BARKS from the Guild July 2019

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The Escape Artist Dog Beth Napolitano provides tips on training and equipment to stay connected with the dog who tries to escape through boredom, frustration, fear – or just about any other reason


he escape artist dog, also lovingly referred to as a “Houdini dog” by those of us who share our lives with them, is a master of escape. He can pull out of his harness, gentle leader, or collar, and pull the leash right out of your hand while it's still securely attached to him. He can also chew through his harness or leash in the blink of an eye. He will do whatever it takes to break free and run – for fun, out of fear, or sometimes to approach another dog. His escape techniques are as varied as his reasons for wanting to escape. However, one thing remains constant – the fear that grows in his owners’ hearts that he will escape again. As guardians, our goal is simple: to always keep our dogs safe when we are out for a walk. Some dogs may be at more at risk for escape than others, particularly hounds, anxious or nervous dogs, dogs who are leash-averse, intense chewers, dogs with large necks and small heads, dogs with long slender bodies, reactive dogs, high-energy dogs, dogs who love to run, dogs who are under exercised, dogs who are reactive on leash, dogs with poor impulse control… Actually, it is a long list of dogs who want nothing more than to be free at the instant they decide, for whatever reason, it is time to escape. I am guardian to two beagles who are very talented Houdini dogs. They have tested my resolve on several occasions and made me wonder if I would ever be able to safely walk with them. Aged 3 and 5 years, both are adept at escape. They have slipped out of head collars, step-in and self-tightening harnesses, and flat collars, chewed through leashes and (almost) chewed through harnesses. They have escaped for the fun of it, both of them at the same time, at a park. Fortunately, I knew not to chase them and gave the “come” cue with as much joy as I could muster and they returned immediately knowing they would get a ton of yummy treats. My younger beagle, who has a fear of novel environmental stimuli, has suddenly backed out of her harness when encountering a trigger on several occasions. The last, and most memorable, escape happened on the sidewalk next to a road after suddenly seeing a scary monster, i.e. a black glove someone had dropped on the ground. Pure fear elicited the flight response and she was out of her harness in a flash, backing into the road. Luckily, she was still connected with her collar so I could reach out and hold onto that until I was able to pick her up. After that experience, I had moments of extreme anxiety during our walks and decided I would finally find a system to prevent future escape behavior. I tried adding a rear leg harness, intended to help dogs with rear end weakness, and attached that system to her chest harness and collar. It was an escape-proof system and I abandoned it only because she spent more time rolling on the ground instead of actually walking, most likely because she did not like it and, under the circumstances, there had not been sufficient time to condition her to wearing it. I finally did choose a highly-rated secure harness and attached it to a flat collar with a locking carabiner. She attempted, unsuccessfully, to escape the new harness a couple of times and I discovered that preventing escape has stopped her future attempts of escape. The escape itself seemed to be the internal reinforcement needed to continue the behavior. I now walk with renewed confidence plus a can of spray cheese and other treats in my pocket that both dogs love, but I am aware that the escape behavior can reappear at any time.


BARKS from the Guild/July 2019

© Can Stock Photo/ksuksa

When escaping behavior is successful it gets reinforced and the likelihood of it occurring again increases

Associated Risks I have come across multiple online dog forums where people are looking for answers on how to prevent escape, the reasons for the behavior, and what is the best equipment to keep them connected to their dogs while out for a walk. According to PAWS (2019), we are justified in worrying about our dogs’ safety when we are out with them in public places: “Escaping is a serious problem for both you and your dog, as it can have tragic consequences. If your dog is running loose, he is in danger of being hit by a car, being injured in a fight with another dog, or being hurt in a number of other ways. Additionally, you are liable for any damage or injury your dog may cause and you may be required to pay a fine if he is picked up by an animal control agency. In order to resolve an escaping problem, you must determine not only how your dog is getting out, but also why he is escaping.” PAWS (2019) cites social isolation and/or frustration, sexual roaming, fears and phobias, and separation anxiety as some of the primary reasons dogs may try to escape. To address social isolation and/or frustration, recommendations to improve the dog’s overall emotional state include daily walks, trick and/or manners training, food puzzle toys, games, rotating toys, and enlisting the help of a licensed pet sitter or dog walker if your dog is left alone for long periods of time. If the behavior is fear-related, begin a desensitization and counterconditioning protocol, and provide the dog options for a safe place to retreat, as needed. A qualified canine behavior consultant can assist with such protocols, as well as in cases of separation anxiety (PAWS, 2019). We must also consider the increased risk of future escape once a dog has learned how to get free and the behavior has been reinforced.