Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on December 11, 2000. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Boredom Often Leads To Escape Artist Dogs
By Bonnie Coblentz
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Owners of dogs that escape every chance they get don't have to feel like they're at the end of their rope.
Some dogs are content to live a lifetime within the confines of their yard with very little restraint. Others get the wandering bug, and dig, climb or jump fences, and break out to explore their world. Some stay close by while others roam for miles. This roaming risks their health and life, and often contributes to unwanted puppies.
Dr. John Harkness, an animal behaviorist at Mississippi State University, said neutering the dog and providing plenty of amusements are keys to calming dogs' tendency to roam. Males tend to escape more than females, but intact dogs of both sexes are more likely to roam than those which have been neutered.
"Castrated male dogs are 75 percent less likely to escape than intact males," Harkness said. "Certain breeds are more likely to roam, such as hounds and hunting dogs."
The battle to keep a dog contained that wants to roam is half psychological, half physical. One successful escape rewards the urge to try again. Harkness said dogs escape for curiosity, sexual activity, exploration, food, hunting, companionship and to establish dominance over other dogs. Roaming is its own reward, with the dog able to do whatever it pleases.
While the pack mentality and sexual urges are major factors in some dogs' escape, much of this can be suppressed if the dog is entertained within its own space.
"Give a dog plenty of things to do," Harkness said. "Provide toys, regular exercise, play time, attention, variation and environmental enrichment."
Owners also should make escape difficult. Set fence posts in cement, ensure fences are tall and secure, and make sure any buried wire containment systems are at a depth the dog can't unearth. However, some fenced-in dogs become very territorially aggressive, as the containment frustrates their social urges, especially those penned in boring environments.
While some dogs dig specifically to escape, Harkness said digging is a pleasurable activity for dogs and is self- reinforcing as the dirt "plays" back. Other self-reinforcing activities are roaming and getting into garbage cans. Many dogs enjoy these activities on their own merits and seek out opportunities to do these often.
"Escaping is a reward, so if a dog gets out of the yard once, it will try 30 or 40 more times to do it again," Harkness said. "However, a dog will not repeat escape attempts if it never succeeds."
Owners can take steps to cure a dog of its tendency to roam. Drug therapy with Prozac or similar drugs is possible for dogs with an obsessive compulsive disorder. Spaying or neutering the dog is another option, as is rewarding the dog for staying home at times when it is likely to escape.
"If the dog goes to one location when it escapes, such as a former home, the owners can sometimes make this location an unpleasant experience by encouraging the people there to be rude to the dog and not feed it," Harkness said. "Do not reward a dog when it returns home as this encourages it to leave and then return home, but does not prevent it from escaping in the first place."
With a veterinarian's advice, owners of determined escape artists can try a few other tricks to keep their dog safely contained. These can include radio controlled collars, chaining or tying the dog to a heavy item that it must drag around.
Harkness said every dog can be contained, but owners of a dog determined to roam should consider if maybe a dog is better suited to a more open living environment elsewhere.
"The prognosis for eliminating roaming is very good for dogs who are castrated and given attention and a good fence," Harkness said.
Contact: Dr. John Harkness, (662) 325-1131