How to Find Your Lost Dog

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Alan Grosbard

By the time you are reading this article, most likely you have been looking for your lost pet for 24 hours or more. You have walked, then driven your neighborhood. You have been to the local animal shelter and registered your pet as missing. You have lost a lot of sleep.

How to Find Your Lost Dog

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You are reading because you feel the odds are strong that you will recover your pet. In the vast majority of instances, your instincts will prove true.

Let’s try to help you. Let’s briefly go over three things:

  1. Why pets run away and where they often go
  2. The logical steps to take in assisting recovery
  3. Things you can tell your friends later if you are among the many who succeed in recovering your lost pet.

(1) Why and Where Do They Go?
(2) Steps to Recovering Your Pet
(3) How to Avoid Losing Your Pet


1. Why Pets Run Away and Where They Often Go

Normally, pets run away from acute boredom or loneliness, to answer sexual urges if they have not been neutered, in response to sudden and unexpected events that frighten them, out of curiosity if doors, windows or gates are left open, or if they are new to a home and are looking for their former surroundings.

How far they run is just a function of how far their legs will carry them. Big strong dogs, especially young ones, can run 5 miles or more. Small dogs may be able to go half a mile at most. Most dogs are recovered well within a two-mile circle of their home, especially because they normally will never run for an extended length in a straight line no matter how strong or fast they are.

If it is an outgoing dog, it will be looking for other dogs and for other humans who are friendly and likely to comfort, feed and shelter it. Neighbors’ yards and public parks are spots it will like. If it is a shy or older pet and not trusting of strangers, it will hide. Bushes and under cars are good spots.

Most likely, your pet will have tried to return home, but it will have failed. In a certain minority of cases, the dog has been in harm’s way. A car or a predator will have gotten to it. Odds are much greater that someone has seen your pet and taken it in.

Let me explain that some 40% of households have pets. People in those homes will respond favorably to a lost pet. More households do not have a pet but include someone who previously had a pet. Strong chance of positive response. More households again do not have a pet but have children, who will be eager to take in a lost pet. That is a lot of eyes and ears. That is a lot of strangers who are on the side of finding and helping your pet return home.

In many cases, someone will take in your pet. They will be driving by and have your dog jump in their car. They will be working in the neighborhood. They may live down the street. More often than not, they will not be equipped to house your pet. Their home is not set up. Their parents will not allow it. They don’t want to bring a strange dog into the yard with their dogs.

If you have a tag on your dog with a current phone number including area code, that has a working answering machine or voice mail on it, or a street address including city and state, and if your dog is found with its collar and tag still on it, then you have made the job of your pet coming back to you much easier. More current information, less work.

Maybe the collar has come loose. Maybe someone with good intentions has changed it. Sometimes they have placed the dog in their yard. Still confused and looking for home, the dog has run away again. Again, the pet has moved further away and lost more of its identity to you, to your house, to your street.

People take lost pets to local veterinarians, animal hospitals, kennels, groomers, even pet stores. They take them to animal shelters (which are sometimes distant and have restricted operating hours) and to rescue organizations. If found with a tag with current information, it makes the return to you straight forward. If found without the tag, unless the dog is taken to the local shelter at which you have registered it as missing, it is just a puzzle that will get solved when there is time and opportunity to try and solve it.

Sometimes, and only rarely, do people try to keep a pet that is not theirs. There are neighbors, friends, children, and all the people who come to a home to service its needs that have the opportunity to see that pet. That is a lot of eyes seeing a new pet arrive.

We live in a mobile society. Few places any more are distant from major roads. If a dog is found that has gotten away from a car, it can be in another car and in the next county within less than a hour in almost all instances.

How do you cover all these possibilities? How do you help put the odds back into your favor?

2. The Logical Steps to Take in Assisting Recovery

You have already done tons of looking. It hasn’t worked yet. Take a deep breath. Let’s start all over again.

Let’s think about the most likely reason your pet ran away.

Let’s think about the size and fitness of your pet.

Let’s draw a circle around the spot you lost your pet. Half a mile? A mile? Five miles? You decide.

Let’s think about the places in that circle where you pet would likely go to find company, comfort and food. A school yard? A house where your pet sometimes gets treats or has a buddy it looks at during walks? A stranger’s open car door?

