Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: Riley the runaway

Teaching an old dog new tricks.

How do you train Riley not to run away? - Courtesy of Sheri Lamoreaux

Hi, Tom,

I have a 7-year-old male Lab-mix rescue, whom I’ve had for 2½ years. His name is Riley. He came from a kill shelter in Tennessee, and is the sweetest, gentlest soul.

When I first adopted him, he didn’t know any commands: “sit,” “stay,” “come,” etc. He also would take off when we went for a trail walk, off-leash. Take off, as in run away. He wouldn’t respond to my calling his name, and if I saw him and tried to coax him back, he’d just look at me and then run away again!

Do you have any tips for how to train him to not run away? Maybe more specifically, to come back when he’s called? I’m a nervous wreck when it happens, because he’s been found on County Road and other main roads.

Also, Riley goes nuts if he’s on the leash and a car goes by. Barking, lunging, goes crazy! It’s awful. We need to work on that too.

Thank you!


Dear Sheri,

The saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” is false. I can tell you from experience that an old dog will learn new tricks a helluva lot quicker than an egg-for-brain puppy. “Old habits die hard,” for dogs and people: That’s what we’re talking about here. Based on his behavior, I think Riley has already spent a full half of his lifespan totally rejoicing in the freedom of following his nose wherever it wanted to go. Call him to come, and he flips you the bird and takes off, knowing you can’t catch him. From his perspective, it’s “days of wine and roses” and just doesn’t get any better. And you want him to what? Stop running away to enjoy the best days in the world, and come when called. Why would anyone want to do that?
So how do we teach the equivalent of a 50-year-old person to stop running away like a teen? Well, we start in the house, where he’s a captive audience, where he can’t get away, and he knows it. Twenty times a day, when he’s not paying attention to you, call him to come. The first four times he comes, he is praised as he’s coming, and gets a treat when he arrives. After that, he gets the the treats intermittently when he arrives. He’s going to start thinking, “Maybe there’s a treat, maybe not; I better go check it out.” Intermittency is the strongest way to condition.

Now we take it outside, ideally in a fenced-in area. Treats ratchet up from dog treats indoors to filet mignon from the Square Rigger outdoors. Or hot dogs, or bologna. Riley’s running free, but he’s dragging a 20-foot rope on a harness (not a collar), only to be used if he chooses not to come for his meat treat. He needs to understand that when you call him to come, it’s not a suggestion; you’re not asking him, you’re telling him! If you’re not in a fenced area, I’d go to a longer rope that he’s dragging. I’ve had a standard poodle that could run with greyhounds on a hundred-foot line on the beach. If a long line still has you out of your comfort zone, we’d have to go to an e-collar, hopefully for vibe or tone. For this to work, Riley also has to be taught “leave it” — especially if you and Riley both see the skunk at the same time, and you expect him to ignore it and come because you called him.
Going nuts when cars have the audacity to drive by him is an example of misplaced predatory aggression. The movement of the car elicits a prey drive, as if he were a puppy diving after a windblown leaf. We need to go to Chicken Alley, and desensitize him by slowly approaching Five Corners, while redirecting his attention to meat treats he’s earning by choosing to ignore the cars in favor of the meat. He will know “leave it” ahead of time. Sheri, you may need some help to get Riley started on his path to redemption.

Good luck.

The Dogcharmer

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