Some canines are just born to run, and while their reasons for leaving are not always the same, there are two common themes. Dogs run away to either (a) reach a better location where something rewarding may occur or (b) escape from an actual or perceived danger.
Keep in mind that wolves, dogs’ living ancestors, roam for a living. For them, roaming is a natural behavior that involves exploring, discovering, scouting, and hunting. A wolf’s or wild dog’s home range usually covers several square miles. Additionally, nature has equipped them (and domestic canines) with a built-in navigation system that lets them create and store mental maps so they never get lost.
With these amazing skills, all they need is a good reason to leave and they’re gone. However, this can be a problem in the urban jungle. In our society, roaming dogs get into plenty of trouble and many of them end up in pounds. Wandering dogs are not happy dogs – if the cars and trucks don’t get them and they don’t bite or get bitten first, the animal control officer will eventually find them.
What then are some of the causes of roaming?
Boredom. Sometimes some dog owners go to work and leave their pet tied up or wandering in the yard because they’re worried the animal might ransack the house if left inside. An active, curious dog in a small backyard is a potential recipe for disaster as he is a natural candidate for escape.
Reproductive impulse. An intact male canine roams when he senses estrogen in the air. Why, though, would a neutered male or a female develop a desire to wander? That’s because sexual urges come from the brain, not the loins. Although castration eliminates testosterone in about eight hours, a neutered male is still a male. While castration reduces roaming in 90 percent of canines, there is the remaining 10 percent that behave as if nothing has changed.
Social reasons. Some dogs have secondary homes or dens just like wolves. Unless physically restrained, they will leave one home and go to the other every so often.
Predatory drive. This is another very strong, almost magnetic force that draws canines away from their home. Seeking and finding prey is one of their most powerful natural behaviors that come with intrinsic rewards. We may give our pets all the food they need, but it does not get rid of their drive to hunt.
Fear of thunderstorms. Some phobic dogs express their extreme displeasure by trying to run away from what troubles them. If such a dog starts to run and run, he will eventually learn that the storm dwindles. Therefore, running away during storms occurs more often as it apparently stops something bad from happening.
What can we do about roaming?
Make sure your dog is neutered. While it’s not a panacea, neutering is the best way to reduce the chances of roaming in an intact dog. In addition, unneutered, wandering canines just add to the already overwhelming number of unwanted puppies.
Surround your yard with a sturdy, solid fence to prevent your pet from escaping and neighboring dogs from visiting. Runs, ties, and electric fences are not recommended as they don’t keep other animals out and seem to boost territorial aggression in some dogs.
Make home as rewarding a place as possible. Put your dog on a long line and give him small meals frequently by the back door. Enrich his environment by providing him with some company while you’re away, plenty of daily aerobic exercise, and a sensible diet. Also see to it he has a meaningful job to do when you’re together.
For dogs that run away due to a phobia, it’s important to tackle the source of the fear through a specific behavior modification program.
Make sure your dog is properly identified with identification tags and collars, a microchip, or tattooing so he can be safely returned in case of an escape.