Losing a beloved pet is an incredibly difficult experience, and can leave you feeling helpless and uncertain of what to do. It can be even more heart-wrenching when the circumstances surrounding their disappearance remain unclear. When a dog is lost, it can be a stressful and heartbreaking experience for everyone involved. The behavior of the dog once they are found will depend on their individual personality and the circumstances of their loss. Studies have shown that dogs that have been separated from their owners for long periods of time can suffer from mental distress and anxiety. It is important to understand the potential behaviors a dog may exhibit after being lost so that owners know how best to help them transition back into their home life. Understanding how dogs typically behave after being lost, however, can help guide owners in the right direction and provide them with some comfort. This article will discuss common dog behaviors after they’ve been lost, and provide tips for reuniting with a missing pet.
Reasons Why Lost Dogs Leave
The three most common reasons why dogs become separated from their families are opportunistic journey, wanderlust, and blind panic.
Opportunistic journey is when a gate or door is accidentally left open. While some dogs will remain in their yards or at their homes, most simply can’t refuse the temptation to explore when presented the opportunity. Although these dogs might not actively attempt to leave, their noses just lead them on a journey that can take them blocks or even miles from home.
Wanderlust is a common problem in intact male dogs of any breed as well as certain breeds like hounds. These dogs will actively attempt to escape by climbing, digging, or wiggling to escape their yards. They will also bolt out a door or pull to get away from their handler if the opportunity presents itself. Wanderlust is responsible for the displacement of many dogs and a major contributing factor to the stray populations in our shelters.
Blind panic is a situation in which the “flight” instinct (from the hardwired “fight or flight” response to stimuli) kicks in and a dog runs in what we call a blind panic. This can happen for three reasons: xenophobic (skittish) temperament, loud noises (thunder, gunfire), or traumatic incident (involved in car accident, explosion, ). These dogs are the most difficult to catch since they will travel far, travel fast, and avoid human contact, even with their own family members!
Factors that influence the distance a lost dog travel
There are human behaviors, animal behaviors, and other factors that influence the distance that a lost dog will travel. When giving recovery advice to someone who has lost a dog, be sure to consider the following:
Temperament of the dog
How a dog behaves towards strangers influences how far it will travel (when lost) before someone intervenes and rescues it. There are three primary behavioral categories of lost dogs: Gregarious Dogs, Aloof Dogs, and Xenophobic Dogs.
Gregarious Dogs: Wiggly-butt, friendly dogs are more inclined to go directly up to the first person who calls them. Depending on the terrain and population density where the dog was lost, these dogs will generally be found fairly close to home or will be picked up by someone close to the escape point. Gregarious dogs are often “adopted” by individuals (not shelter or rescue workers) who find them.
Aloof Dogs: Dogs with aloof temperaments are wary of strangers and will initially avoid human contact. They will be inclined to accept human contact only after they have overcome fear issues and become hungry enough. While these dogs can travel a great distance, aloof dogs eventually can be enticed with food and patience, typically by experienced rescuers who know how to approach and capture a wary dog. These dogs are often recovered by rescue group volunteers, and their wariness can be easily misinterpreted as “abused.” In addition, these dogs are often not recovered for weeks or months after their escape, giving them the physical appearance (thinness, injuries, stickers, ticks, etc.) that they are homeless, abused, and unloved.
Xenophobic (Fearful) Dogs: Xenophobia means “fear or hatred of things strange or foreign.” Dogs with xenophobic temperaments (due to genetics and/or puppyhood experiences) are more inclined to travel farther and are at a higher risk of being hit by cars. Due to their cowering, fearful behavior, people assume these dogs were “abused,” and even if the dog has ID tags, they will refuse to contact the previous owner. Some of these panic-stricken dogs will even run from their owners! It may be necessary to use other dogs to get close enough to capture them or to use baited dog traps.
Circumstances Surrounding the Disappearance of a Lost Dog
A dog that digs out from a yard to explore a scent will tend to travel a short distance before it is found meandering and doubling back as it explores a scent. On the other hand, a dog that bolts in panic due to fireworks or thunder will take off at a blind run and can run for several miles.
