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Dog Escaping and Bolting

Bolting refers to a dog’s tendency to run through an open door and off into the wild blue yonder, refusing to come when called. Dog owners are faced with a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation when they share their home with a dog who bolts through open doors and will not come when called. Once outside, dogs are faced with the allure of new smells, sights and sounds, and the owner’s call can be a weak draw in comparison to the great outdoors.

Tricks for Capturing an Escaped Dog

Some owners have learned they can open a car door and promise a ride if the dog jumps in. Some know they can grab a trusty treat bag and shake it toward the heavens as a lure, while others are left traipsing long distances hoping to steal a moment to grab that collar.

If these tricks are not effective, try running excitedly away from your dog, talking happily and acting as if you yourself are on your way to an adventure. This seems counterintuitive, but many dogs are enticed to chase after their owner, while being pursued only pushes them further away. You might also try crouching down, clapping your hands and looking away, calling excitedly as if you see something in the distance.

Any strategy that retrieves your dog swiftly and safely in the moment may be necessary, but you must then develop a plan to prevent this from happening again.

Training Recall in a Dog

It is quite common for a dog who responds well inside the house to ignore calls when loose. Dogs aren’t being intentionally disobedient when they don’t come in exciting or distracting situations. They either haven’t been taught to come when called in these specific situations or are facing rewards from the outdoors that outdo those we hold. Dogs are not particularly good at differentiating skills learned in one context from other contexts. Your first task is to ensure you have a reliable response when you call your dog inside the house and yard, then you must systematically practice outdoors and in gradually more challenging situations.

Some general rules on training a recall:

  • Always call your dog with his name and then a clear, upbeat “Come!” or similar phrase (and be consistent in which phrase you use). Many owners unintentionally muddle the situation by calling their dogs with all sorts of conversational variations.
  • Don’t resort to your meanest, most threatening voice to call your dog. Although some dogs may respond to this by hunkering down and allowing themselves to be caught in an emergency, many dogs will lose their response to the “come” command over time if it’s always given with a voice that promises gloom and doom. After all, who wants to run to someone who is threatening them?
  • Always use a high-value reward for coming when called in early training — a treat, a round of toy tugging, a ball thrown. Use the reward you know is most appealing to your dog.
  • Never punish a dog when you have to retrieve him because he did not come when called.This may teach him only to be more evasive the next time.
  • Never call your dog, then do something your dog doesn’t like. If you call your dog and he comes happily, only to be held down for a nail clipping or thrown into a cold bath, he may be less likely to come when called the next time. In these situations, go to your dog to collect him.

Begin by practicing all over your home, calling your dog back and forth between family members, rewarding him when he arrives and allows himself to be petted with one hand while a treat is delivered from the other. If only one human is home, practice calling your dog from different rooms and reward each time he finds you.

When your dog is close to 100 percent in coming on the first call over many repetitions all over the house, you are ready to practice in a closed-in outdoor area. Again, you must have high-value rewards available and you should reward every time he comes when called at first. When he is close to 100 percent responsive over many repetitions in a couple of different fenced-in outdoor areas, you are ready to practice with a long trailing leash.

Purchase a 20-foot nylon light leash that can be attached to your dog’s collar and hold one end while you let the rest drag loosely. When your dog can reliably come in this situation over many repetitions and in a variety of outdoor locations, you can try dropping the end of the leash as long as you ensure you are always within grabbing or stepping distance. Continue to practice calling and rewarding when your dog comes to you.

The final step of training in an off-leash context comes only when your dog has demonstrated that he reliably comes when called over many repetitions in a variety of outdoor contexts and in the presence of many different distractions (other dogs, people, squirrels, etc.). Such training can be arduous and time-consuming, but it can reap many rewards when you reach a point where your dog will spin on a dime and come running back to you whenever you need him.

Preventing Bolting with the Sit / Stay Command

It’s useful for many reasons to teach your dog to sit and stay while the front door is open. In addition to preventing bolting, a reliable sit/stay by the front door can be used to prevent crowding, jumping or mouthing at visitors when they arrive; to prevent chasing after owners when they leave the house; and to prevent other problems (such as aggression between dogs) that arise from the high activity and arousal levels often associated with arrivals and departures through the front door.

Begin by practicing your dog’s “sit” command around the house. There are several methods for initially teaching a sit. I prefer to lure the dog into a sit position by bringing a treat down to her nose and slowly over her head (toward her tail) so that her behind moves toward the floor as she works to keep her nose on that treat in your hand. As soon as her rear hits the floor, say “sit,” praise the dog and offer the treat. The command is not yet a command as such — instead, you are simply labeling the dog’s behavior for her initially. You are using the treat as a lure to get the sit to happen, pairing the word “sit” with the behavior of sitting, then rewarding the behavior with praise and treat.

Over repetitions, your dog will begin to sit more quickly as you bring the treat over her nose, and you should be able to say “sit” as soon as you notice she is lowering her rear end toward the floor. Praise and treat every time her rear hits the floor. As her performance improves, you can begin to say “sit” earlier in the sequence and also to keep your luring hand closer to yourself.

Your next step is to use your luring hand in the same position to cue the sit, but keep the treat in your pocket. As soon as she sits, praise her and provide the treat from your pocket with your other hand. In this way, you transition from a treat lure to a hand cue, with the treat now serving as a consequence instead of a part of the cue.

You then begin building the stay. Start by having her sit and then hold your hand cue in place for just a moment, say “stay” and then immediately praise and treat. Over repetitions, begin to pause a few moments longer after you say “stay” and before you praise and treat. If she stands before you praise and treat, say “sorry” and turn your back for 10 seconds before returning to cue the sit and stay again. Continue to build the duration of your dog’s stay in 1- or 2-second increments until she can stay for 60 seconds or more.

You also must teach her to stay as you walk away. Here, too, use shaping — that is, rewarding small increments toward your final goal so that she is almost always successful as she learns.

Begin by saying “stay” with an open palm as a hand cue, and take one baby step back, then return to her, praise and treat. Over repetitions, increase the number of steps you take away from her before you return to praise and treat. Practice this all over the house and yard until she will sit and stay as you move across a room and even out of sight before returning to praise and treat.

You are now ready to practice by the front door. Be sure you have a tether, gate or other way to prevent bolting while practicing near a door until your dog is reliable in this context.

Have your dog sit and stay about 10 feet from your front door, then move toward the door before returning to praise and treat. When she is successful at this stage, begin to introduce cues associated with real visitors or real “open-door scenarios.” For example, turn the doorknob or greet a pretend visitor before returning to praise and treat. Go through the motions of the ultimate scenario where you would like your dog to sit and stay, but present these stimuli in small bits across practice trials until your dog can sit and stay for all of them. At this point, finally, you are ready to practice with real visitors.

Written by Megan E. Maxwell, PhD

ALL Dog Escaping and Bolting Treatments