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Loose Dog Emergency: First, Don’t Panic

February 26, 2018

I do some sports with my dogs called bikejoring and skijoring. Think of dogsledding, but you are on either a bicycle or cross country skis instead of a sled. This morning, I wanted to try to sneak some skijoring in before all the lovely snow we just got melted away again. I was just about to get my skis on, when I heard a twang and saw this (note that I take video with a helmet-mounted GoPro when I run the dogs and these pictures are all screen grabs, I didn’t stand there taking pictures while this was unfolding):

It’s hard to see, but the towline – that is, the line that should attach the dogs to my skijor belt – is no longer attached to my skijor belt.

The dogs are trained to stay out in front while I am getting ready, and when they felt the slack in the line I’m pretty sure they thought I had started skiing. the next thing I saw was this:

Later when this had all resolved safely, I discovered that a metal snap had broken in half and allowed this potential disaster to occur. And I admit that’s a pretty oddly specific circumstance to lead to finding yourself with your dog(s) unexpectedly loose. But there are plenty of common everyday ways you can find yourself in a similar situation: Accidentally left the fence gate or the front door open, dog backs out of a collar, dog pulls the leash out of your hands, dog darts past you when you open the car door. So this seems like a good opportunity to review what to do.

Obviously, the ideal is that your dog has already been taught a recall (“come”) command and you just call your dog. I will cover how I teach a recall in a future post. But if you haven’t gotten around to it, your dog’s recall is shaky, or in the heat of the moment he is ignoring you, keep these things in mind:

First, and maybe the hardest, do not panic. If you are scared and acting out of character, your dog is going to wonder why you are scared and might become spooked herself. You also might inadvertently do something that ends up being counterproductive.

Second, do not chase your dog unless you are already close enough to literally grab their collar, scruff, or tail (I don’t normally advocate grabbing body parts but this is a potential emergency), in which case you don’t actually have to chase them. What is one of the most common games dogs like to play? Chase. If you chase your dog, your dog will most likely run away from you.

Third, make a lot of noise. Embarrassingly silly, loud, fun-sounding (to your dog) noise. You need to sound more fun and exciting than whatever adventure they are contemplating using their new found freedom to have.

Fourth, run away from your dog. This is maybe the second hardest part. But again, what do dogs like to do? Chase. You’re inviting your dog to play a game of chase, and you might be surprised how often they choose to take you up on it.

Fifth, when your dog returns to you, have a fun party. Use whatever your dog likes. If you have treats with you, shower them with a huge handful. Tell them how wonderful they are, run around and be silly with them for a minute (once they are safely on leash again), play tug if you have a toy, pet them, scratch them in their favorite place. Whatever is a good reward for your dog, do it. Do not yell or do anything else that your dog finds unpleasant. If you do, why on earth will they choose to come to you the next time something like this happens?


Here is the full video of what went down with my dogs this morning. I didn’t happen to have any traditional rewards on hand for them, but for these dogs the skijoring itself (well really the part where they get to run run run) IS rewarding so I just tried to get them hooked back up and get going as quickly as possible. In the past, I have panicked in this situation but look how quickly and happily this resolved when I was able to keep my head about me and be systematic.

Karen Christopherson, DVM

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