Written by: Lillian Su, BS, DVM, MVSc, CCRP (Practice Limited to Small Animal Surgery)

Anyone who has dogs or knows someone with dogs will eventually run across a dog like this. Those of you who have owned them know the sheer frustration of trying to contain them, as well as the fear and anxiety that strikes when you first realize they’ve gone. Those of you who haven’t yet had the privilege of hosting one these independent creatures in your home feel a little lucky that your dogs seem so well behaved in comparison.

Yes, I’m talking about the canine equivalent of Houdini – escape artists that tirelessly work to escape their homes or yards regardless of your attempts to keep them secure. My own personal Houdini is a dog named Goose. Goose was originally an intact male dog found running at large in Saskatchewan. Being the charming dog that he is, he happily let himself be caught and he was turned in to the Saskatoon SPCA. From there, he was brought to the clinic where I worked for medical care. Goose showed himself to have one of those very charismatic canine personalities – he loved people, got along with other animals, was food motivated (but often couldn’t decide between cuddling or eating), and he had a tail that never seemed to stop wagging. By the time his hold period was up, Goose had wiggled his way firmly into my heart.

Little did I know that his charming exterior hid the likely reason for him having been found running loose in the first place…this dog has a serious case of wanderlust! And he knows how to capitalize on any minor mistake I make to take himself on a solo tour of whichever neighborhood we happened to be living in at the time.

Let me be clear, I feel I am a responsible owner, I leash my dogs anytime they are out of the house and I have only had my dogs off-leash at home in fenced yards or in fenced off-leash dog parks. The very first time Goose escaped from the yard, I honestly didn’t know he had done it until he came home…to the front door!

In the years since that very first escape, I have lived in (and, despite my best efforts, Goose has escaped from) several house and fence designs – I learned a lot about Goose, ‘fenced’ yards, and myself along the way.

  • He will ALWAYS look for a way out.
  • If there isn’t a way out, he will try to make one – ‘secure’ fences are not always secure, particularly when a determined dog is constantly testing them for weakness. And just because I left the gate closed in the morning, doesn’t mean it still will be when I get home. (Meter readers who forget to make sure the gate actually latches are a personal nemesis…)
  • He won’t challenge me to get through open doors or gates, but, if he thinks he can get away with it, anyone else is fair game.
  • He will sometimes dig.
  • He will jump a fence if it is less than 5 feet tall.
  • He turns his ears off and has terrible recall in the moments immediately after he has gained freedom from the yard.
  • If I see him get out and try to run after him, he will run away – “Keep away” is a great game! If I follow him at a slow pace I can usually catch him by the 3rd time he stops to pee.
  • He will eventually come home. For Goose, the magic time frame to wander is about 30 minutes to an hour. Being a social butterfly, sometimes he is caught by a kind stranger before he makes it home and in those cases, I usually receive a phone call. In the meantime, I die a thousand deaths imagining all the ways he could get into trouble.
  • If I lose sight of him and find him again as he’s on his return loop, he is always happy to see me and has a great recall then!
  • Any system I put in place to prevent escapes has the potential to fail, because I’m human and he’s persistent! But we keep working at it because I love him and it’s my responsibility to keep him safe.

Over the years, I have compiled a list of things to do or to think about that may be helpful to those of us that are in a battle of wits with our escape artist dogs.

1)  Know your dog! Knowing their favorite ways to escape will help you put steps in place to prevent them from doing so.

2)    Make sure your dog has appropriate levels of exercise and enrichment. Sure, some dogs have a desire to wander even with long walks, hikes, and tons of social time. But some do it because they are cooped up and bored. Set them up for success by making sure they are exercised regularly.

3)    Make sure your dog is appropriately identified and that they are up to date on their vaccines! The tags they wear should, at the very least, include: an ID tag with your contact information, their current city or county dog license, and their current rabies vaccination tag. Other identifiers such as a microchip or tattoo are extremely helpful, but only if you register your pet’s identification with a recognized, nationally searchable database and update the information regularly.

