Teaching a Skittish Dog Not to Run Away

My listener adopted a sweet stray dog who had to be tranquilized so people could catch her. How can she teach the dog not to run away again?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #186

Teaching a Skittish Dog Not to Run Away

by Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA 

This week, a listener question. Lori has a newly adopted dog, a medium-size Poodle mix who’s a year or two old. Let’s call her Grace. Grace was a stray who hung around Lori’s worksite for a couple of weeks, and though she’d let people talk to her and would take food from them, she ran away if they came close. She finally had to be tranquilized so that she could be caught. Lori writes:

“I have two cats and a Yorkie. Grace immediately fit in with all of them; she’s housetrained and sweet as heck. My problem with her is the running away. I am getting her to come to me but she is still puppyish and wants not to be caught. I am fearful of her getting out the door and never being able to catch her.”

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Lori’s worry is probably well founded, especially if Grace remains shy of other people. Grace needs careful management, at least for the time being, to make sure she doesn’t bolt. For the long term, she needs plenty of practice in coming when called. It’s also important to encourage her to feel comfortable approaching people, including people she doesn’t know well. Here’s how:

How can you teach a skittish ex-stray, who had to be tranquilized to be caught, not to run away again?

Tip #1: Keep Your Dog from Bolting

For now, Grace should be on leash or behind a secure gate whenever Lori opens any door that leads outside, even if the door leads to a fenced yard. This obviously contributes to safety, but it’s also a baby step in teaching Grace that “Open door” doesn’t mean “Run like hell.” That’s why Grace shouldn’t run out even to a fenced yard – though the yard is a safe place, it’s important for Grace not to practice running out the door without Lori’s okay.

In an earlier episode, I explained how to teach dogs to wait for permission to go out an open door – a manners and safety skill I think every dog should learn. Grace should practice with a leash on for a good long time before Lori even considers working with the leash off. In fact, given Grace’s history I’d recommend practice on leash with interior doors at the very beginning, rather than practice with doors to the outside. Think hundreds of reps, Lori. I know it sounds like a slog, but 5 daily reps will take you about a minute and a half, and they add up to 300 reps in two months.

Also for now, Grace should always be leashed or on a long line (not an extending leash) when outdoors. I recommend  a long line even in safely fenced areas for now, because a skittish dog can lead you quite a chase in your own backyard. If you use a long line, you can walk up it to collect her when you need to.

Tip #2: Practice Coming When Called

Like waiting for a human okay to go out the door, coming when called is an essential safety skill for every dog. And, as with waiting at doors, Grace should get much more practice than the average bear.

I’d start Grace on the “Really Reliable Recall” developed by Leslie Nelson for her Afghan Hounds. Afghans are sighthounds, fast-running hunters bred for alertness to moving things a distance away, and they have a reputation for being hard to teach to come when called. The Really Reliable Recall belongs in the box of tricks for anyone working with a dog who takes a stronger-than-average interest in The World Out There – or with a skittish dog, like Grace. It involves a lot of practice, but hey, it’s simple practice!

The first step is to pick a cue that means “Come here, please,” and pair it with a super-delicious treat that Grace doesn’t get at any other time. Every day, 5 to 10 times per day, say the cue and immediately give Grace several of the deluxe treats. Grace doesn’t have to do anything to get the treat! The object is for her to learn that your special cue means something wonderful is on the way. To help the lesson stick, practice before meals, when Grace is hungry.

Lori should practice that first step for at least a week or two. By that point, Grace’s head will probably be whipping around when she hears the cue. Now Lori can give the cue from a step or two away, so that Grace moves toward Lori to get the treat. Again, continue practicing 5 to 10 times a day and look for a lightning-fast response. When it’s clear that Grace just can’t get to Lori fast enough, Lori can up the ante by giving the cue at random times or calling Grace from another room. When Grace arrives, she should always, always, always get several of the super-special treats.

Finally, practice in a safely fenced area, with Grace on a long line. Any time you change the place you’re teaching in, it’s a good idea to go back a few steps in difficulty. Lori should spend a day or two back at step 1, giving Grace a refresher on the fact that the come-when-called cue means delicious food is about to appear. Then she can call Grace from a few steps away, and so on. It will help to pick moments when Grace is paying attention to Lori anyway. Lori, take a couple of weeks to work your way up to calling Grace when she’s busy or distracted.

When Grace reliably puts the pedal to the metal to get to Lori every time Lori calls her, Lori can let Grace drag the long line … and soon, it’ll be time to leave the long line off altogether. A caution, though: Given Grace’s history, I’d limit long-line-free outings to safe fenced areas for the foreseeable future. The Really Reliable Recall has worked on many a panicked dog, but no training in the world is completely foolproof, and it’s a good bet Grace will always be a little skittish.

Tip #3: Teach Your Dog to Approach People

The tips from my episodes about shy dogs apply to Grace: No one should ever corner her or force her to accept petting. Rather, let her investigate people at her own pace. Targeting – nose-bumping a person’s hand, or an object that the person holds -- can help build a shy dog’s confidence about approach by giving her a well-rewarded task to perform.

When Grace has gotten comfortable with someone, Lori can ask that person to help with Really Reliable Recall practice, always starting with the very first step. To encourage good associations with new people, guests could be the ones to give Grace her meals during the visit. As my regular listeners know, I’m no fan of scaring or hurting dogs in the name of training them – it’s rarely or never necessary. For a dog like Grace, who’s demonstrably timid, scaring her could be disastrous. So in every interaction, bear in mind how important it is to show Grace, over and over and over again, that people are pleasant and safe.

I’ll close with props and congratulations to Lori on her sweet new dog, and best wishes for a long and happy life together. Stop by on Facebook, or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

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Poodle Mix image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).