Let’s think about all the people who live inside that circle, who go to school there, who play in the yards, who come and mow the lawns and deliver the mail and read the gas meters and deliver the packages. People who spend lots of time outside and are likely to see a lost dog. People who drive through your part of the world regularly as part of their work, who you don’t know and who don’t know you.

Let’s get all of them looking for your lost pet. Let’s add a thousand people to the search.

You need to make up big signs, colorful, eye catching signs. You need to include the word Reward in big letters, to make everyone understand that this is really important to you. You have to include a photo of your pet. If you don’t have an appealing photo, then you can create one by copying an image off the internet. Use one of the major search engines, select images as the filter, put in a description of your dog and suddenly you will have dozens of images to choose from. Don’t worry if you are borrowing someone’s holiday photo of their dog – they will probably be only too happy to learn they are helping yours come home.

If you are in a bilingual community, put your sign in both languages. The major search engines on the internet translate your text immediately and for free.

Take your text on and your image of your pet on disk or in photo form to the local copy / print store. They can quickly turn it into a large colorful poster for a very small fee. Please help us find ….. She was last seen at the corner of ….. She is a Golden Labrador, 3 years old. She was wearing a red collar. REWARD of $300 for information leading to her return.

Have them print up 10 to 20 large signs, and 100 small versions that you can mail.

You want to put the signs where the most people who either live, work, or regularly travel through the circle will have a chance to slow down and see them. Major intersections controlled by traffic lights. Entry and exit to parks. Where all the school children get off the bus or are dropped off in the morning, so both parents and children can see them. Entry and exit to grocery store. The local espresso bar.

Now you have added a thousand people to your search.

The person who took your dog to their vet in the next city. The child who saw a dog in the back of their yard. The new neighbor who didn’t know that was your animal. The truck driver who stopped on a route to pick up a lost dog, but couldn’t do anything about it until he had finished his delivery, 2 hours down the highway. They are out there looking with you.

Go home. Open the yellow pages. You need to mail your small version to the groomers, vets, kennels, animal hospitals, animal shelters and pet stores in the area at least double the size of your circle. Don’t be shy. While all of these places will notify the local animal shelter when a pet is found, you need to understand that animal shelters are under different city and county jurisdictions. They are, sadly, not unified. They do not share information. A pet store taking in a stray without a tag would have no way of knowing if that dog is 2 miles or 20 miles away from home. If they contact the animal shelter near them but far from you, your pet may be going to the wrong shelter in the wrong direction. Some shelters only hold a pet for 4 days, then give it out for adoption or destroy it. Maybe the pet store will solve the mystery correctly. Make it easy for them to get it right and help bring your pet home.

Now, get on the internet or find someone who can get you on the internet. Many shelters are on line. They maintain lists of found pets. Some have photos of lost pets. Look over the ones in a huge circle from your home.

There are many rescue organizations which regularly publish current lists and digital photos of found pets at the shelters, as a way of helping them go home or be adopted.

Use a major search engine. Try pet rescue California and you will see them. These are wonderful dedicated people who are out there looking. Look over their lists and photos.

Use the internet to get the names and addresses of shelters in the 3 to 5 adjoining counties. Mail them your small mailer. Although officially they need you to come in and fill out their form, that is most often not practical without extended driving. But they will almost always post your photo mailer, which gives you one more chance to bring your pet home.

If you want to be more intensive with your mailer, contact a company such as sherlockbones.com, who for a fee will prepare a mailer and posters for you, and will send the mailer as a post card to 500 or as many as 1,000 homes in your circle. You can also look at the bulletin board of your local shelter to see what mailers look like and identify other companies offering the service. The mailer raises the awareness in the community. It adds more eyes to the search. It helps connect your dog who wants to come home with you, who are desperately trying to find it.

You can run an ad in the local paper’s classified section for lost pets. Please be careful of the people who call you. You are vulnerable. There are people who use these ads to con and scam reward money for pets they do not have. Check the found ads as well.

You have posted your signs. You have mailed your flyers. You have visited the local shelters. You are checking the internet postings once every day. You are watching the classified found ads.

It is time to start calming down.

It is okay to keep walking and driving in search of your pet, but set hours for yourself. The best ones are early morning before the traffic starts up.

Keep doing the normal things in your life. It isn’t for your pet. It is for you. The wear and tear of all of this is substantial. The more you can keep to normal patterns for yourself, the more you can stay focused and productive.

