It happens to the most conscientious dog owners: Somebody opens a door and the next thing you know your naughty pet is streaking off toward the street. Of course you'll call him back, but whether he pays attention and obeys promptly may be a life-or-death issue. Even people who never allow their dogs off their leashes in public should take steps to reduce the chances that the price of accidental escapes won't be too high to bear, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends.
No matter how obedient your dog is, when he's outdoors in an unfenced environment, the only way you can guarantee his safety is by keeping him on leash, says Santa Cruz dog trainer Mardi Richmond. However, the dilemma many dog owners face is that their pets only get the vigorous physical exercise and mental stimulation they need by running around off-leash. Training your dog to obey you instantly when off-leash is the key to minimizing risk, Richmond advises. Start inside, moving your training sessions to a fenced yard only after he's mastered off-leash skills indoors. After that, put him through his paces in a fenced park. Whenever he gets things right, praise and reward him lavishly, thereby letting him know that if he obeys you even when he's free not to, he'll be glad he made the correct decision. Be diligent. It takes many training sessions and constant reinforcement to teach your dog to obey off-leash.
In an emergency, having a reliable recall command could save your dog’s life. If your pet is heading for the street, give chase only if you're reasonably sure you can stop him before he gets there. If not, your priority becomes making him change direction before he darts into traffic. Running away from your dog in such a situation might go against your instincts, and you'll need lots of practice in safe areas to determine how well or even if this technique will work. But if you scream your dog's name while running in the direction opposite to the one he's going, he might find the prospect of chasing you more appealing than continuing on his dangerous course, the ASPCA suggests.
Dogs who aren't getting enough exercise often take matters into their own paws by waiting for doors to open and scooting out for an illicit run, says dog trainer Casey Lomonaco of Binghamton, New York. To address that problem, train your dog always to sit and await further instructions whenever he approaches a door. Practice on any and every kind of door, gate and threshold you can find, Lomonaco advises. Your dog needs to understand that when his backside hits the floor, "doors open miraculously," she says. Start by taking a portion of your dog's daily kibble and rewarding him with a little every time he sits, whether you've asked him to or not. From there, proceed to more door-specific training.
Some dogs seem to enjoy outwitting the humans who try to keep them close. They figure out how to jump, climb or squeeze around fences, excavate tunnels underneath barriers, even how to manipulate the hardware on gates to make them open. The ASPCA's advice is to foil the climbers and jumpers by building higher fences; thwart the squeezers by closing all gaps; deter the diggers by burying chicken wire under the base of the fence; and trump the hardware manipulators by putting a padlock on the gate. If you have a see-through fence, taking the time to block your dog's view of the world beyond the fence might reduce his desire to escape. Make sure your dog is microchipped and that your phone number is on his collar identification so you can be easily reached if he does get loose.
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