What to Do if You Lose Your Dog
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
A few weeks ago a friend of mine relayed a story about a terrifying event in which two of her three young Doberman Pinschers slipped under their fence and took off. I’ve known this particular friend since high school and know that she is an amazing dog owner, as attentive and careful as any of us whose dogs are beloved family members. She relayed the story to me and said, “Even though I am an educated dog owner, in those particular moments, the panic, fear, sadness just took over. I never expected to be in that situation, and I don’t want to be in it again.”
I definitely understand that panic and have felt it myself. Almost ten years ago I had let our late dogs Babe, Dutch, and Maggie out into the yard. It was before my rule of “always go outside with your dogs no matter what” was in place. They were all adult dogs between the ages of eight and ten and I trusted them not to eat random contraband objects or jump the fence. While they were outside I always prepared my coffee and watched until one-by-one they came to the door.
That morning Babe came in first. I could see Maggie sniffing the perimeter of the fence like she did each day. About five minutes later I needed to get my morning routine underway so I leaned out and called for Maggie and Dutch. At first I thought she was ignoring me, but each time I called Dutch’s name, Maggie turned her head and looked toward the gate that was out of view. Thinking that she was acting odd, I ran outside into the back yard in my socks, rounded the corner around our house and felt my stomach drop in fear as I stared at the open gate.
I ran out the gate, shut it behind me and into the front yard, yelling “Dutch!” as I went. I spotted him trotting down the street away from me about to round a corner into our local playground/park. He was on the other side of the street and I yelled “DUTCH!” and he turned and looked at me. I ran down the street and held up my hand in a “wait” hand gesture and told him “WHOA!” which was his command to be motionless and stay. That command had been drilled into him; in a bird hunting situation there is no room for error and dogs are trained hour upon hour. I felt a wave of relief wash over me as Dutch sat and waited for me to get him and lead him back home.
The carabiner clips went on our gates that same day.
After that incident I became the gate police. We started off with always checking the gates when the dogs went outside and when Jackson and Tinkerbell came home, we changed the rule to include spending the entire time outside with them. But as our foster dog Destiny taught us (by leaping the fence while a potential family was here to see her), and as my friend’s Dobermans taught her earlier this month, young agile dogs can go over or under the fence even when you are standing there watching.
At my friend’s request and to conclude our series on the importance of pet IDs, the difference between microchips and pet trackers, and preventing lost dogs, here are some things to review before you are in a situation in which your dog has gone missing.
Stay as Calm as Possible
I know it may seem impossible, but try to stay as calm as possible. When your adrenaline starts pumping your dog can smell the hormonal changes to your body. Dogs are also extremely good at reading body language, so the more you can remain someone your dog wants to come back to, the better.
If you can see your dog:
- Use your Reliable Recall. This is a word that your dog will come to no matter what type of distractions there are, because you have taught her that when she gets to you she is going to have the best few minutes ever, with toys, treats, and a huge happy dance from you. This is the exact situation for which you train on this concept.
- Do Not Chase Your Dog! Either you will make your dog think it is a game and that you are trying to chase him, or you will freak him out, both with the result of making him run more. Instead of chasing, if you have your dog’s attention and eye contact, run the other way and encourage him to chase you. Or sit down on the ground and pretend that you are discovering the coolest thing ever in the dirt or sidewalk. You can even proactively practice these things in your yard from time to time and give them plenty of treats as a reward when he comes to you.
Immediately begin searching for your dog:
- Before you go looking, put something that smells like you or your home in front of your house. This will help your dog use her incredible sense of smell to find her way home, whether it’s her dog bed, a blanket, your sweatshirt from the laundry or all of the above. Grab these things as you are heading out the door to search for your dog.
- Search your neighborhood on foot and by car if applicable. If you have other family members or neighbors who know your dog, they can help, but too many strangers looking may scare your dog. Search along your most common walking routes, in friends/neighbors yards, local parks and other places that you and your dog might frequent or that are likely to have good smells that would attract your dog, like the scent of other dogs. On your way out grab your phone, a squeaky toy and some sort of stinky treat that your dog would like, like a hot dog or their favorite human food like a banana or jar of peanut butter. Make sure you have those open and wave them around while you are walking the neighborhood; your dog’s nose is much more powerful than yours and there is a chance that she will smell the food and look for the source. If you see your dog, make sure you use a happy, fun voice that indicates that you want to play. Big dogs can easily run five miles from home so make sure your radius considers that your dog could be running.
