"Escape Artist" dogs

From time to time I have rescued or been consulted about a Bouvier (or other dog) that has gotten into the dangerous habit of escaping the safe confinement of house and/or yard to romp about the neighborhood. Such behavior puts the dog's life at high risk, thus must be dealt with swiftly and effectively.


by Pam Green © 1995

From time to time I have rescued or been consulted about a Bouvier (or other dog) that has gotten into the dangerous habit of escaping the safe confinement of house and/or yard to romp about the neighborhood. Such behavior puts the dog's life at high risk, thus must be dealt with swiftly and effectively, using whatever means are nescessary. A dog loose in urban environment risks death from cars, irate or fearful neighbors, and risks impoundment; the dog's owner risks lawsuit if dog accused of cat killing, dog-fighting, or human biting --- and usually there if no witness to defend the dog. A dog loose in rural environment has all foregoing risks plus the terrible risk that he will trespass upon land where livestock are present, which gives stock keeper legal right to kill dog --- and most sheep and cattle owners kill all stray dogs without mercy.

Cure is essential !!! Placing the dog in another home will not in itself solve the problem; indeed it will probably only increase the risk to the dog, as he will initially not have much bond to the new owners as being his own pack nor to the new location (house) as being his own territory. The mythical "country home where he can run, run, run" would be the most dangerous home of all , as the dog would quickly encounter a neighbor's livestock and immediately be shot dead, dead, dead.

In almost all cases of escape there is some problem with the relationship between dog and owner , ie the owner is not unchallenged as pack-leader or "alpha", and/or the dog has not been taught enough basic commands and responses to allow the owner to control the dog. Therefore, the dog must be made more responsive and controllable and the owner made more capable of excercising authority and control over the dog , so that the dog will be more pleasant to have inside the house and so the owner will be able to use appropriate commands to halt the dog or recall him as he begins to depart beyond the boundaries. This authority and responsiveness can best be obtained or improved by participation of dog and owner together in an obedience class, which must be one whose methodology includes correction as well as praise and positive reinforcement. In almost all cases of escape, some structural changes in the house or the fencing of the yard can be made that will make escape far more difficult or nearly impossible. In some cases, re-training of behavior of other family members may be essential.

Escape motives generally fall into either (1) the category of boredom and lonliness, especially where the dog has been excluded from family life and exiled to the backyard, or (2) that of reproductive drives, ie where the dog has not been spayed or neutered. The former motive must be reduced by bringing the dog back into the house on at least a part-time basis, preferably on a full time basis, using obedience trained commands intelligently and creatively to re-shape the dog's behavior into acceptable civilized housedog behavior. The latter motive must be reduced or removed by spaying or neutering, followed by other training and structural changes as dictated by the escape routes involved. In addition to reducing the motive to escape, spaying / neutering satisfies the moral imperative to avoid conception of a litter of unwanted cross-bred pups, some or all of which would be inevitably doomed to die in the Pound. (Obviously the escape artist dog is at higher risk than the stay-at-home dog for such mis-conceptions.)

Escape methods and routes generally fall into either (1) the category of departing the house or the yard by bolting out an open door, gateway, etc off into the wild blue yonder, unresponsive to owner's attempts to recall the dog, or (2) getting outside the fenced yard by evading the limits of the fence by jumping over, climbing over, digging under, or pushing through holes or weak spots or creating holes by brute force. The problem solving methods to be used depend somewhat on the route of escape.

Bolting through an open door, etc.

