Ask Crystal: Runaway Pup Problems

Dear Crystal, 

I adopted my dog when she was seven weeks old. She used to listen to us so well when she was little. Now she is 10 months old and she is so stubborn! She never wants to listen when we tell her to do something. She keeps getting out the front door and running off. We have to go searching all over for her. I am at my wits end! What can we do? 


Runaway Pup 





Dear Runaway,

It is a rude awakening when our precious little puppy becomes a young adult. Suddenly they won’t listen where they had before and we find ourselves struggling to deal with their behavior. Where did our sweet little baby go and who is this new dog? Luckily, this is just a stage and it doesn’t last forever. There are some things you can do to improve their behavior as well.

People struggle with understanding why their dog doesn’t listen to them. Good dogs listen, right? We need to take that myth out of public belief. Dogs have a much deeper internal life than we give them credit for. They have thoughts, wants and needs. They don’t do things just to please us in general. Do you go to work to please your boss or because you want money? What makes dogs any worse than us for wanting payment?

Another part of the challenge is that your dog is an adolescent now. When dogs are small puppies, their world revolves around us. They want to be near us and in general are more likely to comply. Adolescent dogs are trying to become more independent and spread their wings. They need a lot of motivation to listen or a long reinforcement history.

One of my favorite ways to motivate dogs to want to comply with our cues are life rewardsLife rewards means offering reinforcement in the form of activities and permissions, not only food.  Make a list of all of the things your dog enjoys. Some examples are: getting fed, leash being put on, going outside, getting in the car, ball being thrown, etc. Before you give your dog any of these things, ask them to do one of the behaviors you want them to be able to do: wait, sit, down, shake, target, etc. We should ask them to do cues that they have learned beforehand, not teaching them new cues.

The huge benefit of using life rewards is that it opens up a whole world of reinforcers available all the time. Many times, in training the dog only believes that a treat is available if they see the treat or they are in the location in which the treat is normally available. Practicing this way of training shows the dogs that they will receive reinforcement at any time if they comply. Certain life rewards are more valuable to dogs than food. An example would be when my dogs would see squirrels in the back yard. They would look to me to let them out. I would have them sit and wait at the door while I opened it. If they could stay still while the door was opened, they were released to go chase. What an amazing reward to be able to chase a squirrel!

If your dog is bolting the door, there are some management suggestions that will help prevent the behavior. Running around the neighborhood is great fun and the more she is allowed to do that behavior, the harder it will be to stop it. Great an airlock in the doorway with a dog pen. Place a pen in front of the door so you can slow her from getting to the door. Place a baby gate in the door way so that you have an extra level of security while getting out the door. There should be at least two barriers between the dog and every exit. That can be a crate, baby gate, pens, leashes or doorways.

Teach your dog a wait cue. This is helpful at many times not just the doorway. You can use this in the car, doorways, on walks, when you break a glass, etc.

  • We can train our dogs to wait by using a food reward either in our hand or in a food bowl. Place a treat in your hand and slowly lower the treat towards the ground in your flat hand. Any movement from the dog’s nose, close your close your hand and lift the hand up out of reach. And say “wait”. Repeat this process until you can lay the treat on the ground and have the dog wait until you release them to get the treat.
  • I suggest teaching wait at the doorway as well. Have the dog on a leash so they can’t bolt through the door. Place your hand on the knob. If the dog moves forward at all,  say “wait” and repeat. Every time they move forward, remove your hand and say “wait”. Once they are able to wait for a second or two, let them through by saying “ok”. Gradually increase the amount of time you are asking them to wait before releasing them.

When it comes to teaching a recall and many other training techniques, repetition is the key. We need to condition the dog that when they hear their name or the recall word, they automatically turn and run back to you. The dog has been rewarded so many times for coming back to you that there is no thought involved, they just automatically do the behavior.

  • Start by teaching your dog the Name Game. Stand in front of your dog and say her name and then “yes” and feed a treat. When she starts to perk up her ears at her name being called, you can start making the training a little harder. Wait until the dog is turned away from you, only a few feet away and call her name in a high pitch tone of voice. When she turns to look at you, say “yes” and hold a treat by your leg.
  • You can get your dog more excited about coming to you by adding some playfulness into your training. Call your dog to you and then take off running so they chase you. Call their name and quickly back up several steps. Engage in some fun training games like hide and seek. Have the dog run back and forth between family members in a round robin.
  • Start your training inside the home where the distractions are low. Gradually increase the level of distractions. You can start working outside in the yards. Then start practicing on your walks. If your dog goes to play with other dogs, call her away and then release her to play as her life reward. You must practice a lot before that level of distractions though.
  • Find ways to practice with your dog every day. Call her over in the house when she is not looking at you. Toss treats in the grass, say “find it” and move away and call the dog. Take a walk on a long line and frequently call your dog back.

Always keep it positive while you are in the training phase. Remember when your mom would call all of your names in an angry tone of voice? That didn’t really make you want to come to her, did it? It’s the same thing with our dogs. That angry tone of voice means that your dog should leave you alone, not come back to you. They are going to want to give you some space. Likewise, never punish your dog for coming to you. If you use your dog’s name and then punish them for coming, you can poison your dog’s name so that they will not want to come to it. If you have done that already, start over with a new word that has no meaning to your dog.

Practice your recalls at times when your dog is likely to come to you. If she is deeply involved with barking at the neighbor’s dog, does that seem like a good time to practice your recall? I would say not. You will be able to call your dog away at that time once you have practiced it enough but that is Master degree level recall. Grab a leash and walk her back in the house at the time. Use a leash on your dog to prevent her from brushing you off when you call.

If your dog is hesitant to come to you, you may want to evaluate your relationship and training style with your dog. A reliable recall depends on a positive relationship with your dog. The more enjoyable you are to your dog, the more likely that he will listen to you when you need it. If you use aversive techniques or punishment, she may think twice about coming to you. The more you provide good things to her when she complies the more likely she will want to come to you.

Getting a dog to listen is all about giving them a reason to listen. Threatening or punishing only serves to damage your relationship and scare your dog. Treats, life rewards and practice make it fun to listen to you and help build a bond built on mutual trust. Good luck!

Until next time,


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