The other day I let Oso outside in our fenced-in backyard. A little while later, my partner opened the gate to take the garbage cans to the curb, forgetting he was back there. My partner turned around to see Oso standing by our cars in the middle of the driveway. Whoops! He carried him back into the yard no worse for wear, but it was a scary experience, to say the least.
Fast forward to a few weeks later when I look out the window to see my neighbor’s dog in their front yard without a human attached. I went outside and called to her. She came bounding over when she heard her name and let me lead her to their front door, also no worse for wear. It turns out she had squeezed through a tiny hole in the fence that was hard to see except from the perfect angle.
Both of these experiences got me thinking about how fortunate I am to have the handling knowledge and skills that I do to be able to handle those situations with a level head. And that it’d be helpful for others to have those skills, too! Because, no matter how careful we are, management is bound to fail at least once in our dog’s life. That means we should be prepared and know what to do when our dog is suddenly on the other side of the fence or door that they should be on, or a leash that suddenly gets unhooked (I’ve also been there).
So let’s get into 5 tips to use when you suddenly find yourself in a situation with a loose dog that you’re trying to get back to where they ought to be.
1. Don’t approach straight on
This is actually as much advice for how to interact with another species in general as it is for what to do when your dog gets loose. Humans tend to be quite direct when we approach other individuals. We walk in a straight line at them: the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B. In the rest of the animal kingdom, that behavior is considered pretty rude and even, at times, threatening. The better option is to approach in a curve or arc instead of a direct straight line.
For example, when I went out to get my neighbor’s dog, I started off like a human. I started walking straight at her. I watched her see me, shift her weight away from me, and take a small step away. Clearly, she was unsure why this human she has had very little interaction with is walking in a pretty rude way toward her. I was being scary!
I evaluated my behavior, realized I was being a human, and then changed my trajectory so that if I walked in a straight line I would end up about 5 feet away from her. She immediately relaxed, reassessed the situation, and was now able to hear me calling her name since I was no longer a scary person and came running up. I recreated this scenario in the video below so you can see it in action!
2. Excited, happy voices
I know this one is a hard one, especially when you’re feeling scared for your pet’s safety. But there are a few reasons why excited, happy voices are going to help you. The first is that you should try to be the most exciting thing there. I want your dog to see you as the life of the party in that moment and to want to come over to you and hang out! The other reason is that for some pets, the fear of punishment (and the tone of voice associated with that), may keep them from approaching you.
As I said, I know this one is hard. My trick for using a happy tone of voice when I’m really, really not happy is to let myself say all the things that I’m thinking as long as my voice is happy. Those of you who have been following us for a while know that I’ve been on a management journey trying to figure out how to be smarter than Oso when it comes to how to keep him out of my raised vegetable beds while still being able to access them myself.
There have been several times when I’ve gone outside to find him in my raised beds and need to keep an upbeat tone in order to get him to come back to me and get out of there. Anyone near enough can probably hear me saying something like, “Why are you the absolute worst? You’re the reason we can’t have nice things.” and other disparaging remarks. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t understand English and only hears me happily chattering away at him and is eager to come back to me. And I feel a little better for telling him off.
3. Use your recall if you have one
There’s a reason we teach our dogs to come when called! It’s a safety behavior at the end of the day. If you have taught your dog a solid recall, now’s the time to use it!
Now, if you’re currently sweating that you don’t think your “come” cue is solid enough to use if your dog got loose, don’t immediately panic. You may actually have a solid recall cue that you accidentally taught. Here’s what I mean. Growing up, one of our dogs got loose. I was nearby when it happened. He absolutely loved car rides and, as luck would have it, I was right next to the car! I opened the car door and he immediately turned around and hopped into the backseat. Crisis averted! One of our consultants, Corinne, has more information on these accidental recall cues in this blog post.
So, use whatever you know will get your dog to come to you, even if it’s not the word “come”. For Oso, my partner could have also tried to open the car door to get him to come over (even though it would have been locked it would have gotten Oso close enough). For some dogs, showing them their favorite toy or tossing a ball back into the backyard could work. For others, grabbing a super special treat could do the trick. Use whatever you know will get your dog to come running to you even if you didn’t formally teach it, and you can work on building a rock-solid come when called later!
4. Make a slip lead out of your regular leash
One of the things that was scariest for my partner when Oso was standing in the middle of the driveway was that he wasn’t wearing his collar. He didn’t know how to safely secure him without it (more on that later). If you have a leash on hand, you can create a slip lead out of your regular leash. A slip lead is, for lack of a better word, a sort of noose or lasso where the collar and leash are one and the same. While I don’t recommend using these for general walking for the same reason I don’t recommend choke chains (both tools typically do not have a way of stopping the collar from tightening, which can cause damage to the neck), they’re very handy for moving dogs short distances.
I would say that most pet parents don’t necessarily have a slip lead on hand, but you can make one in a pinch! All you have to do is thread the clip through the loop and you’ve made yourself a slip lead. The video in the next section shows you how to do this.
If your dog doesn’t have a collar on or you’re having trouble getting them close enough to be able to attach a leash to their collar, a slip lead can be a helpful tool. Think of it like a lasso for dogs!
5. Run in the direction you want them to go in
Now, let’s say that the dog is not wearing a collar (or perhaps you know it’s unsafe to grab their collar), and you don’t have a leash. Now what?! This was the situation with both Oso and my neighbor’s dog. My partner had to immediately respond to Oso being out when he turned around and, silly me, I immediately went outside when I saw something was amiss and didn’t grab a leash or treats.
Well, my partner solved that problem by picking up our 90-lb dog and carrying him into the backyard. Neither of them really enjoyed that option, but it was the best he could think of at the time. Brownie points for quick thinking! After everyone was safe and settled, I then showed him how you can fairly reliably move a dog (at least one you have a relationship with) without having much physical control over them. This is also how I directed my neighbor’s dog to their front door a few weeks later. Here’s a video of what it looks like (and some of the things mentioned above, too!):
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Two things you’ll notice in this video:
- I’m running in the direction that I want them to go in. We’re running together! It’s fun! And I can pair this with the happy, excited voice if I need to.
- I keep my hand on their shoulder as we’re running. This helps me feel more in control of the situation, but it also allows me to feel if they’re wandering off before they get too far. You can feel the muscles working in the shoulder and where their body weight is leaning this way. That allows you to adapt as necessary.
This should go without saying but I feel obligated to say it anyway: if you have a dog with handling sensitivity or who is uncomfortable with people touching them this is likely not an option for you. It’ll also be much harder for littles than for larger dogs.
- Double-check your management strategies routinely. After we have a big storm we try to go outside and check our fence to make sure there are no holes before we let Oso out.
- While I hope you’ll never be in this situation, management is bound to fail at least once in your dog’s life. I recommend sitting down as a household to discuss what you’ll do if that happens.
- Practice makes as close to perfect as humanly possible. Practice the above strategies when your dog is safe and sound in an enclosed space so you can get the feel of everything and really tune into what works for your particular dog. What do they do if you run away from them? What do they do if you try to lasso them? Practice as much as you need to to feel confident that you can safely get your dog back to you if they get out.
- And, while we didn’t talk about it, make sure your pets are microchipped and that the contact information is up to date. This article is specifically talking about what to do when you’re there with your dog and they’re loose, but I know that’s not always the case. Microchips can help you get your dog back if they get out without your knowledge!