If Your Dog Goes Missing


For some reason the blinking red light on my phone that signals “message waiting” always seems ominous to me. Last Thursday, my wariness was reinforced: my friend Cindy had left a frantic message. Her dog was lost.

“Hattie’s missing!” I could hear the panic in her voice. “I was walking her at Antietam Battlefield last night, the leash came off her collar, and she took off after a deer!” Bad news. In many parts of the country, dogs who chase wildlife or livestock can be shot.

There was more bad news as Cindy’s message continued. “I have to leave town today for a work-related retreat. I have people looking for her, but if there’s anything you can do?”

I called Cindy back immediately. She had already placed a “lost dog” ad in the paper for her 18-month-old, wheaten-colored, Irish Wolfhound-mix. She had put up posters in the area where Hattie was lost, as well as on the five-mile route between the park and her house in Sharpsburg. She had notified the only shelter in the county that handles stray dogs. She left one of her sweatshirts in the spot where Hattie went missing. And she had people who knew Hattie well – staff from the doggie daycare facility she visited regularly – looking for her. There wasn’t much more I could do. I gave her contact information for a person in Maryland who has a dog trained to find missing pets, and suggested setting a humane dog trap. And praying.

It was worrisome that Hattie had been out all night on her own and hadn’t been spotted by anyone. She was a large, light-colored, well-socialized dog, microchipped, and wearing a collar with tags. Someone should have found her already.

Thanks in part to my 20 years working at a California animal shelter, when an animal goes missing I tend to immediately imagine the worst-case scenarios. Lost dogs can be hit and killed (or badly injured) by cars; shot if suspected of chasing livestock or wildlife; poisoned; caught in a leghold trap; attacked by wild animals; or picked up by someone who wants to keep her themselves, or by someone with the misguided idea that anyone who loses a dog is irresponsible and shouldn’t get her back. Of course, what you hope is that your dog is picked up by someone who returns her to you or to a local animal shelter.

Our best hope was that Hattie was still wandering around the cornfields at the Battlefield, trying to find her way home. If someone had found her, they should have already called.

Before your dog gets lost

I fervently hope you never find yourself in the position of looking for your missing dog. But just in case, there are a number of things you can do in advance to maximize your success in finding her.

• Identification: For starters, make sure your dog is wearing a collar with lots of identification. Tags should include both a current dog license (if required where you live) and an ID tag with up-to-date owner information and at least two, preferably three, contact numbers. You can also order collars that have your phone number and the dog’s name stitched into the collar. Well-fitted collars are less likely to fall off than tags.</p>

Finally, tattoos and microchips are excellent “back-up” ID systems. Be sure you keep owner information current with those registries as well – if you’ve moved, they need to know. (For more information about identification methods, see Whole Dog Journal August 2004.)

• Shelters: There is only one shelter in my county that handles stray dogs. That makes it relatively easy to know where to look for a lost dog. In some jurisdictions there are several, and your dog could end up in any of them if she wanders or is transported over county or city lines.

Before your dog gets lost, find and visit every shelter in your area and ask how long they hold stray dogs, so you know where they are and how often you have to visit. Ask if they keep records of dogs found dead along the road, or if someone else does – perhaps the Department of Public Works. Then keep a list by your phone of the addresses, telephone numbers, and holding times of each shelter, so you don’t have to look them up in a panic.

• Training: A solid, frequently practiced recall is a must if you plan to take your dog off-leash anywhere that’s unfenced. But even if you don’t intend to let your dog run off-leash, dogs frequently get lost when stuff happens – stuff like Hattie’s equipment failure, the board that came loose on our fence last July, earthquakes and fires, doors and gates left open, and car accidents.

I highly recommend teaching every dog an emergency recall to a special cue that will carry through forests and over cornfields. We have a “storm whistle” – available online and at camping supply outlets – that is so shrill and loud I have to cover my ears when I blow it. Teach your dog that the sound means “chicken!” (or whatever your canine pal likes best) and you’ll have an invaluable tool for those emergencies.

• Take several photos of your dog now. Make a stack of emergency fliers with her photo and your contact information to hand out if she gets lost. Offer a reward on the flier. Stash them in a safe place for future use. With luck, you’ll never need them.

• Check your perimeter fence regularly to be sure it’s secure.

• Put locks on yard gates to avoid accidental release – and keep them locked.

• Google “lost dog” and bookmark websites that offer online lost pet announcements.

• See www.missingpetpartnership.org and find a trained “pet detective” near you. These are people with dogs who are specially trained to search (using their keen sense of smell) for lost dogs. Talk to the lost pet specialist, find out what services she offers, and put her contact information on your shelter list by your phone so you can reach her easily if you ever need her.

After your dog gets lost

The worst has happened: Your dog has gone missing. Don’t panic! It can happen to any of us. Our Scottie found the loose board on the fence late one evening last July and slipped out into the darkness. I envisioned searching through the woods for him all night as he pursued nocturnal critters. Fortunately, Dubhy came when I called him. Of course, the sooner you spring into action, the better your chances of recovering your dog quickly. So don’t panic, but do get busy.

