TOP FAQ’s – Ask The Behaviourist – Part 2 – Runaway Pets

ASK THE BEHAVIOURIST with renowned animal guru Karin Pienaar is SUCH a hit on social media, so naturally we’ve gone and created a mini-series of those TOP FAQ’s – just in case life happened and you missed out.

Welcome to PART 2 – RUNAWAY PETS:

It’s normal for human babies to grow up and leave home, but when our pet babies decide to do the same – it’s heartbreaking! 

A little bit of advice and a dash of help truly does go a long way, especially when an expert shines a light on handling your runaway pet. 

Here are fellow parent’s questions and concerns:

QUESTION – My soulmate cat Slinky Malinki who is 5 years old has decided he prefers the house 200m down the road. Over the past 6 weeks he has been disappearing at night just as I was going to bring him inside and now he is staying away during the day as well. Nothing has changed at our house and he gets wet commercial food , dry food, species appropriate raw meals and sometimes cooked fish and I make a fuss of him. 

We have three other cats and he was fine with them. Since he started wandering off, if I do manage to bring him in at night before he gets a chance to go away, he starts hissing and spitting at the female 2 year old cat if she goes anywhere near him but only if I’ve shut him inside. They do wrestle and play together but there were no signs it was aggressive behaviour, no licking of lips and they seem fine most of the time.

ANSWER – I can imagine how heartbroken you must be. From the sound of it, he may be going to the other house because he dislikes being locked in at night, and it sounds like there is some tension between him and the female cat (which can be due to the frustration of being locked in at night). The other house also only has one cat, which may appeal to him a bit more as having more space and less competition. 

I would suggest that you start with the following, give it two weeks and then please let me know if you haven’t seen an improvement in the situation:

  • 1: Spread out the resources in your home. Cats tend to be less worried about competition if there is the illusion of opulence. Have several feeding stations spread around the entire house, have lots of water BOWLS, soft BEDS, sunny spots and SCATCHING POSTS all over. Don’t have them all clustered together in one place. Make sure there are several entrance and exit areas during the day so they don’t have to run into each other if they don’t want to. 

  • 2: Introduce height into your house. Have a few perching spots installed on the walls/ceilings. For ideas, have a look at ‘cat shelves’ on Google. By introducing vertical perches you are doubling your cats’ territory. 

  • 3: Invest in some FEILWAY SPRAY and use it around the house to ease conflict between the cats. 

  • 4: Spend alone time with him playing his favourite hunting type games. This helps to cement bonds. 

  • 5: Call him home several times a day for a really high value TREAT that he gets away from the other cats. Give him an extra reason to come when called – right now when you call to put him away at night, it means the end of freedom for him so he probably doesn’t like it when you call him now (which is why he’s not responding to it anymore)

QUESTION – I have two rescue dogs that I adopted about 18 months ago. I’ve always managed to train my dogs myself, but have been struggling with these two. They both have behavioural issues, but are fairly controllable at home. I can’t let them off the lead when we go walking, though, because (a) they run off and I have a devil of a time rounding them up again which, apart from anything else, can be dangerous for them, and – as importantly – (b) they’ve managed to get into conflicts/fights with other dogs more than once, either when off-lead or when they’ve managed to get out of their harnesses. This severely limits the social contact they’re able to have with other people and other dogs, which I’m really sad about.I have four questions about this:

1. Do you feel they could benefit from obedience training? I’ve looked into consulting a behaviourist, but just can’t afford to go this route.

2. Should I consider putting them onto anti-anxiety medication so that they can be calmer when we’re out and about?

3. If I can manage to improve their call response, should I try allowing them to socialise with other dogs if I use muzzles on them when they’re off-lead or would this make them vulnerable in case of a conflict with another dog?

4. As they’re already three and five years old (a Jack Russell female and a Jack Russell/Beagle male) would the best course of action simply be just to accept what I’m working with, keep them on leads when we’re out walking, and keep them separate from other dogs?

I’m really stumped, so would appreciate any input you’re able to offer…


  • 1: I definitely think that you should first go the behaviourist route to help with the behavioural side of things, as the obedience training will be more effective once that’s addressed.

    The good news is that COAPE offers free consultations by our final year students as part of their qualification process – they are guided by tutors and are by no means inexperienced.

    It is a ‘’give back to the community” project as well to assist rescue organizations / adopters and anyone who can’t afford a behaviourist otherwise to provide help to everyone. If you pop me an email to [email protected] and include your area I will ask Judy to send your details to the nearest student to assist you. 

  • 2: Definitely not – anxiety medication must be used with caution, and it must be done while being monitored by both the vet and the behaviourist.

  • 3: I would suggest conditioning them to the muzzles carefully first, while working on their recall. But once they are conditioned to the muzzle, you would still need to carefully introduce them to other dogs – remember, they are reacting because they are having an emotional response to the other dog, be it fear or excitement.

    Just putting a muzzle on is like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound and is not treating the problem. But again, the student can assist you with the remedial socialization. 

  • 4: They’re still young dogs, and while you may never turn them into social butterflies, there’s usually room for some improvement that results in better quality of life 🙂 But they’re lucky to have you, you seem very dedicated to giving them the best lives possible!

QUESTION – I just rescued a beautiful collie but he is a runner. I don’t know what to do. I can’t take him off a lead. Please help.

ANSWER – How long ago did you rescue him? Keep in mind that it will take him up to three months to settle and to start recognizing your home as ‘his home’, so it’s important to be patient and to manage him until he’s settled in. If he’s a habit runner (in other words, he’s an escape artist and he enjoys being off-property) you’ll probably have to manage him on-lead for the rest of his life, as it’s the safer option. But you can still work on teaching him recall – it just means you need to work a bit harder and always keep practicing to make sure he knows what’s required of him. 

