This past weekend, I stopped by an office supply store that sits in the middle of an outdoor mall. Arms laden with printer paper and packing tape, I walked across the huge parking lot back to my car. I had just turned the key in the ignition when I spied an Australian shepherd walking on a nearby grassy median, heading toward the main road that runs along the storefronts. Just as I started to turn off the engine, a woman appeared a short distance behind the dog. She had a large adolescent-looking Chow mix on leash, and there was a white terrier mix walking along with her, also off-leash. Thinking uncharitable thoughts about people who allow their dogs off-leash in crowded shopping malls, I started the engine and began to drive away. I had just reached the main road when the car in front of me slammed on his brakes. The Aussie had reached the road and come within inches of being hit by the car. I immediately shut off the car and leaped out. (If you ever want to steal my purse, just put a stray dog in the road.)
The woman went chasing after the dog, and the dog ran from her. I ran to a spot a short distance ahead of them on the sidewalk, crouched down, turned my body slightly to the side, and began to pat my thigh and call the dogs to me in a happy, high-pitched tone. The little white dog reached me first, and I petted her while gently restraining her by the collar. By this time the woman was approaching, and I was able to get the Aussie close enough that she could get her hands on him. As she leashed him I continued to hold the terrier by the collar, petting and happy-talking her so she wouldn’t panic at being restrained. The woman soon got the leash attached to the terrier’s collar as well, and thanked me for the help. I don’t remember exactly what she said, and she had a very heavy accent that was difficult to understand, but I understood that she had somehow lost control of the leashes and the dogs had gotten loose. I was just relieved to see them all safe.
Last week, I was at the park doing my usual dog walking duties when I spied a stray dog way off in the distance, but still within the confines of the park. Just as my mind went into that tactical mode where thoughts like “How will I get the dog into my vehicle?” and “What if I put one dog in the front with me and leave the other behind the gate?” started whirring through my brain, a park worker saw the dog and began to chase it. I was way too far off for him to hear me shout, but if I could have, I would have told him to stop chasing that dog!
It’s understandable that when a dog is in danger, especially if it’s your dog, you want to rush over, grab him, and get him to safety. But chasing a dog who is running away, or who is happily romping just out of reach, can be the worst course of action. If it’s your own dog, it can be great fun—for him, that is. He runs, you chase. Woohoo! Party! In the case of a stray dog who is afraid, being chased can just be plain scary for the dog, but the result is the same; the dog runs away. It may feel counterintuitive at the time, but if you can remember not to chase the dog, you’ll have a much better chance of catching him. Catching strays is a whole other blog, so I’ll stick here with solutions for when it’s your own dog who’s gotten off leash: Try running the other way, away from your dog, and shouting happily in a high-pitched voice. “Come on, Buddy! Chase me, let’s go!” If you’ve ever played the Chase-Me game at home, your dog might already be conditioned to drop everything and run after you. But even if you’ve never done it before, the movement and high-pitched sounds will encourage your dog to run toward you. If that doesn’t work and you’re near home, you can always try getting into your vehicle and pulling up ahead of your dog, then opening the door and saying, “Want to go for a ride?”
You can also pretend to find something really fascinating on the ground or on the grass. Crouch down, pretend to pick something up and examine it, while saying, “Wow, what’s this? Ooh, this looks reaaally interesting!” Since dogs don’t speak English, this one’s all about your intonation, but many dogs will come over to see what treasure you’ve discovered.
As a last resort, you can try something I heard from trainer John Rogerson many years ago: pretend to fall down and be hurt. It takes a bit of acting skill, but the idea is that you’ve tripped and gone down in a heap, and you’re whining like a hurt puppy. Many dogs, realizing the fun is over, will drop the game and rush over to see if you’re okay. This is particularly effective if you have a strong bond with your dog. Just be sure to grab him gently when he comes over, and not to scold him.
These are all effective ways to get your dog back once he’s run off. But better yet, check the fit on his collar periodically and train a rock-solid recall so that all of the foregoing will be completely unnecessary.