4)    Make sure your dog is wearing a snug fitting collar, martingale, or harness. Attaching a leash to a loose fitting collar or harness might allow your dog to slip out of them when you least expect it!

5)    Always leash your dog before going outside. The natural rider to this statement is that there should be a responsible person on the other end of the leash.

6)    Fenced yard? Make sure you are checking regularly that the area is still secure. Address any safety concerns before allowing your dogs to roam freely in the yard. I try to make the effort to walk the perimeter of my yard each time I let my dogs out so I can be the one to discover if the gate is latched or not!

7)    Do you have a digger? Both DIY and commercial solutions for fence diggers exist. Usually this involves extending your fence underground with chicken wire or other mesh in an L-shape to keep your dog in even if he decides to try dig his way out.  Regularly checking your fence line is imperative to being able to find and fill any potential tunnels as soon as possible.

8)    Do you have a jumper or a climber? The first question is, is your fence tall enough? The height of the fence needed to contain a jumping dog is dependent on a few factors: the size and athletic ability of your dog, the amount of room available for a run-up, and any structures in the yard that might aid them in getting over the fence (i.e. a chair, picnic table, play structure, or climb-able tree). A 6 foot fence is usually sufficient to contain most dogs, but for super jumpers or in a yard with features that might give a dog an advantage to getting over the top, a taller fence or modifications to the fence might be needed.

Again, there are many DIY and commercial fence extension products out there. Fence extenders can be straight or angled in to make it even harder for pets to get up and over. Coyote rollers on the upper inside border of your fence can also increase the difficulty of jumping or climbing a fence. For a select few dogs who have a tremendous standing leap, a full enclosure (with a ceiling panel) might be the only way to contain them. I would encourage you to stay away from barbed wire or razor wire as a way to keep your dogs in the yard – too often, they will still try to escape but may end up with nasty lacerations as a result.

9)    Do you have a door or gate rusher? Work on training them to stop, wait, and walk calmly on all entries and exits. As an additional safety measure, you can try to separate them from the doors, gates, or entry ways with a double entry system like you see at dog parks.

10) Consider instrumenting them with a GPS enabled collar. Several companies now offer collar mounted GPS tracking devices designed for dogs. Most are used for dogs out in the field but they can also be used for dogs that like to roam. A GPS tracker can help you pinpoint your wayward dog faster than randomly canvassing your neighborhood. And they could be invaluable if you ever have your dogs off-leash in wilderness areas. The collars only work if they are charged, your dog is wearing them, and you have access to the tracking device or app.

11) Continue working on and strengthening their recall. Practice, practice, practice, in a controlled environment, having your dog come to you with lots of positive reinforcement. And then practice some more. If you need help teaching your dog these skills, seek out basic obedience classes or the assistance of a private trainer.

12) Remember you don’t know what they have done, eaten, or encountered while they were on walkabout. When they return to you, don’t scold! Reprimanding them for coming home will only make them apprehensive about coming to you in the future. Instead, praise them, check them over for plant debris, ticks, or obvious injuries, and don’t hesitate to get them checked out by your vet if you suspect them to be ill or injured.

13) If they don’t return, get the word out as soon as possible that they are lost! Post flyers with a recent picture of your dog and your contact information. Indicate a reward if you can give one. Contact your local animal services, the humane society, and your veterinarian. Notify any identification registries with whom your dog is registered and update your contact info if it’s out of date. Utilize online resources like Facebook and Pet FBI to let people in your area know to be on the lookout.

Personally visit any organizations in your area responsible for stray intake every day. Most animal service organizations are doing the best they can, but often they are overwhelmed with the number of animals being surrendered or turned in as strays and they are frequently understaffed for the number of animals in their care. Your best chances of knowing if your dog has been turned in to a shelter is to go in person and look at each animal in each facility.

I am lucky that I have been able to keep Goose’s solo adventures over the years to a minimum, and that the times he has taken himself on walkabout have been brief and without any major incidents. But even as he approaches the ripe old age of eleven, it still requires vigilance to keep him safe. Have any of these techniques helped you and your Houdini? Do you have other tricks that work for you to keep your furry friend from wandering the streets alone? Let us know in the comments!