Q: I have a 3 1/2-year-old male silky terrier who is very intelligent and lovable. He has a large, fenced-in area in our back yard to run free, which he does during the day. My problem is that when he is in the house and someone opens the front door, he runs out the door and just keeps running. When my wife and I try to call him back, he is so focused on running away it’s like he tunes us out. Is there anything we can do to stop this behavior? He listens to us perfectly when he is in the house, but once he gets loose it’s like he is a different dog. Please help!
— Warren L.
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.
To address this situation, we first have the short-term task of capturing the 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. There are two training tasks required here. The first involves teaching your dog to stay when the door is opened; the second involves teaching a reliable response to the “come” command. Space limitations prevent me from describing both here, so I will tackle the “come” command training for now and will review “sit/stay” in a future column.
Prevent bolting through open doors by physically blocking the dog’s access. Some families set up a baby gate that prevents the dog from accessing the front door, for example. Although this can be tedious in the short-term, it’s necessary to ensure the dog remains safe until better control is established by our verbal cues.
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 they are currently facing rewards that out-compete those we hold. Dogs are not particularly good at generalizing skills learned in one context to 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.
Dr. Megan E. Maxwell
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist