It can happen in an instant: One second your dog is safe on his leash or in the house, and the next second he’s gone, loose in a world full of danger. If your dog hasn’t mastered recall yet, this scenario is nothing short of terrifying. You panic. You scream your dog’s name until you lose your voice. You show up on your neighbors’ doorsteps in tears. You put up flyers and Facebook posts. Finally, you’re left staring out the window, nerves shot from bracing in terror at every loud noise, beating yourself up about what you could have done differently.
No matter how careful you are, accidents do happen. If you’re reading this because your dog is missing, hang in there! We hope you and your best buddy are safely reunited very soon. Here are some tips to help you through it.
If Your Dog Is Loose
When your dog gets loose, every instinct in your body -- not to mention buckets of adrenaline – tells you to run toward your dog. Try to resist. Running toward your dog could only make him run further away from you, thinking it’s a game. Instead, try running away from your dog, as loudly and theatrically as possible, to see if he will follow. Try to lure him toward you with your dog’s favorite things. Is he obsessed with his tennis ball? Maybe he’ll do anything for cheese, or playtime with a canine friend. Use those things to your advantage.
The tips above assume that you know your dog well enough to know his favorite things and to predict his behavior. But what if you barely know the dog at all? Unfortunately, many dogs that get loose are newly adopted rescues, and they’re confused and scared. So what if your dog is loose and not in any immediate danger, but too skittish and freaked out to let you approach? Focus on making him comfortable with you. Avoid body language that will seem threatening to a dog (good place for a link if we have another article about dog body language), and use a soothing tone of voice. If possible, wait for him to come to you. Try to project calm. Remember that it is more important to build a positive, trusting relationship with your dog than to catch him quickly.
If Your Dog Is Missing
If your dog is not only loose, but actually missing, the worries magnify: What if he gets hit by a car, or attacked by a larger animal? What about extreme heat or cold? Will he remember how to get home? What if he’s hurt? Your mind can keep spinning worst-case scenarios until you’re physically sick.
You may find that just doing something, anything, will help relieve anxiety. Spread the word in as many ways as you can think of. Make sure local police, animal shelters, and vets are aware that your dog is missing. Get his information on any relevant pages online, such as Facebook or Craigslist. Put up posters near pet stores and dog parks. If your dog’s collar has a phone number on it, make sure you are near that phone at all times. Ideally, you wouldn’t leave your house to look for your dog unless a second person is holding down the fort at home. You never know when your dog could just waltz home all by himself, and you don’t want to miss it! And if he does return, of course, celebrate like it’s the best day of your life. You may be upset with him for all the trouble he put you though, but don’t let it show.
Traps and Camera
If you have a rough idea where your dog is and other methods have not worked, you can use a humane trap. You should be able to borrow one from your local animal control officer or animal shelter. Experts suggest baiting the trap with the smelliest dog-safe food you can find. Hunks of rotisserie chicken work really well, as long as you avoid spicy seasonings. You can also try SPAM. Try making a trail with Liquid Smoke to lead the dog toward the trap. If you’re putting the trap in your yard, it doesn’t hurt to fire up the grill and cook some hot dogs or other meats. Make your property as delicious and alluring as possible!
The trap may not work the first night – or you may end up catching something else, like a skunk or a raccoon. Try to be patient. Even suspicious and skittish dogs will get hungry eventually, and these smelly foods are hard to resist. (Sadly, some dogs do have experience scrounging food in cities or in the woods, and they can be resourceful. If your dog was once a stray or an “outdoor dog,” you may have to wait longer.) Some dog recovery organizations also loan out trail cams with night vision, which you can use to confirm that your dog is returning to the area. Remember to get permission from the property owners first if you’re setting up traps or trail cams somewhere other than your own yard.
If Your Find a Stray
If you’ve come across a loose dog that you don’t know but want to help, be cautious. Check out the Humane Society’s recommendations for how to safely help strays.
Before Your Dog Gets Out: Be Proactive
Too many shelter dogs were obviously someone’s beloved pet, but without ID they never make it back home. Make sure anyone who finds your dog knows how to reach you. Your dog should always wear proper ID (ideally with cellphone numbers and your dog’s name on the tag), and get him microchipped in case he slips his collar. Keep the microchip information current, because it won’t do you or him any good if it’s linked to an old address.
A current photo is also extremely helpful. Dog owners tend to take tons of photos of their dogs, so that’s not usually a problem, but again, newly adopted dogs may not be so lucky. Take a full-body photo as soon as you bring your dog home, and keep taking photos as he grows. It’s also handy to know your dog’s vital stats, such as weight, so you can include that information on posters and online posts. There’s a big difference between a 35 lb Lab mix and a 75 lb Lab mix, and it can be hard to judge size accurately from a photo.
Share, Share, Share
Sharing lost-dog posts is absolutely critical, because the more people who know about the lost dog, the better. If people see a loose dog but don’t know he’s a missing pet, they may think he’s just another random stray. In addition, lost-dog sightings are most effective if they are reported immediately, so it’s crucial that people know who to contact if they do see the dog. Even if they don’t lead directly to the dog’s recovery, sightings are unbelievably reassuring for the panicked owners, and they help guide future search efforts.