Unless you know your dog was lost away from home, first, go looking on your own property. Dogs sometimes get trapped in a culvert, stuck in a hole or crawl space, closed in the basement, the clothes dryer, an upstairs bedroom, or a stall in the barn. Take a flashlight, so you can look in holes. Look behind, under, and inside everything that could possibly hide a dog.

If you don’t find her on your own property, or you know for sure she’s not there because someone saw her dash out the door and down the street, search your neighborhood. Take your emergency whistle, treats, a flashlight, and your dog’s favorite squeaky toy or anything else that makes a noise she’s familiar with. If she has a favorite canine friend, take him, too. Grab your emergency fliers to hand out to people you see while you search. Go to every home in the area, talk to the residents, and leave a flier with them. If no one is home, leave a flier on the door.

Talk to everyone you meet on the street, and give them fliers. Children, mail carriers, meter readers, delivery people, and school bus drivers are especially helpful. Walk the streets calling your dog, occasionally blowing the whistle, rattling a dog cookie box, squeaking her squeaky toy. Call out her favorite phrases, like, “Want to go for a ride?” or “Cookies!” Stop occasionally and be quiet, to see if you can hear your dog answering you. If she’s trapped somewhere, she may bark, or whine to try to get your attention. Most lost dogs can be found within the first few hours when the owner makes a concerted effort.

If you don’t find her within an hour, it’s time for the next level of attack. Call a lost pet specialist. Her dog will have a better chance of finding yours if there’s a fresh scent trail. Call the shelters to see if anyone’s reported finding your dog, or brought her in.

Make large, fluorescent posters and post them everywhere. If possible, put a large color photo of your dog on each poster, and make sure your phone number is large enough to be seen and dialed from a passerby’s car; you want to make it easy for someone to call you as quickly as possible if they’ve spotted your dog as they were driving. Consider creating fliers in a second language if there is a concentration of non-English speakers in your area. Offer a reward.

Call the newspapers and place “lost dog” ads. Call all the vet hospitals in the area, to see if anyone has brought in an injured dog, as well as to put the staff on the alert if someone should happen to come in for vaccinations or a check-up of their “new” dog – who just happens to fit your dog’s description. Deliver fliers with photos to all the vet hospitals and shelters. Look through each shelter’s kennels; your description of your dog may differ from theirs, and if you rely on a phone call, they could miss her.

Before you end your search for the day, especially if your dog went missing in unfamiliar territory, leave an article of your clothing and a bowl of her food in a sheltered placed near where she was last seen. You may even choose to camp out in a sleeping bag. You probably aren’t going to sleep well anyway.

Day two

On the second day, if you haven’t already, put a pet detective to work. Her dog should be able to at least help you focus your search on the most likely area, where your dog’s scent is strongest and freshest. She may also be able to tell you that your dog’s scent stops abruptly along the side of a road – perhaps a clue that someone picked her up. Her dog should also be able to find evidence – hair, perhaps blood – if the trail stops because your dog was hit by a car, in which case you’ll redouble your efforts to find your injured dog in the immediate area, hopefully still alive and in time to get veterinary care.

If the pet detective dog tells you there’s no fresh scent in the area, then you know to concentrate your efforts at shelters and around the community.

How long should you look? Start immediately and keep looking – for weeks and months if necessary. If someone else is keeping her, someone will see her sooner or later. If she’s roaming, someone will spot her and, one would hope, let you know, even if they can’t catch her.

If you have a strong connection to your dog you’ll find a way to do the impossible – visiting all the shelters, posting fliers, working with a pet detective, checking with rescue groups and internet sites – until you find your dog. If you are easily discouraged, your chances of finding your missing pal plummet dramatically. Don’t give up; she’s counting on you to bring her back home.

Tragic ending

The vast majority of lost dog stories have happy endings. But sometimes the end of the story is tragic. Cindy came home from her work commitment on Sunday afternoon and immediately went searching for Hattie. I got another red-flashing-light phone message from her late Sunday.

“I found Hattie.” Cindy’s voice on the recording trembled with emotion. “She’s dead.”

Cindy found her dog’s body not far from the place she had last seen her. She believes Hattie was shot with a high-powered rifle, possibly illegally on federal property and dragged back to the place Cindy found her, probably on the first night she was lost. Cindy, of course, was grief stricken and guilt-ridden.

If your story doesn’t have a happy ending, at least you will know you did everything possible to find your missing companion. Like Cindy, you will grieve, and perhaps blame yourself for allowing it to happen, or blame anyone else who might have contributed to her escape.

People who don’t understand the depths of your love for your dog will tell you to get over it – that she was “just a dog.” But you’ll know better. They are not just dogs. They are our beloved friends, family members, and part of our hearts. It’s okay to grieve, as long and as hard as you need to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journal’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Pat is also author of The Power of Positive Dog Training; Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog; Positive Perspectives II: Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog; and the brand-new Play with Your Dog.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.