Every day on my social media feeds I see images of lost dogs, many of which are newly adopted or in foster. Just this weekend a fearful dog I had been working with remotely bolted away from his foster (he was found safe, thankfully!) but these stories always conjure up memories of when my own dog BooBoo escaped right from her transport van in front of us as we arrived to pick her up at the rescue. The transport driver took her crate out of the van, opened it and reached in, grabbed her by the collar and off it snapped. She bolted and was gone in a matter of seconds, with no ID and she hadn’t been microchipped yet.
That experience was one of the life changing moments that eventually led me to becoming a trainer and for my specializing in fear and aggression. This semi-feral, black dog had escaped into a heavily wooded area off the side of a four-lane highway, after being on a 17 hour transport. The terrified dog I hadn’t even met yet, but had already fallen in love with, was suddenly gone and I doubted we’d ever find her alive.
We’d spend the next 9 days searching endlessly, sleeping little and learning a lot. That experience has given me a wealth of knowledge that I’ve passed onto people in similar situations and that I will share with you here, as well as some preventative tips to try to save as many people and dogs the heartache we went through.
Here’s what to do, and not to do!
- Take note of important details before you forget them. Note exactly where/when the dog was lost, what the dog was wearing (collar color, harness, dragging leash, sweater, with or without ID tags, etc.)
- Notify local police and animal control. While they won’t usually help look for your dog, often well-meaning strangers report dog sightings and those agencies should know you’re looking and have your contact information in the event the dog gets turned in. This is especially important if the dog isn’t microchipped or doesn’t have any ID tags on it.
- Spread the word – in person. Talk to neighbors. Talk to delivery people like UPS, FedEx and mail carriers who travel through neighborhoods and cover lots of ground. If the dog is lost in an urban setting, talk to store owners or people sitting on their stoops.
- Spread the word – online. Social media is your friend, mostly. It can also be an enemy if you’re dealing with a very fearful dog or a dog who has stranger issues. But for the mostpart, the more eyes looking for the dog, the more sightings you’ll get. We started a Facebook page when Boo was missing to get information out to the army of volunteers we had and to request help for what we needed. There are also many lost dogs sites on Facebook by area and several lost dog apps. If the dog is microchipped, notify the microchip company. Many have a service where they send email blasts to other owners and animal professionals like vet clinics. (Also important to make sure the microchip info is up to date in the event you’ve moved. If the dog gets scanned, they need a way to get in touch with you!) A word of caution about social media though. While people are well meaning, especially with fearful dogs, over-zelaous strangers, can backfire. You may want to protect location sightings and use volunteers for things like hanging posters.
- Make clear posters and hang them everywhere you can, starting with a 2 mile radius. Don’t cram too much information. LOST DOG, one good picture, phone number and important instructions like DO NOT CHASE. If your search goes on for several days or you get sightings outside that radius, expand your search area. We hung over 1000 posters (and then took them all down after she was found!)
- Banners. If you have the resources, hand large vinyl banners in high visibility areas. A volunteer donated this banner when BooBoo was missing.
- DO NOT CHASE. Lost dogs, even well adjusted ones, are terrified being lost. Chasing them will only push them farther away. If anything you want to run AWAY from the dog, to try to get them to chase you.
- DO NOT CALL OUT THEIR NAME. This is especially important for fearful dogs, newly adopted dogs or foster dogs, who many not even really know their name yet. Calling them will spook them more. With Boo, we got a lot of sightings over those 9 days but every time she saw someone and they made eye contact, she would bolt.
- Put out familiar smelling items and enticing food, especially if they were lost near home or a familiar area.
- Cover ground on foot as much as possible, not in a vehicle. Dogs use their noses and will follow familiar or interesting smells. When Boo was missing we walked her siblings, who had also come on the transport van, to lay familiar scent tracks for her to follow in the area where she had escaped from.
