Why do dogs run away?

A brown dog running in the ocean

A lost dog is every dog owner’s worst nightmare, made worse because it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Dogs run away because of:

  • Boredom: The most common reason a dog escapes is because of an improperly secured yard. Left to their own devices, many dogs will choose to entertain themselves by escaping and exploring.
  • Reproductive Instincts: Non-neutered males are especially prone to running away when there’s a female in heat nearby, though it’s not unheard of for females to escape and seek a mate.
  • Prey Drive: Dogs that love to hunt small animals are more likely to keep pursuing them past property boundaries.
  • Fear/Anxiety: Loud noises or frightening visuals can trigger a dog’s fight-or-flight instinct, leaving them no longer in control of their actions.

How the Fight-or-Flight Instinct Works in Dogs

Your dog has four main responses to stress: fight, flight, fidget, or freeze. While in the grips of an extreme flight response, your dog’s amygdala floods their system with hormones. One of these is adrenaline, which is intended to help your dog run from any nearby threats.

Common triggers for flight are loud, sudden noises. Car accidents, thunderstorms, gunfire, noisy crowds, and fireworks can cause your dog to panic and flee. The problem is so widespread that animals shelters across the country report that July 5th is their busiest day of the year.

If your dog is frightened, you’ll see the beginnings of piloerection–or, more simply put, their hair begins to stand up all over their body. They may initially try to hide or avoid the situation, or adopt a lower body posture.

How Separation Anxiety Can Cause Your Dog to Run Away

Technically, if your dog runs away due to separation anxiety, they’re not trying to escape–they’re trying to find you. It’s cold comfort for the owner of a lost dog, but the root cause of the behavior does impact how you manage and prevent these instances.

If you see signs that your dog is destroying the front door or floor while you’re gone, they may eventually manage to escape. The long-term solution is training and desensitization to being left alone.

It is much easier to prevent separation anxiety than to treat it. Ideally, if you have your dog from puppyhood, use stuffed kongs, special high-value treats, and food puzzles to teach your puppy to associate solitude with good things. Start by leaving them alone for a few minutes at a time and slowly work up to longer periods.

How to Stop Your Dog From Running Away

Secure your fences and property lines. Many dog owners look into electronic or underground pet fences, but these are not effective at preventing dogs from running away. Your dog can still choose to cross them, potentially injuring themselves in the process, and may be reluctant to return on their own and cross the border again. These hidden pet fences work by delivering first a warning sound then a shock as your dog approaches the border, which can also lead to other behavioral issues.

Instead, make sure that fences are at least 6 feet high. You may want to add coyote rollers to the top to help keep your dog in and other animals out.

Neuter and spay your dog as recommended by your vet. Unfixed animals are more likely to want to escape and roam. Once the habit is already established, they may continue to do so even after being fixed.

Provide mental stimulation and physical exercise. If your dog is content and tired, they are much less likely to look elsewhere for entertainment. You can deploy training sessions, utilize doggy daycares, or break out high-intensity toys such as flirt poles to drain their energy. Plenty of dogs can be satisfied with food puzzles and play sessions as well!

Desensitize your dog to loud noises. The good thing about holidays like July 4th is that they happen at the same time every year, giving you plenty of time to practice in the weeks or months leading up to the event. If there are any celebrations during the year, supervise your dog and keep them contained to prevent them from running away.

How to Help Find Your Lost Dog

Microchips help your dog find their way home, but not directly. Always make sure the information on your pet’s microchip is up-to-date; if you adopted your pet, make sure all your contact info is listed on the microchip registry. If your information is inaccurate, vets and shelters may not call the correct number to let you know your pet has been found. Don’t forget to contact them and let them know to keep an eye out.

Microchips do not have GPS capabilities and will not help you track your missing pet. Instead, GPS collars can provide real-time tracking capabilities. Trackers attach to your dog’s collar or harness.

Your dog’s collar and tags should contain their name and your phone number. Traditionally, this information can be engraved onto a metal tag, but if you’re worried that the tags may fall off, you can purchase a custom collar that has the information stitched or embroidered into the fabric itself. If your dog requires medicine, you can add “Needs Meds” to communicate this immediately.

Finally, there are services and pet detectives who specialize in finding lost animals. If you end up calling one, they can direct you on the best steps to take while waiting for them to arrive.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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