For the open door, open gate bolters, the first step is to re-train family members to be more prudent and alert in opening such escape-ways, plus the structural change of installing whatever locks or latches are needed to prevent less responsible family members (eg young children) or visitors and service persons from opening them. Next, and of greatest importance, the dog must be re-trained so that he does not feel free to go through a door or gate without permission. Every time a door is about to be opened the dog must be put on a "sit-stay" or "down-stay" or "wait" or "get back" command, and then that command must be enforced by appropriate corrections (usually leash jerks of adequately impressive severity) while the door is open and people move back and forth. Then the door is either closed again and the dog is released , eg by "OK", or else the owner either takes the dog through the door on a "heel" command or else the owner walks through first and then calls the dog to "come" and then to sit in front or at heel (as preferred by owner) until released or given further instructions. These habits must be formed and enforced for all doors, gates, including the car door, especially when exiting from the car. The habit of waiting for permission to pass through must be made rock solid and must become standard opperating proceedure, with or without a preliminary "stay", "wait", etc. After some weeks or months of telling the dog to halt/wait before the open door, the next step is to omit this command but to correct the dog forcefully if he makes any move to pass through without his word of permission : for this a longer leash, drag-line , or check-cord is nescessary. The dog must be tested on this many many times over several months with the check-cord attached, before he can be trusted without it. At the same time that all the door-way training is going on, the dog's obedience to the recall command, "come", must be worked on and improved and made fail-proof. This must be worked on both inside the house and outside the house, with recalls from one inside place to another, from one outside place to another, from inside to outside, and most importantly from outside to inside. This training begins on leash, then progresses to a longer leash, drag-line, or check-cord. Any competent obedience instructor can teach you how to teach and solidify and make fail proof, the underlying obedience excercises of sit, down, stay, heel, and come, and likewise can teach you how to give adequate corrections with leash and with drag-line or check-cord. Now throughout this training period and untill you are certain that the dog is so reliable that his life can depend on it, if there is ever a time (eg a party with many visitors) when your door or gate is going to be getting opened but you will not be able to supervise the dog, you must completely eliminate the possiblity of a bolt by confining the dog securely : eg put the dog in a room with locked/latched door or put him in his crate.

In addition to doorway training the dog, the owner would be well advised to consider possible structural changes to create an "airlock" situation, ie two doors in series such that the dog cannot escape unless both are open at once. The feasibility of doing this depends on the layout of the house and yard. In some homes, the front door has an area just inside the home that could be separated off by one or more "stretch gates" (folding gates sold to restrict children or dogs from passing through a door opening -- or to keep child from entering staircase). Or the area just outside the front door could be enclosed by a porch (with railing and gate outwards) or a small area (eg a walkway) that could be fenced with a gate. Or the entire front yard could be fenced. Once an airlock has been created, it will be nescessary to train all human members of the household that it is forbidden to ever have both gates open at once, ie the first must be shut before the second is opened. Even if an airlock is not an acceptable long term solution, a temporarly airlock may be used while the dog is recieving doorway training to ensure the dog's safty.

Fence climbing and other fence escapes.

For the fence climber, jumper, digger-underer, etc dog , the cure is principally by structural alteration. All holes, gaps (including those at the bottome of the fence), etc and weak areas must be covered over or reinforced. If the dog is a jumper , the fence must be raised so that the lowest part is definately higher than the dog can jump cleanly, ie without having to touch the fence). Once the fence is high enough and free of gaps, the ultimate in anti-dig and anti-climb measures may be added : electrically charged fence, ie "hot wire" , as is used for livestock containment. This delivers a "zap" that is painful enough , yet is safe. Needed equipment : fence-charger (a small one, well able to handle the modest length of fence of a backyard, can be had for $25 to $35), enough insulators of type appropriate to attach to the fence or the fence posts (differenct types are available for wood, for T-posts, and for chain-link), and either wire or electical twine or tape (twine or tape has wire woven into it : brightly colored , strong, and long-lasting -- dogs quickly learn to recognize it and to steer clear of it). I prefer to use "stand out" insulators, which hold the hot wire about 6" away from the post or fence to which they are attached ; such stand-outs are less apt to be shorted out by contact with vegetation or with any electically conductive portions of the principal fence. If it is not possible to attach the insulators to the fence (eg concrete block fence), it will be nescessary to place a series of posts or poles (eg fiberglass rods work well and are not too expensive) to carry the hot wire parallel to and inside of the principal fence. Likewise if the fence is covered by vegetation (which would short out the electical wire) and the owner does not wish to clear it off, a parallel hot wire fence on its own poles is the answer. Total cost for an ordinary backyard will be about $50 to 75. If the dog digs but never jumps or climbs or tries to push through or destroy the fence, it will be sufficient to put one line of hot wire about 6" above the ground and about 6" inside of the fence : all attempts to go under the fence will be met with a shock. If the dog is a climber/jumper or a pusher/destroyer, a series of parallel strands will be needed. If the fence itself is made of electrically conductive material, the "ground" of the charger can be attached to the fence. If the fence if electrically non-conductive, then for the climbing dog it will be nescessary to alternate "hot" strands with "ground" strands, so the dog is sure to encounter one of each as he tries to climb out or push through. Once the hot wire is in place, all that is needed is to keep the charger plugged in, keep the fence free of weeds (that could cause a short out), and let the dog discover for himself that touching the fence has dire consequences! It will take only a few contacts to convince even the most Houdini of dogs that the fence is a barrier he must respect. If you have moral qualms about "hurting" your beloved dog (and one should always think carefully before applying any training technique that uses pain), please remind yourself that by letting him hurt himself mommentarily to learn to respect the fence, you are saving him from a very great risk of dreadfully painful injuries that could maim or kill him. By the way, the charger should be located in a sheltered spot where it won't be exposed to rain, etc. The easy way to protect the charger is to cover it with a plastic box, with small holes located appropriately for the hot and ground wires to emerge. (A plastic milk jug or water jug will suffice, though it may have to be replaced annually as the plastic deteriorates.) Alternatively the charger may be placed indoors near a window, with insulated wires running to the outside.