Weather: A dog that escapes on a beautiful spring day may travel farther than one that escapes in a snowstorm. Extreme weather conditions (snow, hail, rain, sweltering heat) will decrease the distances that lost dogs travel.
Terrain: A dog that escapes in a residential area will not travel as far as a dog that escapes in a mountainous area. Fences that create barriers will influence a dog’s travel since a dog will tend to take the “path of least resistance” when traveling. Cactus, heavy brush, and steep cliffs can be barriers that influence whether a dog continues on a path or changes directions.
Appearance of the Dog: What a dog looks like can influence how quickly it will be picked up by a rescuer. In general, most people are less inclined to pull over and attempt to grab a loose Pit Bull they perceive as being “aggressive” than they would a “friendly” Labrador Retriever. Also, size matters as people are more inclined to pick up small dogs because they look vulnerable and are easier to transport and house than large dogs. In addition, people are more likely to attempt to rescue a purebred dog that they perceive to have value than a mixed breed dog. When average motorists see a mixed breed dog trotting down the sidewalk, their impression is often that the dog belongs in the neighborhood or that it is a homeless stray. But when those same people see a Boston Terrier, they are inclined to believe that, because it is a “valuable purebred dog,” it must be a lost pet.
Population Density: A dog that escapes in Manhattan will travel a shorter distance than will a dog that escapes in the Rockies or in rural farmland. When dogs escape into areas with a high number of people, their chances of being found close to the escape point are increased. But in areas with an extremely low number of people, dogs tend to travel farther and their chances of being found close to the escape point are decreased. A dog that escapes in the middle of the night will travel farther before being seen than a dog that escapes during rush hour traffic.
Owner Behaviors That Create Problems
Dog owners often behave in ways that actually inhibit their chances of recovering their lost dogs. Some develop a “wait and see” approach (believing their dog will return home like Lassie) and by the time they start actively looking, the vital first few hours to locate the dog (or witnesses who saw the dog) are gone. Others develop “tunnel vision” and fail to find their dog because they focus on wrong theories. They assume their dog was “stolen and sold to research” when in fact their dog might have been rescued and put up for adoption through a local adoption event. They experience “grief avoidance” and quickly give up their search effort because they really believe they will never see their dog again. They feel helpless and alone, often discouraged by others who rebuke them and tell them “it was just a dog” and “you’ll never find your dog.”
In addition, the level of human animal bond (HAB) will influence the recovery efforts. People with a strong HAB will go to extremes to find their lost dog. They will accomplish the “impossible” task of visiting all shelters, posting flyers, and contacting rescue groups while maintaining a full-time job and other family commitments. On the other hand, people with a weak HAB will quickly become discouraged, assume they will never see their dog again, and will stop searching.
Approaching a Lost Dog
If someone reports a sighting of your dog, you must act quickly but take certain precautions considering lost dog returns home behavior. If your missing dog is in survival mode, you can go to the spot where he was last seen and try to entice him with food. Don’t make sudden movements when you see him, or else, he may run away. Wait for your dog to make his approach. If he doesn’t come to you on the first try, wait a few hours and try again.
You can also try to bring some familiar items such as his blanket, carrier, food bowl, or favorite toys. You want your lost dog to recognize the scents of home. You can leave this corner in a quiet corner and check back every once in a while, to find out if he visits the area.
When you see your lost dog, don’t make eye contact and slowly sit close to the ground. Don’t face him directly, position yourself a little sideways. This way, he won’t perceive you as a threat. When your dog comes close enough to sniff you, he will definitely recognize you and you can take him home safely once again.
Distribute Flyers In Your Target Search Area:
When developing lost pet posters, use bright, florescent poster board (available at drug stores or office supply stores).