- Use other dogs, if the lost dog is dog-friendly, has housemates, siblings or play buddies, try to recruit those dogs and walk with them. If the dog is fearful of new people but dog friendly, the dog is more likely to approach another dog than a complete stranger human. This is how we eventually caught Boo. We used her brother as a lure, and she came out of the woods to him.
- Track every location sighting on a Google Map using dropped pins with the time/date so you have data to see if you can detect a travel pattern. We did this and over several days of sightings, we were able to figure out BooBoo’s path each day, and identify that she was returning to the rescue’s location where she had escaped from originally, every single night. This enabled us to set live catch traps and eventually it is what led to us being able to catch her.
- Stay low and make yourself non threatening. If you get close enough to the dog, don’t just rush at them. Get low, crawling on the ground if needed. This is a picture of me approaching BooBoo the night we caught her. Standing tall, walking or reaching towards the lost dog will usually scare them off. If you have high value food, try tossing it. Take off hats, glasses, backpacks or anything that could make you look scary.
- Consider hiring a professional tracker. Some lost dogs I’ve helped with have eventually hired a professional tracker. They are expensive and often booked way out but sometimes they help, especially if you know what general area the dog is in. Similarly, a drone can help give you a birds eye view to try to pinpoint the dog’s location.
How can this be prevented?
- Properly fitting collar/harness. Many dogs back out of poorly fitting collars or slip out of harnesses. Before every walk, be sure your gear is properly fit. If you know you’re walking a flight risk, use a double leash system – one to the collar and one to a harness. Properly fitted martingale collars are intended to be slip proof but just be sure you’re not using it for “leash corrections.” For weeks after Boo was found, she went out on a double leash, even in our fenced in yard.
- Training. If you have a fearful dog, find a qualified force free trainer to help you.If you need help finding a qualified trainer, check The Academy for Dog Trainers directory or the Pet Professional Guild directory. If you still can’t find help or are unsure if the trainer you’re considering is using the right methods, contact me. I also offer remote sessions for many issues, including fear and aggression. Also, consider talking to your vet about meds if your dog struggles with being afraid to walk outside. Otherwise, train basic behaviors that can be life-saving: wait at doorways, a rock solid recall/coming when called and a stay.
- Don’t force fearful dogs to take walks. I know everyone thinks dogs need to walk and if a dog doesn’t want to, then they just need to “get used to it.” Not only is this wrong but it is dangerous. Fearful dogs don’t need to get used to things – they need to feel safe. In fact, forcing a fearful dog into a scary situation will only make things worse. So, if this means your fearful dog doesn’t go on a walk and just goes outside to potty or uses potty pads inside, while you’re working on helping the dog feel safe, then that is 100% OK.
- Get a GPS tracker. Both of my dogs wear Whistle GPS trackers (referral link – get $20 off!) and have since we recovered BooBoo. Microchips are definitely good to have but they require the dog be captured to scan them. GPS trackers allow you to see realtime where the dog is on an app. I always recommend a GPS for flight risk dogs but even dogs who do a lot of off leash hiking benefit from having peace of mind that you will always be able to find them if something happens.
- Microchip and have ID tags. Many dogs are recovered by strangers. Make it easy for them to reunite you by making sure their ID tags are up to date and legible. If animal control or a vet gets your dog, they usually will scan for a microchip but ID tags make it easier. Update microchip registrations when you move. Replace tags when they become too worn to read.
- Car harnesses/crates/seatbelts. Many of the lost dog posts I see are a result of car accidents. I highly recommend using a SleepyPod harness, the only one that has been crash test rated like child car seats. They use your seatbelt and ensure your dog is safe and doesn’t become a projectile in an accident. There are also car crates (not your regular crate you’d use as that wouldn’t be secure enough if there were a crash). No dog should be free roaming in a car and in at least one state, it’s actually illegal.
My hope is that you never have to look for a lost dog and that these prevention tips will help prevent heartache. But if you do, hopefully this guide will help.