar recur, your pet will happily make its way back to you, knowing it will be rewarded.

What to do if You Lose Your Dog

If the inevitable happens and you end up losing your dog, you should:

  • Reach out to the local animal rescue centers and shelters. Keep checking with them every day.
  • Create a search party. Get your dog’s favorite humans together and comb the neighborhood.
  • Leave a bowl of its favorite smelly food by the front door or back porch. The smell might help it find its way back to you.
  • Print pamphlets with your dog’s latest pictures, your contact number, and other relevant information. Put these up around the neighborhood and in the locality where your dog got lost.
  • Post on Facebook search and rescue groups.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. To ensure such incidents don’t happen in the first place, let’s understand…

What You Can Do To Prevent Your Dog from Getting Off Leash

Here’s everything you can do to prevent your dog from running off its leash.

Leash Train Your Dog

Leash training your dog is more than obedience training and will come in handy down the line. Start training your puppy at around 8 to 10 weeks, and be consistent with the routine.

While I recommend loose leash training for dogs with even temperaments, you can even consider proactive leash training. Developed by Grisha Stewart, who specializes in leash training reactive dogs, the Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) method allows stubborn dogs to learn at their own pace.

While you’re at it, make sure to teach your dog not to pull on its leash or collar.

Pro Tip: Begin your leash training sessions indoors. Once your pup gets acclimatized to the leash, take the sessions outdoors. Make sure the transition is gradual.

If your dog learns to love and co-exist with the leash, you will likely have an easier time with no unwanted accidents to worry about.

Invest in a GPS Collar

GPS collars can afford you the peace of mind you won’t get with anything else. Since these collars allow for geofencing, they come in handy if you live in a big building or an open farm. You will get notified of your dog’s whereabouts as soon as it steps outside the “safe zone.”

You can also keep track of your dog’s health and well-being as some of these GPS trackers double up as fitness trackers too.

Find the Perfect Leash and Harness

It is important to ensure your dog is comfortable in the leash and harness you choose for it. Dogs try to wriggle free of their leash if it’s uncomfortable. Take it to a pet store to try a few different leashes to find one that fits your pet just right.

While you’re at it, ensure that the leash grip sits well in your hands. Since you’ll be the one holding the leash, you should also be comfortable handling it.

Don’t Let Your Dog Off-Leash Unless It’s in A Fenced Area

If you want your dog to enjoy some leash-free time, ensure you do so in a secure area. This could be anywhere, from your fenced backyard to a playpen with walls or guardrails your dog can’t climb.

Can You Let Your Dog Off-leash?

Maybe! It depends on many factors.

Now that you know what is the least effective method to retrieve a dog that has got off leash, let’s explore if going off leash is a good option.

Although many pet parents and handlers would suggest otherwise, leash-free training has been gaining popularity of late. Given how much dogs enjoy being free, you can consider it, but only if your dog is trained to behave off leash.

Also, consider your dog’s overall temperament and sociability before you let it off the leash.

Give it a shot if and only if:

  • Your dog is fully trained and responds to recalls no matter what the situation.
  • Your dog is vaccinated as well as spayed/neutered.
  • You’re confident that your dog is socialized enough to not cause any harm to others or to itself.

Letting your dog off the leash is always a gamble. But it’s not mission impossible. However, before you proceed, consider the safety of your pet and other people and pets and weigh all options.

dog walking off leash with its owner

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Train My Dog Without A Leash?

Start teaching your pet recalls indoors or in a quiet area. Don’t forget to reward it for a job well done. Slowly take this practice outdoors to places with some amount of distraction.

Continue practicing till you’re confident your dog will return, no matter what.

How Do You Get A Dog To Come When Called?

Through constant and consistent positive reinforcement-based training. The best way is to start when it’s still a puppy.

Build a habit such that your dog recognizes your cues in different situations and under varying circumstances.

Are Dogs Happier Off-Leash?

Yes, because dogs are not born accustomed to leashes.

However, when trained and rewarded well, they can come to associate the leash with positivity. For example, bringing the leash may signal it’s time for outdoor playtime.

Is It Against The Law To Walk A Dog Without A Leash?

Most US states legally require you to walk your dog on a leash. That’s why it is illegal to walk your dog off the leash unless you’re on a fenced private property.

Make sure you’re fully aware of the local laws before giving your pet some respite from the leash.

What Is A Dog Clicker?

A dog clicker is a gadget that is often an integral part of positive reinforcement-based training methods. You can use the sound cues emitted by the clicker to efficiently teach dogs to respond to commands.

Once you train your dog in basic commands, you can continue using the clicker to teach it to return to you.

 

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Paul Andrews
https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-andrews-172490189/

A digital marketing expert by profession, Andrews is a gifted writer and animal lover at heart. A self-confessed "pawrent", Andrews is well-versed in all things dogs. He uses his years of experience of raising puppies into show-quality dogs to help guide first-time pet parents. He believes in spreading the joy that comes with being a dog dad and advocates more families to adopt pets.