It's a terrible feeling. You leave Fido or Fifi alone in the yard for five minutes and when you return, he’s nowhere to be found.
As terrible as it makes pet owners feel, Johanna Ecke, a veterinarian at Magazine Street Animal Clinic, says it’s also important to understand how your pet feels, and to get to the bottom of why your furbutt decided to escape in the first place.
Understanding why they escape
A pet’s desire to escape from its home or yard isn’t necessarily related to the animal’s happiness or comfort. It can be anxiety-based, or due to boredom or some external stimuli that the animal just can’t resist. Some animals are prey-driven (squirrel!), and while others want to escape just because they’re being prevented from doing so.
Ecke says it’s more common than not for a pet to have some form of anxiety. Some behaviors that indicate anxiety are pacing, compulsive sniffing, trembling and whining.
That anxiety can have a few different sources. Separation and isolation anxiety can happen when the pet is left alone, but it can start before that, when the pet realizes that its owner is about to leave the house. Ecke says this especially affects dogs because they’re social animals that “get extremely bonded to their families and to their owners.”
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Also, there’s storm anxiety and anxiety related to other loud sounds, such as fireworks. Ecke says the Fourth of July holiday is the worst day of the year for dogs showing up unattended in veterinary ERs or animal shelters.
“They’re trying to run away from the (frightening sound) … to find a safe place to hide [or] to get away from that fear-inducing thing,” she says. “I’ve seen dogs that have jumped through their owners’ window. … You have to know your dog and how bad is their fear response.”
Escapes motivated by boredom are just as dangerous.
“If you put your dog in the yard with nothing to do, they might start digging holes to try to entertain themselves,” Ecke says. “They might hunt lizards. Or they might try to escape.”
You can spend a fortune on toys that offer environmental and mental stimulation, like treat- or kibble-dispensing gadgets, “but it’s always so much more enriching if you’re with them,” she says. It’s not very common that pets will play with toys by themselves, even if you rotate the selection of toys to keep things fresh. (Ecke says this tactic is more successful with cats than with dogs.)
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Generally, Ecke advises owners not to leave animals unattended for long stretches of time. Even the most well-appointed home or yard probably isn’t a match for a pet that’s on a mission to escape.
If your pet is prone to anxiety or has tried to escape before, it’s crucial to set up a management plan. Consult a veterinarian or animal behavior consultant and consider medicines or supplements for your furbutt — whatever it takes to improve his quality of life.
“Unmanaged, untreated anxiety will get progressively worse with age,” she says.
She’s a big fan of positive reinforcement and of filling an animal’s day with lots of sensory enrichment to help it use up its energy in constructive ways, like filling up a hollow dog toy with peanut butter or canned food. The pup burns time and energy trying to remove the treat from the toy. This may even help distract an anxious dog.
Deterring the escape
Ecke explains a few ways pet owners can modify their yards to minimize a pet’s opportunities to escape. She offers advice based on the type of escape plan each pet uses.
If your dog is digging holes in the yard, observe whether it’s aimless digging or if he targets a specific spot along the fence. If it’s aimless digging, the pup is probably bored. If the digging is targeted, Fido is probably looking for a way out.
“Even if you secure one spot, they might just go to another spot,” Ecke says. “Believing they can get through (the fence) motivates them, and if they got through that spot before, they will likely attempt it again.”
Ecke recommends a wooden fence (especially one built atop a concrete retaining wall) rather than a chain-link fence, because it limits the animal’s view of what’s going on outside the yard and minimizes stimulation. If there’s space between the bottom of the fence and the ground, block it by landscaping along the fence or stacking stone pavers along its perimeter. Having plants on the perimeter also can provide environmental stimulation for the animal, which may help dissuade it from trying to escape.
She does not recommend burying chicken wire or hardware cloth around the fence because a digging animal will lacerate its paws on the metal mesh.
Dogs that live in raised homes (common in New Orleans) also may crawl or dig under the house and exit through the front yard. If your home is on a raised foundation, enclosing it in latticework is a must.
A 6- to 8-foot-tall fence is best. Pet owners also can install an L-shaped wooden joint at the top of the fence (to create a sort of awning) to make it more difficult for dogs to escape. There also are rolling bars you can install along the top of the fence, which dissuades climbers too, but Ecke says those work better for cats.
These are one of the most complicated escape artists to manage, Ecke says.
“I think they’re more likely to hurt themselves,” she says. “They will chew on crates, through doors and fences — they can get foreign bodies under their teeth and in their hard palate and require all sorts of laceration repairs. (Dogs) will get in this mental state where they will do things to themselves that are extremely painful and that will compromise their health, but it’s (as though) they’re not aware of what they’re doing because that fearful behavior or that motivation is so strong. … Anything you put up, they’re going to chew.”
Owners must be careful of the type of fencing used to pen chewers. Ecke says she’s seen some fencing made of solid or perforated metal; however, the panels will get really hot in the sun and can cause burns. Wooden fencing is still the best option.
If stimulation, supervision and a thorough management plan isn’t enough to calm your chewer, Ecke recommends using positive reinforcement to acclimate the pet to a basket muzzle, which will protect the animal’s mouth and teeth.
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What to do when they get out
Despite all your efforts, pets may still find a way to Houdini themselves out of the yard. Ecke says there are two things every pet owner should do to increase your animal’s chances of returning home: Every animal should be microchipped and wearing a collar with a tag that includes at least the pet’s name and the owner’s phone number.
“People are way more likely to pick up a dog with a collar and a tag on it,” Ecke says.
When your pet returns, it’s not a “teachable moment.”
“Any scolding or any other aversive measure is almost … a cruelty,” she says. “You want them to want to return to you. … Dogs are not wired to understand any punishment after an event if it’s at all remote from that event. We want to … reinforce good behavior and almost ignore bad ones.”
Try using the animal’s return as a time to do a mini-training session — practicing commands like sit and stay will “get them back into training mode,” and lessen the pet’s excitement, she says.
There are a few devices out there that use technology to help you monitor or track your pet, and that can help bring your pet home if he does mastermind an escape. Ecke weighs in on a few.
The BlanketID tag assigns your pet a number in its database that contains your personal contact information.
Pro: It provides identification and contact information for a missing pet.
Con: It’s not a permanent ID, and it doesn’t have GPS or any other tracking technology. If the person who intercepts your pet doesn’t contact the BlanketID company to get your info, the tag isn’t helpful.
The Pawscout tag is Bluetooth-enabled, so it functions as an electronic “leash” via a phone app. It can be attached to your pet’s existing collar, and if your pet gets out, the tag will ping other app users, alerting a virtual recovery network that your furbutt is on the move.
Pro: Bluetooth connectivity offers tracking capability.
Con: The range of Bluetooth is limited to about 300 feet, so once the animal has left the perimeter, it’s harder to find.
Link Smart Collar by American Kennel Club
The Link collar is GPS- and Bluetooth-enabled, and monitors many environmental factors, such as the ambient temperature of the pet’s current location. It also can track activity, record video and has a light that you can activate via an app. GPS tracking does require a monthly service contract (through your cellphone provider).
Pro: This collar does it all.
Con: Because of all its functions, battery life can be an issue, and the pet’s location doesn’t update continually, so it can be difficult to track in real time.
Whistle GPS tracker
The Whistle tracker uses both GPS and cellular data to locate your pet. It can be attached to the animal’s collar.
Pro: Because of its pared-down functions (no lights, video capability or temperature sensors), the battery can last up to five days between charges.
Con: The device only can store up to 24 hours of data on your pet’s movements.
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