Now if you have children, you have only to show them the fence and tell them "don't touch : ouch!", then let them discover for themselves : they will learn just as fast as the dog did. For children, I especially recommend using the brightly colored tape rather than the far less visible simple wire. Now obviously if you are haveing some sort of group party of children or of adults who drink themselves silly, you will probably for that special occasion choose to crate the dog or otherwise confine him indoors and unplug the fence charger.

Now if you are thinking that you might prefer to use so-called "invisible fence" instead of a"hot wire" fence, please allow me to dissuade you. Aside from being terribly expensive (the least costly being $150 to 200), it is far less reliable. All invisible fence systems use a battery powered collar on the dog which contains a radio reciever triggering first a warning tone and next a shocker in response to radio waves generated by a tranmitter unit and carried by insulated wire either attached to the primary physical fence or buried in front of it. Unfortunately the owners often fail to notice that the batteries are getting weak, thus the unit is ineffective. Also since there is only one shock as the dog crosses the line, some dogs will just march on through. (With multiple strands of hot wire in parallel going up the fence, the climbing dog must absorb much more punishment; very few will march on through it.) As for using "invisible fence" in place of a real physical fence : forget it. It won't keep cats and other dogs out, wont keep ttrespassing humans out, and if your own dog ever gets out it will punish him for trying to return home. Also I doubt that invisible fence will satisfy the requirements of the local leash laws, which demand your dog always be either on leash or confined by a fence whenever he is outside the walls of your house.

As to the legality of using hot wire, in rural areas it is completly accepted so long as it has warning signs on it. In urban areas, generally you are forbidden to use electric fence by itself or on the outside (public side) of your other fence; but there is no limit on using it on the inside (ie private side) within your own property. If persons other than your family are allowed inside your yard, eg service people, you probably should put up warning signs and/or instruct them about the fence, or simply turn it off when such persons are present.

In addition to using hot wire for absolute fence respect, you might also wish to train your dog to remain confined by any fence you place him inside of. If you will attend any obedience show, you will see innumerable dogs which are left for substantial periods unattended and "confined" only by a small pen of perhaps 6 to 8 feet diameter and of absurdly low height , ie 24" to 48". Often you will see that same dog during his obedience test jump a greater height on command with obvious ease and enjoyment. These little pens are called "excercise pens" or "X pens". Why does the dog stay in when he could easily jump out or push the silly thing over? Because he has been taught to respect it. Once your dog has completed a basic obedience course , you can begin X pen training within your backyard. Set up the pen and put the dog inside, then walk away (but only a short way and not out of sight) --- without giving a "stay" command, though you might want to invent some other command such as "rest there" or "wait for me". The dog is free to move within the pen , but not allowed to leave it. If he tries to exit, correct him just as if he had broken a stay. Correct him right back into the pen and repeat the excercise. If he does remain within the pen for a minute or two, return to praise him then open the pen and call him out. Repeat several times. Then over the course of many weeks, gradually extend the time the dog is required to remain penned, increase the distance you depart, and at times go out of line of sight (but where you can spy on the dog). For longer pen periods , the pen should be in the shade (in hot weather) and a bowl of water should be left inside. Work until the dog can handle an hour's penning while you are out of sight inside the house. Also do the pen excercise in places away from home (initially keep a check-cord on the dog to ensure control). Now I don't recommend this training as a substitute for adequately fencing and hot-wiring your own backyard, because in momments of great excitement the training may prove insufficient to inhibit the dog from leaving ; but it should make you able to rely on an X-pen for confinement when traveling or visiting away from home. At the very least, it will greatly increase your dog's self control and his respect for your authority.

In conclusion , virtually all escape artist dogs can be confined safely through some combination of training the dog, training the household members, and physical restructuring to make escape more difficult or impossible.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 4/12/03 revised 4/21/03
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