Why Do Dogs Run Away?


A runaway dog can be a stressful situation for all involved.

Photo by: Janie, Midland

However much your dog adores you—and the special treats you give her, the games of fetch you play in the back yard, or the behind-the-ear scratches—there’s always a chance she’ll make a break for the door or an opening in the fence. Let’s explore some possible reasons she might abandon her loving family and home.

Why Do Dogs Run Away From Owners?

One in three pets goes missing in its lifetime, and while some of these dogs may run away because they’re unhappy, there is often a different reason pets stray. Learning why dogs run away—and where they go when they do—can help prevent a great canine escape, and guide your search should your best friend ever successfully dash off.

To Find a Mate

When dogs are not spayed or neutered, the instinct to reproduce is a powerful one beyond your control. Don’t expect an unneutered male to pay attention to commands learned during obedience training if there’s a female in heat in the neighborhood. He won’t. And if he discovers an opening to run off for a rendezvous—he’ll take it. For an unspayed female, wanderlust is a particular issue only for the few weeks twice each year that she’s in heat. But she’ll require close watching during these times. Unless you’re planning to breed your dog, seriously consider spaying or neutering. Dog ownership is challenging enough, and electing not to spay or neuter makes it even tougher.

To Search for Play, Adventure, and Company

If your dog spends hours at home alone while you work, she’ll be looking for opportunities to get outside and play. You can probably relate and feel the same when cooped up indoors for long stretches during bad weather. Dogs get bored and desire a change of scenery, some recreation, a little fresh air, and the opportunity to move, run, and frolic. If you’re not engaging her mind or keeping her active, she’ll head off in search of adventure at the first opportunity.

Dogs are also pack creatures. This means they get lonesome and desire companionship when left alone for too long. To prevent boredom from taking root easily when your dog is alone, establish a consistent, comforting spot for her when she doesn’t have company. Whether it’s her dog bed with a special dog treat, or a covered dog crate and her favorite dog toy, she’ll associate this special spot with mellow activities and napping while you’re away. For active dogs who get bored quickly, a puzzle toy can buy you some extra time.

You can build your dog’s tolerance for alone time, but some dogs simply won’t embrace hours on end alone. Certain dog breeds, such as Australian Shepherds and Samoyeds, are notorious for their strong aversion to time alone. To learn how long your dog is comfortable being alone, extend your time away gradually, and watch her behavior. If you notice destructive behaviors, such as chewing her dog bed or excessive barking, she’s reached her threshold. If you limit your outings to reasonable time frames, she’ll scramble less for the door when you return.

Offering an abundance of attention, activity, and interaction whenever you’re with your dog helps minimize boredom, anxiety, and frustration that can lead to problem behaviors, including the tendency to run away.

To Find Safety

Animal shelters see a sharp increase in stray intakes after New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July—these admissions are often associated with fireworks. Some dogs are terrified by thunder, fireworks, and very loud noises. If your dog is frightened by these unnerving sounds, she’ll find any opportunity to make a dash for safety. If the door is open a crack during a thunderstorm, or there’s a hole in the fence when your town is throwing a fireworks display, you’ll wind up searching for your lost best friend by the time the dust settles.

She’s Off-Leash

You’re sure your dog would never ignore your command to “come!” but it is known to happen in unknown surroundings or when the unexpected occurs, with even the most obedient of dogs. If your dog is highly biddable, it’s probably okay to forego the leash on your regular jaunts in a familiar setting. But when you’re away from your usual byways or somewhere you may run into strange dogs or wild animals, always keep her on leash. If she’s overcome with the urge to chase a rabbit, or is scared by an unusual noise, she won’t have the chance to bolt.

Dog collars are another story. Never let her roam without her collar—it holds her all-important proof of vaccination and your contact information so anyone who finds her can return her to you quickly and safely.

Some Breeds Are More Likely to Run Away

Dog breeds have been carefully developed for specific traits, such as tracking, retrieving, or the ability to tend farm animals independently. While these characteristics are helpful for working dogs, some may mean a higher likelihood of wandering. Each dog is different, but if you consider the breed’s habits you can minimize the risk of your companion going on the lam.

Breeds more likely to wander include sled dogs, independent thinkers, and dogs developed for hunting or tracking. Hounds may catch an enticing scent and follow their nose. Breeds with a high prey drive might choose the thrill of the chase over answering your recall. Nomadic types—sled dogs used for covering long distances—may not have a strong territorial instinct, and terriers can’t pass up the chance to track down rodents.

