I still remember that 2004 phone call about my Shih Tzu Cindy, and the horrible sinking feeling I had as my caregiver spoke. Before I became a certified behavior dog trainer, back when I was working at a corporate job, I paid carefully selected animal caregivers to spend hours daily with my Shih Tzu and German Shepherd dogs and other animals at my farm. That day the caretaker said “all was well now”, but that Cindy (who was beginning to have vision issues) had wandered down my long driveway onto the street. Someone scooped her up and drove up and down my road trying to find where she belonged, until my frantic caregiver retrieved her. Where had I gone wrong? My caregiver was multi-tasking and trusting that Cindy would do what she did every day, i.e., walk unsupervised off leash 25 steps from the barn to my front porch; and I had failed to attach an identification tag to her collar that stated her name and my phone number. I’ve never made either of those errors again.
Unless you have experienced an animal disappearing, it may seem unlikely that it will happen to you. But trust me, it does happen and when it does, it is heartbreaking. As a dog trainer, I have a mantra…don’t wait for the problem to occur and then react to it; instead, try to make certain it doesn’t happen, but then know what to do if it does. This applies, also, to our animal safety.
COMMON REASONS DOGS ARE LOST
1. Flight. How does this happen? Adrenaline rush. I can relate: years ago, after finishing work in my office late one evening, I walked out and inadvertently set off the alarm. And when I say I set off the alarm: blaring noise, red lights flashing outside the three-story building. What was my knee jerk reaction? To run! It took a few seconds for me to take a breath, call the service and advise that it was a false alarm. An automatic, hard wired fear response. And what could scare your dog? Every dog is different: but common reasons include fireworks; thunder/lightening; people they don’t know; other animals; unexpected noises. Aways be certain that your pup is secured in an environment where they feel safe.
2. Boredom. When a dog lacks physical and mental enrichment, he is more likely to search for something interesting to do. This would be the dog who charges through doors, who slips over or under fences. Make certain your dog gets good daily exercise (physical and mental) that meets his needs.
3. Prey Drive (also known as, “go chase!”). Dogs’ vision is stimulated by movement. This is why our dogs’ heads whip around (and they often want to chase) when objects or animals go past. Teaching our dogs impulse (self) control, to remain calm even when they see fast movement going past, will keep our dogs at our sides. And having them safely on leash if they don’t have perfect control, is critical to keeping them out of trouble.
4. Hormones. When love is in the air, an un-neutered male dog is quite likely to play the Romeo card, and overcome any obstacle in his way to find his true love. If you choose (and you have every right to if you are responsible) to have an unaltered dog (male or female), be responsible: be vigilant about other dogs when you take your pup out; don’t take your dog to free-run dog areas where your dog might encounter another intact dog; make certain your dog is always in a well-maintained securely fenced area when off leash.
5. Human error. What can I say… I’ve seen loose dogs dashing across roads while owners calmly say, “my dog is completely trained off leash, she just isn’t listening to me right now.” I’ve helped search for dogs who darted out of cars when doors were opened. My recommendation: if your dog is not perfectly trained in all situations, your dog should not be off leash unless you are in an area where the dog is safe in any circumstance. Dogs can get excited and act on the spur of the moment. Before you open any door, put your dog on leash. If you want your dog to have some freedom to roam on hikes but he is not perfectly trained, use a 30’ tracking leash/line so that you have the ability to get to your dog in case something happens. Very few of us are perfect 100% of the time, ditto for our dogs: always err on the side of safety.
KEEPING OUR DOGS SAFELY AT HOME
Make certain that when your dog is outside off leash, that he is in a securely fenced area. Regularly check the integrity of the fence (including height, areas that might be dug out underneath, areas that have objects that the dog can climb on and scale the fence).
When your dog is outside and on leash, be certain he is in a well-fitting collar or harness that he cannot “back out of” if frightened, startled or aroused.
If you have your dog on a “tie out” system, regularly check the integrity of the system. (Always be certain your dog has water and shade/shelter, is not out in extreme temperatures, will not become entangled in the system, and is not observing triggers (other dogs, people, sights/sounds) that make the dog either want to run away from or toward the triggers.)
Be aware of local events, weather, etc. that might frighten your dog. Your dog should be safely inside or otherwise secured when these events are anticipated or occu
Know your dog’s triggers and fears, and be certain your dog is well secured in those situations. Work with a certified behavior trainer to counter condition and desensitize your dog to these triggers.
Before you open any door, whether of your house, your car, etc.: be certain that you have a leash on your dog unless you are opening the door into a securely fenced area.
Make certain your dog is receiving physical, mental and emotional enrichment that keeps him engaged and happy to not wander.
The next part of this blog will help you to be prepared ahead of time if the worst happens and your dog disappears. The reason we practice fire drills: in an emergency, instead of panicking, we go into “auto pilot”; we know where to go and what to do when that alarm goes off. Similarly, we should have a plan in place for our animals’ safety. Try to prevent that alarm going off by keeping your animals safe; but also have plans in place so that if it does, you don’t go into panic mode, but will know what to do. This way you can increase the likelihood that your dog is never lost, or if so, will be found and safely returned.
Michele McLeod CDBC, CBATI, CPDT-KA, VSA-DT
Sirius Positive Dog Training
203 788 7647
About the contributor: Michele provides private in-home training, behavior modification solutions, and board/train using positive reinforcement-based methods for clients in the tri-state region. Her professional certifications include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants); Certified Graduate of Distinction (Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior); Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer (Grisha Stewart BAT); Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer; and Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CCPDT). She lives with her horses, donkey, dogs and cats at Rainbows End Farm in Sandy Hook, CT.