- Notify friends and neighbors via text and social media. Quickly text your dog’s photo to friends and neighbors who can post the information to social media. If you do not have resources for this, quickly post to your neighborhood or local Facebook groups and include your dog’s name, your contact information and any information like “do not chase!” or specific instructions. If your dog’s collar fell off, someone may be trying to locate an owner at the same time that you are looking for your dog. If using Facebook make sure your privacy setting is set to public if you want friends to share with other people. If you post a photo of your dog and it is restricted to your friends, they cannot share your post, the most they can do is download the photo and repost. If they do not understand how privacy settings work, they may not know this.
- Check home frequently. Your dog may have gone the opposite way from you and found his way back home. Circle back home often to see if he is laying on the bed you put outside for him waiting for your return.
- Go door to door. Someone may have caught your loose dog and is letting him or her hang out in their yard or home while they figure out how to locate you. Many people have the best of intentions and will hold onto a dog instead of turning them into the shelter.
- Contact local businesses. If you have a retail store or other business near you, make sure you tell the employees that you are looking for a lost dog. My friend whose Dobermans temporarily went missing told me, “We were extremely fortunate that they were found and brought home safe even though they were 1.5 miles away. I learned that in addition to calling the obvious agencies, that making a call to the less obvious, in my case a tiny little lone gas station on a corner, could make all the difference in the world.”
In addition to searching your neighborhood:
- Call all somewhat local shelters including outside of your town/county. Do not limit your search to the shelter in your town or county. Make a wide radius around your home and contact them all once or twice a day. It is possible that someone may have been passing through the area and picked up your dog and took him to the closest shelter that they knew about instead of the one that you would consider closest.
- Notify your town or state Lost Dog website and Facebook pages. Here in Illinois we have Lost Dogs Illinois. Find this information in advance so that you know who to contact in the event of an emergency.
- Alert your microchip provider. Depending on the chip registry that you use, a lost pet notice will go out to veterinary clinics and shelters so that they will be on alert should a good Samaritan bring your dog to them.
- Contact local veterinarian offices. Once again, some people are afraid to take dogs that they have found to the shelter but might take them to their veterinarian or a nearby vet to scan for a microchip.
- Contact the local police. People may report sightings of your dog to the police or notify them if they are able to get her to come to them. In some locations the police are the ones who pick up found pets or stray dogs and take them to animal control. Sometimes the police will recognize habitual escape artist dogs and know who their owner is.
- Contact local rescue groups, especially if your dog is a purebred. If someone finds your boxer they may contact a boxer rescue instead of the local shelter. Remember that not everyone knows what to do when they find a lost dog.
- Print posters and share them liberally. Throw together a “lost dog” poster with a photo of your dog, your dog’s name, other dog specific information, and your contact information. You can also offer a monetary reward. Hand them out to people you encounter and post them on every available surface including light posts, telephone poles and neighborhood notice boards.
- Create a Facebook page for your dog. I have a circle of friends who I met when one woman’s Labrador/Basset Hound mix was spooked by a large and unexpected crowd at her veterinarian’s office, slipped out of her grasp, and ran off into the woods. He went into survival mode immediately and spent a month in the subzero January weather while owners did everything they could to capture him and bring him home. Fortunately they were successful and although part of his tail had to be amputated, he was otherwise fine. If your dog is missing for more than a day, social media is a good way to share photos, get tips on sightings and share information on what not to do for people with good intentions who want to help but may hinder your efforts if they do the wrong thing.
One of the most important things is to not give up and don’t lose hope. There are stories every day of dogs being reunited with their owners after weeks, months or even years. Keep calling the shelters daily, keep sharing flyers and your social media posts. Additionally, please research other blogs and resources in addition to this post. Sometimes one blogger or pet professional will have a suggestion or information that someone else does not know or think to share.
The Humane Society of the United States: What to Do if You Lose Your Pet
Petfinder: How to Find Your Lost Dog
Missing Pet Partnership: Lost Dog Behavior
Patricia McConnell: How to Find a Lost Dog