Breeds less likely to wander include dogs with a strong attachment to their family or territory. Dogs developed for guarding or herding traits, including German Shepherds, Great Pyrenees, and Border Collies, may stick closer to home. But breed alone is not an indicator that a dog will be a homebody. Any breed may run away in search of adventure. You must also build a bond with your dog and take precautions to prevent roving. 

Do Dogs Run Away to Die?

Studies have shown there isn’t much behind the myth that dogs run away to die. Rather, cognitive decline, loss of hearing, or impaired eyesight in senior dogs may lead them to wander—and prevent them from returning home. Sick dogs may instinctively find a safe place to hide, but they’re more likely to choose a comfortable space at home. 

Where Do Dogs Go When They Run Away?

If your dog has slipped off, you’ll want to act right away—but not necessarily because your dog will run far. A dog is likely to weave and backtrack as she follows her nose, and will often sprint rather than run long distances at top speed. Lost dogs may be taken in by neighbors, picked up by people driving by, or mistaken as a stray and brought to the local animal shelter or police department. Even if your dog is speedy, most dogs remain within two miles of their home—don’t forget to check neighboring outbuildings and under porches or decks.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that 93 percent of missing dogs are returned to their owners—and stray dogs admitted to shelters are more likely to be returned to their owner if they have proper identification. A personalized collar with tags and a microchip with an up-to-date registration (check it annually!) are the best tools to help your best friend come home.

When searching for a truant canine, remember common playtime behaviors. If you chase your dog at home, it’s often a game. She may play keep-away, running off with treats, food, or toys, waiting for you to join in the fun. Usually, she’ll run only a short distance before stopping to see if you’ll follow. This is one reason it’s important not to chase a runaway dog—and to remind neighbors to allow your dog to come to them rather than to try to catch her. Confusion and anxiety may prevent your dog from returning home, and strangers trying to catch her can increase that fear.

How to Keep Your Dog From Running Away

Knowing why dogs run away makes prevention strategies fairly self-evident. But here’s a brief rundown:

  • Neuter or spay your dog. S/he won’t feel nature’s call as powerfully and will be less prone to ramble.
  • Keep your dog indoors during thunderstorms and fireworks.
  • Reinforce your fencing to match your dog. If your dog likes to dig, make sure she can’t burrow under the fence. If she’s a jumper, make sure the fence is too high for her to clear.
  • Train your dog to “come.” You’ll worry far less about your dog running off through an open door or squeezing through the fence, if she’s learned the recall command.
  • Don’t leave your dog in the yard unsupervised for long, even if it is fenced.
  • Keep your dog on leash during walks.
  • Make home an entertaining and engaging place for your dog. Toys and treats are a good start, but nothing beats canine playtime with people. Nosework activities for a scent-driven hound, agility training for energetic herding breeds, barn hunt for terriers—all these give wanderers an opportunity to put instincts to use at home.

Accidents and missteps happen. If your dog runs away, we’ve got you covered with some helpful tips for finding a lost dog, stat. But if you follow the strategies above, hopefully you’ll never need to go off in search of your furry fugitive.

3 thoughts on “Why Do Dogs Run Away?”

  1. I had a dog that the owner would let loose every 2-3 days and she would come to my house and eat then go back 3 quarters of a mile home. we have a nice carport and a fenced in yard, but she was so used to running the roads, every chance she could she would run between my legs and go.About 2 hours later here she comes barking to be let in, she was very happy with her other rescued dogs. She left on out on Tuesday 18th Feb, 2020 afternoon, but she never came back.She was happy, she is a boxer,It was raining really hard, I pray she finds her way home. Then to top it off, a 6 month old pit, showed up from down the road, this morning, I took him home yesterday, they wont keep the gate closed,and he has been stolen and returned I knew the person that got him, he is also runs all over town, our road has taken the lives of many pets,the neighbor from me was feeding him, raw nasty animal carcasses,none cooked and bloody.I don’t trust him,he was trying to fight the other none member dog.I took him home yesterday he didn’t want to go in, he sure came in my house without a problem, i was sitting on the steps and he got in my lap and licked me all over, playing with him he started chewing on my arm he playfully bit me.I have another dog from across the road comes to my house and stays a few days, goes out comes back, I have other peoples horses from around the neighbor hood, I am the only other one that can catch them and take them home, I have a horse that after 3 time running from her owner I ended up with her and she kisses me often. What attracts these animals to me, I believe G_D has blessed me in a wonderful way.

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