It can happen when your back is turned — a dog disappears from the yard, slips its leash, or simply vanishes in a crowd. Every pet parent has experienced the stirrings of panic when a dog mysteriously disappeared from view. Thankfully, in most instances, the pup will return from the scent, animal, or edible item that grabbed their attention, unharmed and unaware of the stress they’ve caused. A study by the ASPCA reveals that 14% of pet owners have lost a dog at some point. Reassuringly, however, 93% of those lost dogs were ultimately recovered. If you find yourself in the unlucky percentage of those who lose a dog, take action and follow these steps to find your lost dog as quickly and safely as possible.
Table of contents:
- What to do if your dog goes missing
- What to do if you find a lost dog
- Looking after a lost dog
- Pet safety
What to do if your dog goes missing
The moment you suspect your dog is gone, it’s time to act quickly and methodically.
If your dog has only recently gone missing, they still could be close enough to be found on foot. Begin calling loudly, using a whistle, or shaking dog treats if you have them. Aim to recruit nearby friends and family to cover a two-mile radius on foot in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance. Check natural features around the last point of contact, such as bodies of water, animal holes, or fenced-in areas to ensure your pet isn’t accidentally trapped.
Begin a concerted outreach effort to spread the word. Firstly, call your local police department or Animal Control Officer, as well as all the animal shelters in the local area, and provide them with a photo and a detailed description of your dog. This should include breed, color, age, size, markings/coat length, and ear shape. Have your pet’s microchip number available, as this is what many shelters will utilize to identify a dog.
There are a number of useful digital resources for pet owners seeking a lost dog. If your dog is American Kennel Club registered, you can create a Lost Pet Alert via the website. Petco also provides a nationwide recovery resource via the Petco Lost Loves database, allowing you to search and create an alert for your missing pet.
Social media and its vast reach can also play a powerful role in spreading the word and connecting people and pets. Create a post that features a photo of your pet, including identifying features and your contact information all contained within one image for easy sharing. Post to all your social platforms, encouraging family and friends to share widely on their profiles, too. In addition, there are lost pet pages on Facebook that cover specific regions and metro areas. Check online to see if such a page exists for your area and repost your missing pet alert. You can also create digital alerts on Petango and Pet FBI, as well as Nextdoor, Ring, and Craigslist that target your immediate neighborhood.
Make hard copies
Don’t underestimate the power of a poster in a public space. Create a clear, effective missing pet poster with a large, recent image of your pet, a detailed description of their physical characteristics and last known location, followed by your contact details and any reward you plan to offer. According to Chewy.com, for best results, consider two poster sizes: one large poster (min. 11”x 17”) to be hung on lamp posts and public buildings in your local areas, as well as a smaller flyer (min. 8.5”x 11”) that can be handed out to individuals in your area and posted in store windows and bulletin boards, etc.
Suggested locations for your Missing Pet poster:
- Front yards
- Local businesses and bulletin boards
- Animal shelters
- Pet stores
- Police stations
- Dog parks
Lost pets are often afraid and may hide during the day, meaning it’s worth another search after dark. You can also combine your search with canvassing your neighborhood to alert local people to be on the lookout for your pet. Bring a flashlight and look under porches or in covered areas where they might have gone to hide.
Don’t forget to follow up daily with your local animal shelters. While shelters are experienced and eager in their efforts to help reunite pets and owners, they’re also busy places with a high change-over of animals and staff. The staff members on duty are not necessarily the same each day, and therefore may not make a connection in a missing dog case.
What to do if you find a lost dog
Occasionally, you may find yourself on the other side of the situation. Finding an unattended dog in a public space can sometimes lead to confusion. How do you tell the difference between a lost dog and a free-roaming one? Who is the right person to call? Are you responsible for the animal’s welfare until its owner is found?
If you come across a suspected stray dog, approach with caution. It can be hard to tell if a dog is simply roaming solo or if it’s lost, but a lost and scared animal may react irrationally — potentially snapping or running away. Look for body language clues: A relaxed tail and ears could indicate a stress-free dog who will allow you to approach. A dog with its ears laid back and tail tucked with the whites of its eyes showing is probably distressed. Raised fur and bared teeth are clear signs of a dog feeling threatened, and getting closer may result in an act of aggression. Don’t forget that a wagging tail doesn’t guarantee a happy pup — just one that is highly stimulated and excited.
Approach slowly and speak calmly to the dog. If you have food, try coaxing them closer until you’re able to attach a leash. Retreat if you observe any signs of aggression or panic. If you’re unable to safely approach the dog, instead take photos or a video to capture a visual reference. This will allow you to identify the dog to authorities or the owner at a later date if it slips away from you.
Once the dog is within your control, check for a collar and tags. The best-case scenario is an ID tag with an owner’s name and contact information. However, dogs can slip their collars or escape from yards or cars without any ID. If your calls to the listed phone number go unanswered, it’s time to call for help.
Call for help
In the interest of the safety of you and the lost dog, the help of an official is almost always the best way to proceed, Contact your local Animal Control officer or the non-emergency line of the local police department and give your exact location, or the last known location if the dog is unrestrained. Alternatively, you can bring the dog to a local animal shelter or veterinarian and complete the “Found Dog” report. If the dog has no physical ID, the dog will be scanned for a microchip or checked for a tattoo ID.
Looking after a lost dog
If you find a lost dog, should you take it home? In rural areas or in the instance where you’re unable to travel to an animal shelter, temporarily sheltering a lost dog may seem like the best course of action. Be aware, that this act of generosity is not without risks. If you plan to take the dog to a home with existing pets or children, consider containing the found pet in a fenced-in yard, sealed room, or barn. Until you know the dog’s health history and temperament, mixing it with your wider family could lead to illness or injury. Even apparently healthy and friendly dogs may carry parasites or react unexpectedly in a new and stressful situation.
Now you have the dog at home, keep it fed and watered while you perform outreach to the owner. All of the steps to spreading the word about a lost dog listed above apply here too! Contact shelters, police departments, veterinarians, and animal control to notify the relevant authorities. Begin your own social media campaign to try to reach the pet parent using a photo and description of the found dog.
In the aftermath of a missing dog scare, it’s time to reconsider pet safety. There’s no way to get around it — dogs slip away from us sometimes. They are creatures of free will with irresistible instincts to follow scents, prey, and other dogs out of sight and out of reach. However, certain safety steps can make it easier to reunite with your beloved bet.
- Harnesses: The easiest way to keep your dog close is with a leash! Collars and ID tags are the first lines of defense against a missing dog and your pup should wear one anytime they go out in public. Body harnesses might be more suitable for a dog that pulls or gags on a traditional collar or leash.
- Microchips: Collars come off, so the decision to microchip your dog ensures a permanent identification method. Think of it like your pet’s social security number. The tiny transponder is implanted under the skin between the shoulder blades by a shelter or veterinarian, who will also be able to scan the chip should your dog turn up found after going missing
- GPS: In today’s landscape of high-tech gadgetry, a GPS tracker tag may offer some peace of mind. Like an ID tag in appearance, the GPS tracker can attach to your dog’s collar and provide relatively accurate real-time triangulation of your dog’s location using satellite data. Some even send text alerts to your phone within seconds of your dog leaving a designated safe zone, while others can also track your dog’s health and activity levels. Models range from as low as $30.
- CBD + CBDA: Dogs often escape the house or yard as a response to a stressful situation. If you can anticipate a stressful situation, such as 4th of July Fireworks or an incoming thunderstorm, consider giving your dog Calm & Comfort 1.5-2 hours in advance so that your pup can respond calmly to the situation!