Nothing gets a dog lover's heart jumping quite like a missing pooch. If you've ever lost track of your four-legged loved one -- maybe they jumped a fence, bolted out an open door, or slipped out of a collar on a spirited walk -- you know. The prospect of your dog as a runaway can be downright scary.
Approximately 10 million pets are lost in America every year.
What do you do when you lose your dog? How do you bring your suddenly adventurous explorer -- who may well be shaken and scared in the big, fast-moving, unfamiliar outdoors -- back home safe and sound?
Where do you start?
Before Your Dog Is Lost
Finding your dog will be a lot easier for everyone with a little work before they ever get lost.
That can include making sure your dog:
- Wears a tag with an updated phone number
- Has an embedded microchip (placed under the skin, most often by a veterinarian) that lists your current contact information
- Sports a GPS collar that tracks their movements
None of those methods is fail-safe. GPS collars can run out of battery power. It can be tricky to access accurate chip information right away. Sometimes, owners fail to change phone numbers on their pets' tags.
But if your dog is lost, having some combination of those forms of identification can help speed up the reunion between you and your pet.
"Your first step is going to be prevention," says Judy Duhr, the director of Speak! St. Louis, a dog rescue that specializes in finding homes for Australian shepherds and border collies, including those with hearing and vision problems.
"The next thing you need to do is to call everybody up that you can to help you look for the dog."
Power in Numbers
Americans own more than 89 million dogs (and more than 94 million cats). About 67% of American households include a dog. That's a lot of fellow pet owners among us, many of whom will be happy to help look for your lost dog.
"People are always so grateful that other people care," says Temma Martin, a spokesperson for Best Friends Animal Society, the nation's largest sanctuary for homeless animals.
"Often, the people that are helping are also dog owners, so they're like, 'I hope that someone would do the same thing for me if my pet was lost.' It takes a village, and we're all out to help each other out."
Experts suggest many ways to look for your missing pet. Start in your neighborhood by asking everyone you know if they've seen your dog, and if not, to keep a lookout. Dogs often don't wander far; they sometimes are in a neighbor's yard, or just around the corner in someplace where they feel safe and quiet (a garage, an alley, or a barn, for example). Sometimes, a well-intentioned neighbor will take in a runaway just to keep the dog safe and off the streets. In those cases, It's just a matter of matching the seeker and the finder.
If you need to, spread out to nearby blocks and neighborhoods. Ask people you see on the street if they've seen your dog. (And take a leash or a carrier with you. Dogs are often spooked outside their comfort zone and won’t always come to someone calling them, even if they know you. Finding your dog but not having a way to get them home can be awful.)
Once you've canvassed the area around your home, it's time to spread out even more. Social media is a quick and effective way to do that.
A New, Powerful Tool
Facebook and the neighborhood app Nextdoor are two good places to look for help. Put up a post with a picture of your lost friend. Include your phone number and any other information that will help (where your pup was last seen, distinguishing marks, etc.). Get those social media apps on your phone, too, so you'll be able to get updates wherever you are, as soon as they happen.
"As a tool for helping lost pets get home, it's fantastic, and so real-time. That's the coolest thing about it," Martin says of Nextdoor.
"I've even seen posts where people say, 'I was driving, I couldn't get a picture, but I've seen such-and-such a dog running along the edge of Liberty Park. …' Even just a sighting, enough people saying where they've seen a loose dog, gives that owner who's out there in their car looking for it, it narrows it down for them."
Another avenue you shouldn't overlook: your local animal shelters. Go there in person, if you can, with a flyer that includes a picture of your dog and your contact information. Go to other shelters in the area, too, with the same info. (It helps to go in person. Sometimes, a description of your dog over the phone simply may not match up with what the person at the shelter is seeing in the same dog.)
Also visit or call veterinary clinics in your area. People often bring found dogs to vets' offices.
You can also put up flyers in high-traffic areas. And keep hitting social media. Get your friends to pass along the information. The more help, the better.
An important caveat: If you see a lost dog, even if it's yours, don't try to chase it down right away. Again, dogs can get antsy in new settings. They could run even more if they feel threatened. Try, instead, to calmly steer the dog into a safe, quiet place where you can slowly approach and get a leash on them, or get them into a carrier.
"A lot of dogs go into survival mode. You cannot get them back. They're flight or fight, and they're going to run, and they're not going to come to you no matter what. Or come to anybody," Duhr says. "That's the scary thing."
Sometimes, it takes even more to bring a dog back home. A few years ago, a military veteran in Illinois was in a major auto accident with his emotional support dog. The dog wasn't restrained and was thrown from the car. The owner had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
The dog, a miniature Australian shepherd named Summer, ran off into the nearby woods.
For weeks, Duhr and several other volunteers tried to find the dog. They set up a Facebook page called "Finding Summer," which grew to some 400 members. Several rescue groups and the local humane society coordinated recovery efforts. They laid out food stations where the dog was spotted. They watched. They waited. And they set out several humane traps -- think big cages, with food and water as bait -- until the scared and hungry pup walked into one some 3 weeks later. Dog and owner were soon reunited in the hospital.
Sure, losing your dog can be scary. But with a little know-how and a lot of help, reunions like that can happen. They happen all the time.
"There are ways to do it. It can be done. And I wanna say in, typically -- sometimes it takes longer -- but a couple days to 2 weeks," Duhr says. "It really helps to get people. You just have to get people to organize it so people are helping in the right way."