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Why Do Dogs Run Away?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz November 23, 2020

In the wild, dogs have a home range that is typically much larger than what they are provided as pets. In a study following free-ranging domestic dogs, researchers found that their home ranges varied widely between individual dogs. Sedentary dogs had home ranges as small as 2.6 hectares. Dogs that preferred to wander had ranges up to 927 hectares (Meek, 1999). Dogs will instinctually travel from their homes in search of food or breeding partners. Dogs kept in relatively confined environments like our homes with fenced yards may feel deprived of the ability to wander, leaving them feeling bored or frustrated.  

Why Do Dogs Run Away?

In order to relieve their frustrations or boredom, dogs may run away from home. Other factors that could cause a dog to leave home include seeking out prey, searching for a mate, or attempting to escape a fearful or anxiety inducing environment. They may simply want to take advantage of the opportunity to escape if the opportunity presents itself – even if they are perfectly content with their life at home.

  • To relieve boredom/frustration – Dogs that are not getting enough exercise may feel pent up energy and try to escape to satisfy their need to move. Dogs that lack enough mental stimulation may also try to escape to meet the same needs.
  • To chase prey – Some dogs just cannot resist chasing prey that is outside. They may jump or dig their way out of their yard or burst through a screen to chase that rabbit or squirrel that just went running by.
  • To find a breeding partner – Intact dogs have hormones that drive them to find a mate. This drive can sometimes be strong enough for dogs to run away from home to meet their needs.
  • Fear – Dogs experiencing fear may run away to find safety. Startling noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms can cause a dog to bolt.
  • Separation Anxiety – Separation anxiety causes dogs to feel distress when their owner leaves them home alone. Symptoms of separation anxiety include barking, drooling, destructive behaviors, and attempts to escape (Schwartz, 2003). If they are successful in escaping, they may run away from home in an attempt to be reunited with their loved one.
  • Opportunity – Even if a dog has their exercise and enrichment needs met, they may still jump at the opportunity to run away if the chance arises. A gate or a door that is left open on accident is enough to tempt any dog away from home for a bit of an adventure.

Are Some Dog Breeds More Likely To Run Away Than Others?

It is difficult to pin down specific breeds that are more or less likely to run away than others, however there are characteristics common to some breeds that may make them more of a flight risk. Dog breeds that have been bred for their drive and ability to track and chase prey may be more likely to run away from home to satisfy these deeply ingrained impulses. Hunting or working dog breeds might have heightened vision or sense of smell. This combined with a greater need for exercise can lead to dogs running away – either in search/chase of prey or to burn off extra energy. A dog’s hunting drive is their persistent desire to find something, whereas their prey drive is their impulse to chase (Cablk and Heaton, 2006). There is a lack of scientific research looking at the rate in which different dog breeds run away, however a couple of surveys of dog owner have been conducted to see how often their dogs of different breeds run away from home. One survey conducted by Whistle, a company that makes dog GPS tracking collars, questioned 150,000 American dog owners and found the following breeds most likely to run away (Yates and Mosher, 2017):

  1. Anatolian Shepherd
  2. Bloodhound
  3. Great Pyrenees
  4. Catahoula Leopard Dog
  5. Bluetick Coonhound

Another survey, this time of 2,000 dog owners in the UK, was conducted by the pet charity, Blue Cross. This survey found the following breeds to be most likely to run away (Lewis, 2015):

  1. Labrador Retriever
  2. Cocker Spaniel
  3. Jack Russel
  4. German Shepherd
  5. English Springer Spaniel

While there was not much overlap between these two surveys, a common theme was evident that dogs bred for hunting or working with livestock seemed to be more likely to run off.

Should You Punish Your Dog For Running Away?

It is important that you never punish your dog for running away. Punishment can potentially create a negative association with returning home, which could make them less likely to return in the future. Punishment could also increase your dog’s fear level and make them more difficult to catch (Hiby et al., 2004). Instead, owners should remain calm and utilize treats or high value toys to lure the dog back. Never chase a loose dog as this could be interpreted as play – further exciting them and encouraging them to run from you. Or, if the dog is fearful, chasing could potentially scare the dog off into traffic or other dangerous situations.

