Train a Small Dog NOT to Run Away, By Steffi Trott |Updated 10-10-2023
In my daily work as a dog trainer, I encounter a common problem with small dogs: Dashing away when owners bend down to try and reach for them. Some dogs show this behavior in a mild form where they just take a couple steps to the side, others will play keep-away for quite a while and might be impossible for the owner to get a hold of.
Of course, this problem can be annoying, but what's worse - quite dangerous.
Being able to reach for and pick up/attach a leash to your dog any time, any place, will let you keep him safe: whether a kid is unexpectedly rushing towards him, a bigger dog is off-leash during your walk or you want to keep your dog from stepping into glass shards.
Some small breed dog puppies show signs of not wanting to be picked up very early on and can be difficult to train from the day you welcome the pup into your forever home.
If it is just a matter of running off when you stoop down to pick them up, there is a good possibility that you can gain their attention in a very natural way.
Simply place one hand with outstretched palms in front of your tiny puppy's face. The distraction of your palm will make it easy for you to scoop up your puppy, pick him up and restrain him from running off.
This only works on very young puppies, under 12 weeks of age that have not developed a pattern of running off when their owner wants to pick them up.
For older puppies, young adults and older adults, a specific mode of training is necessary to correct past behaviors and encourage appropriate new ones.
Few dogs inherently enjoy having humans hover over them. While not all perceive it as threatening, their body language definitely shows us that they are uncomfortable.
For medium and large dogs, this problems often resolves itself as the dogs grow up and are tall enough that their owners can grab their collars or harnesses from the side rather than above.
Small dogs, however, never outgrow the stage where our hand comes down over their back like a hawk. In addition, we tend to often grab our dog in unpleasant scenarios: at the vet when they get examined and receive their shots, when we want to stop them from doing something naughty like stealing a sock, or when playtime is over and we want to put a leash on them and take them home.
When you think about it, we actually rarely purposefully combine reaching for our dog with something positive. No one would grab their dog's collar before handing them a bone or special treat, right? Though ... this is exactly how you can solve this issue.
Because small dogs do not inherently think that being reached for is fun, we have to make a special effort to change the way they are thinking about it. We are going to combine the dreaded action of reaching for them with the very happy action of eating a great treat.
For your first training sessions, make sure you are in a quiet location that your dog feels very comfortable in, such as your living room. If you have more than one dog, put the ones who are not training away into different rooms of the house.
It is impossible to train several dogs well at the same time. If all dogs in your household need to be taught to enjoy being reached for, you will train them one after the other instead of all at once.
Have a bunch of very good treats prepared for your dog. The more he likes the treats, the better and faster this training will progress.
Sit on the ground with your dog so you are not hovering over him to begin with. Have your treats in one hand and hide that hand behind your back.
Now you will extend the other arm (not the one with the treats!) towards your dog and, if possible, touch his collar or harness. Be very slow and gentle.
A one-finger touch is totally fine for the beginning. As soon as you touch it, bring out the other hand with the treats and deliver some treats to your dog.
And now you need to build some mileage. We want to show our dog: Having arms reach for you and having your collar touched will result in eating great treats.
Our dog however will not learn that in one session, especially if he has a longer history of shying away. That's why you need to repeat this exercise as often as you can.
Luckily, they are very quick in understanding that reaching for them is followed by delicious treats. In order to jump start your training, I recommend to do this game 2-3 times a day with 5-10 treats each time.
When you train a small dog not to run away from you, be vigilant in the order of your actions. You always want to reach for the dog first, then deliver the treat. Only if you do it that way, your dog is going to see reaching for him as the predictor of good things to come.
If you lure him in with a treat first and then touch him, he will be distracted by the treat and only slightly notice you reaching for him.
He won't build up a long-term understanding that even if he does not see a treat (which is why we hide the hand behind our back), good things will happen when a hand reaches for him.
Over time, you can make the game harder and harder. While you start out sitting on the ground with your dog and only touching with one finger, the more comfortable your dog gets the more deliberately you can reach for him.
You will progress to touching him with 2 or 3 fingers and eventually your whole hand (and picking him up), as well as standing up and reaching for your dog from above. Just make sure that you go at a pace where your dog is happy every step of the way.
This should make your dog build a new understanding that reaching for him and picking him up are just happy, normal parts of daily life. You will soon not need treats anymore. If your dog seems to regress at any point in the future, you can always give him a little refresher of the reach-and-treat game.
Steffi Trott lives in Albuquerque, NM with her three dogs. Steffi trains dogs full-time, both locally and through online classes.
She strives to help owners achieve an effortless, play-based bond with their dogs. She has traveled as far as Germany to teach seminars on her training philosophy.