As part of checking with the local animal shelter, you should consider checking the list they maintain of dead animals they have picked up. It may sound like a grim exercise, but every time you do it and do not find your pet, your hope has reason to continue. The substantial majority of lost pets are not on that list. The odds are in your favor. If your pet has passed on, you and those who care for you need to know.

And now, it is time for you to wait patiently as you continue your normal life. Most people get the call that their pet has been found. I did. I pray you do too.

3. Things You Can Tell Your Friends If You Are Among the Many Who Succeed in Recovering Your Lost Pets

We think we live in a high tech society. Perhaps we do. When it comes to keeping your pets at home and helping them come home if they are lost, it is a low tech business.

Good fences. Good gates. Good windows. Good doors. Lots of pets run away when they are left in cars and manage to escape. They are typically lost far from home and away from everything they recognize. Please think 3 times before leaving your pet in an unattended car. It is dangerous in many different ways. You leave the window open so they don’t get too hot. A car backfires. You aren’t there. The dog wiggles free. Please think it over.

Neuter pets. You have been to the shelters. You have seen what I mean.

Be on guard when you bring a new pet into your home. It changes the balance if you have any other pets.

Add distractions. Rotate toys. Put a chew bone into the diet on occasion.

Add hinges to yard gates so they are always closed.

Take pictures of your pets. Store them digitally if you can (just shoot a roll and have it developed for $6 extra in floppy disk or cd rom form). It will shave hours off getting posters and mailers done if you ever need them.

Update all your pet tags. Two telephone numbers with area code. At least one number that has an answering machine or voice mail. Your street address including city and state. Too many cars and too much mobility these days. Your lost dog can be 30 miles away within 60 minutes, in the hands of a kind stranger who wants to return it. Make it easy.

Try to read the information on the aluminum tag you bought at the engraving machine at the pet store. By now, most of it has worn away. It was not a good idea.

Order a new tag. The best ones are made of steel and slide onto the collar itself. You can also buy a collar with your phone number (including area code) on it. You may think your dog is friendly, but a stranger who is trying to help a frightened and confused stray and may not want to get under its chin to look at a tiny tag. Make it easy. Let them get your number without getting close to the dog’s mouth.

I want to repeat this because it is very important. If your dog is lost, it’s first line of protection in getting back to you is a collar with a tag that easily identifies where the dog belongs. A street address with city and state is nice, because it means a stranger can bring the dog back to you. When they are off from work. When they have a car. When they have a map. If language isn’t a barrier. If they can find your home. Two telephone numbers with area code mean that once you get the call, timing and transportation are in your hands too. Make it easy.

Will your dog let them get close enough to read the tag? Is the stranger afraid of all dogs? Has the information worn off the tag because you bought the aluminum tag from the machine since it was heart shaped and so cute? Forget cute when it comes to tags. Steel or heavy plastic tag. Slip on the collar or on a strong link. Information printed on the collar as well so it is easy to read. On the tag, full address with city and state. Two telephone numbers with area code (never hurts to have a back up).

Last, you can have a pet id implanted between the shoulder blades. Most shelters now have readers. The confusion among competing vendors seems to be quieting down so they are now becoming a practical tool. Shelters that have them read all pets, both living and deceased, that enter the shelter. For a pet that has lost its collar on the way, it is a straight line back to the owner. It’s not a bad back up to have, but it will only come into play when the dog arrives at a shelter. That can be many days after it is lost.

I am hopeful that at some point in time, government-run shelters will all put their information into a common database, so that registering a lost pet in one shelter will give you a registration throughout the country. It will make searching easier. It will return pets home more quickly. It may well cause the enormous number of pets who are destroyed each year to be rescued instead.

Imagine if someone found a lost dog, looked on the database and found its owner. The days of agonizing wait would be cut short. It is a low tech problem that would be resolved beautifully by a high tech solution. One day.

In the meantime, let’s remember that most pets never run away. For those that do, only a tiny percentage fall into harms way. Most are returned to their owners, normally in 24 hours, sometimes with a week.

If you have lost your pet, I hope the information I have provided speeds your beloved pet home to you. And when it is safely back in your arms, you spend a little time helping to educate other owners on how best to avoid the sadness that you have experienced, and the elation that I hope is your joy too.

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