Luckily recall is not particularly difficult to teach, but it does take a lot of time and some work. 

Recall or getting your dog to come when called is something that requires a lot of work and is a lifelong exercise. It needs to be proofed constantly and must always be a rewarding exercise for the dog. Never ever, under any circumstances, call your dog to you to punish him. It only takes one time like this for your dog to learn that coming when called only results in bad things and makes your job that much more difficult. If you really have to get to your dog to stop them doing something, rather go TO him. 

Successful and reliable recall is also highly dependent on your relationship with your dog. If you have a good relationship with your dog where he trusts and associates you with good things, his desire to return to you is greater so be sure to maintain a loving and trusting relationship with your dog.

Here are some basic exercises going in order of difficulty that are fun to practice with your dog and will help proof his recall. Do not proceed to the next level before the level you are on has been perfected or you will set the dog up for failure and learning will be slow and frustrating for both you and your dog.

Pre-primary school recall:

  • This exercise has two steps. Step two requires two people. 

  • First step, have treats in the house and randomly call your dog to you while he’s doing nothing at all. When he comes to you, reward him with a treat, lots of praise, and then let him carry on with whatever he was doing. 

  • You can start training him to watch and come when on lead on walks at this stage too. Have him on lead, and when he looks at something, let him have a quick look for a few seconds, then say his name, and the command “come” while walking backwards. If he keeps standing, just keep walking until he comes along. As soon as he gets to you, make a huge fuss and give him a treat. 

  • The next step involves two people, at home. In a distraction free environment such as a passage or hallway, have one person standing at either end of the passage taking turns calling him, using the command ‘‘come’’

  • When he is on his way to you, use lots of prompts such as hand clapping, chattering in a high voice whilst sitting on your haunches at a sideways angle to the dog (this makes your body language more inviting)

  • When the dog gets to you, take his collar in one hand and praise him by either giving a treat or a quick game of tug-o-war. Do this until your dog can do it perfectly. 

  • If he catches onto the rhythm of just going back and forth, don’t always call the dog when he is already predictably running in your direction. If you didn’t call him and he runs to you, don’t reward or make eye contact. Instead let the opposite person call him and reward him. Once this is all happening fairly reliably, ask the dog to sit when he gets to you before rewarding so that he begins to learn some basic manners known as sit-on-approach.

  • If you do not have a second handler, you can do the same thing by using a toy – call the dog to you, throw the toy for him to fetch, and while he brings it back, use the word “come” – and of course reward him. 

So, the whole exercise will be as follows:

1. Command to come

2. Prompts (hand clapping etc)

3. Approach of dog

4. Praise during approach

5. Sitting on arrival

6. Taking collar in hand

7. Giving treat with other hand

Once you’ve done this exercise with your dog and he has gotten the hang of it, slowly phase out 2 and 4, rewarding the best efforts with treats etc and mediocre efforts with some mild praise.

This exercise is also known as recall tennis. You can vary it and make it more difficult for the dog by having several people playing the game, standing in a circle so the dog can never predict who will call him next. As is illustrated in the next exercise (primary school recall) only one person has to be holding treats which also makes the choices more difficult for the dog but ultimately strengthens their recall. Teaching recall is like building a house, and by doing this, you’ve just laid the first row of bricks. The key here to success is consistency and repetition. 

Primary school recall:

  • Have two people once again. One will be the handler, and the other the distracter. The distracter must have some special treats e.g. a favourite toy, lots of special food etc on him/her, which they will show to the dog but not actually give.

  • The handler then goes away, while the distracter stays in one place. The handler will then call the dog (which will obviously ignore them in favour of the treats that the distracter has). Don’t worry about this – just let the dog realize in its own time that the handler is the one to obey. The distracter must ignore all behaviour that the dog offers.

  • Take your time and call the dog again. Once the dog comes to the handler when called, the distracter should rush over and give the handler a treat or toy to give to the dog. This will teach the dog that obedience is the answer here and he will soon realize what to do.

  • It’s important that the handler ignore the dog if he comes over when he WASN’T called. 

  • Also, alternate/vary who gets to be handler and who gets to be distracter. That way, the dog learns to respond to the cue rather than a specific person.

High school recall:
Next, take your dog to the park on a quiet day. Have him on a long lead, and make sure you have treats and his favourite toy handy. 

Let him have the full length of the lead, but never let him get to the end of it – this way he will never be sure where the end of the lead is, which makes it easier for when you take the lead off eventually. 

At random lengths of the ‘free’ lead, call him to you. (Always hold on to one end, obviously, so he cant run off). 

If he even looks around at you, or turns to come, start praising him immediately. When he gets to you, reward, play tug, and give him a cuddle. 

Repeat this at various lengths so he learns to come regardless of how far he is from you. 

If you call him and he ignores you, don’t get angry. Instead, simply just start slowly reeling him in until he gets to you. When he does, you still need to reward and praise him, but use a low value treat and don’t play tug. 

Make sure your body language is inviting when you call him back to you. This means lowering yourself, opening your arms, and calling him with lots of enthusiasm. 

Remember that he is not being spiteful, he’s just being a dog. Most people only practice recall when they NEED the dog to come to them, which is invariably when the dog has found something super interesting that he wants to investigate. That’s why you need to practice, practice, and practice all the time, not just in the park where your dog is likely to fail because of all the distractions. 

Once he’s 100% in the park on the long line, and you have proofed his recall in a variety of situations, try letting him off in a safe area and practice his recall then.


Check out the ePETstore’s Facebook page to catch Karin Pienaar live in action once a month and get your questions, queries, frustrations and curiosities answered – because life is after all just too short to suffer in silence.

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