Be sure someone is available at all times to answer incoming calls for potential sightings. Loose dogs are mobile and they can move quickly. Ask the caller if they are calling from a cell phone and if they are, ask them to remain on the phone with you to keep you updated on the dogs’ location. This tactic alone (cell phone to cell phone communication between a witness and a dog owner) has proven to be a highly effective method of recovering lost dogs. If you have a phone answering machine, make sure you change your message to include instructions on how someone can reach you on your cell phone. If you don’t own a cell phone, borrow one!
Place An Ad:
Place ads in both your local paper and distant newspapers. Also, check the “found pet” ads in these papers. Understand, however, that there is often a critical time lapse between the time your dog escapes to the time your ad actually appears in the newspaper. For example, let’s say your dog digs out of your yard one Friday evening, travels three blocks until he is found by someone, and they place him into their yard. This rescuer is likely going to check the classifieds for Fridays’ paper – but the lost dog won’t be listed there yet. Unfortunately, you might not even reach someone at the newspaper until Monday, thus your ad won’t appear at least until Tuesday. By this time, the rescuer may have checked the papers for four days (Friday through Monday) and because they did not see the ad, they assume that no one is looking for the dog. That is why posting giant, florescent poster boards in addition to a classified ad is critical.
Do Not Be Scammed:
Sadly, there are several “scams” where thieves prey on pet owners who have lost a pet. For example, there’s the “truck driver” scam where someone calls to say that while driving through your area they picked up a stray dog and just now saw your lost dog Ad. They then ask you to wire them money so they can ship your dog back to you. You send the money and the dog never arrives. If someone tells you to wire money because they have your pet, do not believe them! Never agree to pay a reward until you have your pet in hand. If someone has your dog but demands money and won’t return your dog unless you pay them, call the police. Never go to pick up your found pet alone. Tell a family member or friend exactly where you are going, take a cell phone with you, and take at least one other adult with you. And finally, be aware that anyone can take a dog, place a “SEARCH DOG” vest on it, claim it is trained to find lost pets, and charge a fee. Be certain to check references of any pet detective service that you use. Do Not Give Up!
Sometimes it takes weeks, even months to find a missing dog. There have even been cases where dogs have been located years after they disappeared. Physically, your dog is somewhere and it did not vanish from earth! Although it is possible that someone has transported your dog a long distance from your home, it is more probable that your dog is still in your town, maybe even within a few miles of where it was lost. DO NOT LOSE HOPE! If you lose hope or become discouraged by others who are trying to tell you to “give up” your search efforts, you will reduce your chances of recovering your dog.
Tips for newly adopted dogs or foster dogs who get lost from their new home
More and more people are choosing to adopt their new best friend from a rescue or shelter. This is a wonderful thing! Many dogs, through no fault of their own, need a new home. Unfortunately though, many people are unprepared for the challenges of living with a dog who may be shy, fearful or stressed by the changes in their lives. These dogs are considered “high flight risk” and go missing with alarming frequency from either their new owner or a foster family who may be temporarily caring for them until a permanent home is found. Many owners bring home their new dog and within a few hours or few days, the dog has slipped out of his collar, out of the yard or out of the house.
By far, the greatest risk to these dogs when they go missing is that they will be hit by a car and killed. It happens far too often and this article was written to give you tips to help you safely capture your new pet. Although it sounds like a horrifying situation and many people panic, the good news is that with a calm, clear head and a good plan of action these dogs are usually quite predictable in their actions and can be successfully recovered.
Although we never say never, please consider these tips:
- These dogs do not generally travel very far – often staying VERY close to the spot where they went missing from. We find this to be true even if they are unfamiliar with their new location. They generally do not head for an old home or shelter, or set off on long journeys unless they are chased or pressured.
- The MOST important thing you can do is to spread the word to everyone that is helping you to NOT call, whistle, approach or pursue your dog. The dog needs to be lured back to the spot it went missing from, as if you were trying to lure a scared cat or tame a wild animal like a squirrel or chipmunk.