How To Prevent Your Dog From Running Away

Make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. Dogs that get plenty of walks and play time, and dogs that get adequate mental stimulation through toys, puzzle feeders, or training may be less motivated to leave home to find excitement. Other forms of enrichment that can help keep a dog happy and healthy include olfactory sensation and social interaction with other dogs and people (Coppinger and Zuccotti, 1999). To prevent your dog from running off to chase prey, make sure they are confined in a yard with a tall, secure fence. Check to make sure gates are latched before letting your dog out and inspect fences often for signs of damage or signs that your dog is trying to dig out. Electronic fences may not stop a highly motivated dog. One study found that dogs confined to their owner’s property with an electronic fence were more likely to escape than those with a physical fence (Starinsky et al., 2017). To prevent dogs from escaping your home, make sure doors remain shut and that there are no windows that they can jump out of. If the reason your dog is running away is to find a mate, consider getting your dog spayed or neutered to remove the hormonal drive. Studies show that fixing your dog between 6 – 12 months of age can prevent wandering behavior associated with sexual activity (Lorenz and Coppinger, 1996). If you think your dog has separation anxiety, consult with a behaviorist to learn how to increase your dog’s comfort and confidence when left home alone. When taking your dog on walks, make sure their collar or harness are well fitted to prevent your dog from escaping. In addition to these preventative measures, it is always beneficial to make sure your dog understands the commands “come” and “stay” in the event that they get away from you.

Will Dogs Return Home After Running Away?

Whether your dog will return home after running away will depend on the individual dog and the reason they left. If the dog is naturally a wanderer, they may leave home for the day and return later. However, if a dog runs off in an excited state after prey or out of a panic reaction, they may not be able to find their way back home. If your dog does return on their own, make sure you reward them for coming back. Dogs are more likely to return on their own if they know food and love is available upon their return.

The Importance Of Microchipping Your Dog

Collars with identification and contact information are great for helping lost dogs get reunited with their owners. However, collars are not always reliable. They may get caught and fall off your dog, or you may have forgotten to put their collar on the day they decide to run off. Microchips can provide owners with peace of mind. Once a dog gets microchipped, it will be functional for their entire life. The only thing you need to remember is to keep the information in the database up to date (e.g. updating your address if you move). Dogs with their owner’s information in a shelter database registry or a microchip registry had the greatest likelihood to be found (Lord et al., 2009).

Conclusion

In summary, dogs may run away from home to explore their surroundings, to chase something exciting, or out of fear or panic. Making sure your dog feels comfortable and entertained at home can reduce their motivation to run off to someplace new. Preventative measures such as making sure your dog is well trained, microchipped, and well secured can help keep them at home with their family.

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Works Cited

Cablk, M. E., & Heaton, J. S. (2006). Accuracy and reliability of dogs in surveying for desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Ecological Applications16(5), 1926-1935.

Coppinger, R., & Zuccotti, J. (1999). Kennel enrichment: exercise and socialization of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science2(4), 281-296.

Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare13(1), 63-70.

Lewis, A. (2015). 15 dog breeds most likely to run away. Retrieved November 12, 2020.

Lord, L. K., Ingwersen, W., Gray, J. L., & Wintz, D. J. (2009). Characterization of animals with microchips entering animal shelters. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association235(2), 160-167.

Lorenz, J. R., & Coppinger, L. (1996). Raising and training a livestock-guarding dog.

Meek, P. D. (1999). The movement, roaming behaviour and home range of free-roaming domestic dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, in coastal New South Wales. Wildlife Research26(6), 847-855.

Schwartz, S. (2003). Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association222(11), 1526-1532.

Starinsky, N. S., Lord, L. K., & Herron, M. E. (2017). Escape rates and biting histories of dogs confined to their owner's property through the use of various containment methods. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association250(3), 297-302.

Yates, E., & Mosher, D. (2017). These dog breeds are most likely to run away from home. Retrieved November 12, 2020.