- Using scent articles (the dog’s bed, his kennel or crate, toys, and dirty articles of clothing or bed sheets from the person most bonded with the dog) will help keep the dog in the area. If the dog is not yet bonded with you you may want to ask the shelter or rescue to provide clothing of the kennel attendant or foster parent who cared for him. If the dog had a kennel mate ask if you can rub an old towel over that dog to use as a scent item also. Place the scent articles somewhere safe (well away from roadways) along with smelly, tasty food and water. When hunters lose a dog while hunting they leave their coat out on the ground at the place they last saw their dog. The dog is often lying on it when the hunter returns the next day.
- If you see your dog, immediately sit down on the ground and toss a few tasty treats out around you. It may take a few minutes, or a few hours, but your dog might approach you. He may circle around and approach you from behind. Be patient and speak softly or not at all. Do not be surprised if he does not respond to his name. Newly adopted stressed dogs do not usually respond to sound or sight. They respond best to the smell of familiarity.
- Flyer the area heavily and use intersection signs to alert passing motorists about your missing dog. Again, remember to stress “Do NOT Chase” on your flyers and signs. The greatest risk to a shy lost dog is that he will be chased into traffic and killed.
- Be patient. Dogs lost from a new home or foster home may hunker down for a day or two and then creep back out to where they went missing from – lured by the tasty food and scent items you left.
If shelter and rescue staff and volunteers are helping you please ask them to read through our series Harnessing the Energy to give them pointers on how to most effectively use their time. Never give up! Your lost dog is counting on you to bring him safely home.
Tips for dogs who go missing from a fire or disaster
Dogs who go missing from a fire or disaster fit our profile of “Dogs lost from a Stressful Situation” so many of the tips are similar to those in an article on our website. If not chased or pressured out of the area, these dogs will often remain hiding nearby until they feel it is safe to come out. Additionally, these dogs may have been injured in the fire or disaster which may add to their level of stress and fear.
Panicked searchers who are worried about your dog’s survival may make matters worse by scaring your dog out of the area. Unless you are sure that your dog was critically injured, ask people who are wanting to help you to distribute flyers instead of “searching”. This will give your dog an opportunity to come back on his own.
Here are our top tips if your dog went missing from a fire or disaster.
1. Leave scent items – including smelly food, water, your dog’s bed or blanket and articles of dirty clothing or even the pillowcase of the person most bonded with the dog. Many of these dogs have fled in terror and are hiding nearby. They may creep back when all is quiet.
2. Ask everyone who is helping to not call or chase your dog. Your dog is already scared. Additional pressure from people “searching” may cause the dog to travel further away. If they are injured, they should be allowed to hunker down and rest. Dogs are incredibly resilient and you see many stories in the media of dogs who survive natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes and who eventually come back on their own.
3. Enter your dog’s information into a national free database Helping Lost Pets or Pet FBI. This will ensure their information is searchable if they are found far away or are lost for a long time.
4. Quickly hand distribute flyers in the immediate area where your dog went missing. Expand this area as time goes on and remember to ask everyone to not call or chase your dog. If you have been injured in the fire or disaster, enlist trusted people to help you who understand how important it is to remain calm and organized.
5. Notify all local authorities including police departments, animal shelters and vets clinics. Take two copies of your flyer to each – one for the back staff and one for the front desk and the public bulletin board. If your dog is injured, a Good Samaritan may pick him up and take him to a vet or shelter for medical care. Likewise, someone visiting the clinic may see your flyer and recognize your dog.
6. If your dog is microchipped immediately contact the microchip company to “red flag” your dog as missing and to make sure your contact information is up to date. The microchip company needs to know that they should not transfer ownership to a new person without contacting you first. This can happen if your dog ends up in a shelter and completes the stray hold (which may be as short as 24 hours) without being able to reach you.
In conclusion, lost dogs often behave in unpredictable ways and it is important to approach with caution. If a dog is found, they should be immediately taken to a shelter or assessed by an animal behavior specialist. Additionally, owners should ensure their pets are microchipped and keep up to date records of their pet’s medical information. This will help the chances of reuniting a lost pet with its family.