How to Find a Lost Dog: Tried & True Methods, and Some You Haven’t Considered
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
NOTE: This post has been updated and will continue to be updated as new resources become available.
This is Part II of Prevention and Finding a Lost Dog. If you've missed it, check out the previous post, 5 Things to Do Now Before Your Dog Becomes Lost. Even if your dog isn’t currently lost, bookmark both posts or print them out for future reference. Some of the tips that follow are standard, while others are a result of my years of working with dogs in shelters, rescue, and training. My hope is that you’ll never need these.
Search your neighborhood:
Search area: Draw a circle on a map with your home at the center. Extend the radius out a few miles so you can cover the area in a comprehensive, methodical way. You will cover the paths where you normally walk your dog, and then move gradually and methodically out to surrounding areas. Dogs are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk. You’ll want to search at other times as well, but focus on those two time periods.
Walking search: Grab a leash and take along some super-stinky, yummy food you know your dog loves, such as sardines, hot dogs, or fresh pieces of roasted chicken. The other thing that should be super-stinky is you, in the form of a carried well-worn shirt or other article of clothing that has your scent on it–your dog may pick up the scent as you pass. If your dog has a favorite toy, bring it along. Toys that make noise, such as ones that squeak or jingle, are best. If you have another dog, bring that dog along, too. If your dog is an only dog but you have access to another yours is friendly with, ask the owner to walk with you.
Call out your dog’s name in a happy voice as you go, jingle the toy, and keep the stinky food and clothing exposed to the air. In addition to calling your dog’s name, yell “Cookies!” or whatever word you use for treats. (If your dog isn’t food-motivated, yell, “Let’s go for a ride! or whatever else floats his boat.) If your dog has a recall, say his name and then, "Come!" in a happy voice. Do visual sweeps, paying careful attention to places such as bushes, the undersides of cars, and other areas your dog might take cover if he’s sleeping, injured, or frightened. Brainstorm about local places your dog might venture, such as the local dog park, woods, or fields where rabbits or other wildlife are found; or, in a more urban environment, perhaps your dog might head for a neighbor’s house where a canine friend lives.
Driving search: If possible, have someone else drive so you can focus on searching and calling out your dog’s name. If you’re alone, drive slowly and keep your eyes on the road as you do intermittent visual sweeps of the area. Keep the windows rolled down and call out your dog’s name as you go. If your dog knows, “Wanna go for a ride?” call his name followed by the phrase, uttered in the same happy tone you’d normally use. Whether you are searching by car or on foot, if your dog knows a recall cue, use his name and call him to come to you. Even though you’re understandably stressed out, remember the happy voice!
Photograph: Bring a few recent photos along, preferably one head shot and a few full body photos. Show them to everyone you encounter. If your dog is currently wearing a different collar, harness, or other “clothing” than what’s shown in the photos, say so. Ask whether anyone’s seen your dog, and give them a way to contact you.
Get the word out: Inform your neighbors: If you feel it’s safe, knock on doors and explain, and/or leave flyers. If your dog is not people-friendly, don’t expect people to attempt contact. Instead, supply them with the phone number of your local animal control agency along with your cell number, and ask them to call both if they spot your dog. Even if your dog is friendly, ask people not to chase him, but to turn their body to the side (and even crouch down with body turned sideways if they’re willing and able) and clap gently, using a high-pitched, happy voice to lure your dog to them. If they have a yard or other potential containment area, ask them to coax your dog inside, close the door/gate, and then call you. Let people know too whether your dog is dog-friendly, in case they have a dog of their own.
Post “Lost” flyers around your neighborhood, using your targeted map as a guide. Keep these flyers brightly colored with large text, and don’t cram in too much–you want people to spot and read these quickly. Include a clear photo, preferably in color. The word “REWARD” should appear prominently. (Positive reinforcement works for people, too!) Now, I know some will disagree with this, but I also recommend printing “NEEDS MEDICATION,” whether the dog does or not, as it helps to dissuade those who believe in a “Finders, Keepers” policy from keeping your dog. And, I would add “DO NOT CHASE” because a well-meaning rescuer may chase your dog into traffic. (This goes double if you have a fearful dog.) Create small tear-off tags at the bottom of the page with your phone number so the tags get removed and the flyer remains in place.
Post flyers at veterinary offices, emergency clinics, shelters, humane societies, groomers, pet supply stores, kennels, other dog-related businesses, and dog parks. Anywhere you can, actually talk to the staff and show photos so they’re aware of the situation instead of just posting the flyer. Post too at laundromats, supermarkets, community bulletin boards, and anywhere else that will allow it.
Create “on the road” flyers on large, fluorescent-colored cardboard with a huge “REWARD-LOST DOG” that will catch drivers’ eyes. Post these strategically so motorists passing in both directions can spot them; be sure to post at traffic signals, stop signs, and intersections. Here is a Youtube video that shows you how.
Distribute flyers to your local postal workers, delivery drivers, sanitation workers, and other local service providers. They’re the ones who cover your neighborhood in a comprehensive way daily, and have the best chance of spotting your dog. Give flyers to kids who are playing or hanging out on the street and let them know there’s a reward. Alert local dog walkers, since they are not only out and about in the community regularly, but will have other dogs with them who might attract your dog. Other people to hand flyers to include bus drivers, taxi drivers, highway workers, utility workers—you get the idea. Give ‘em to anyone who’s spending time in your neighborhood and is willing to help.
Door hangers are harder to ignore and get the word out in a more targeted way than flyers. Make door hangers featuring your dog’s photo and place them around your neighborhood.
Alert local trainers and groomers in case someone decides to keep your dog and engages their services. Let local rescue groups know, too. A rescue group might have been called by someone who found your dog or, if your dog went to a shelter, the rescue group might have pulled him. If your dog is a purebred, alert the breed rescue, even if it’s not in your immediate area. Even if your dog is a mixed breed, alert the breed rescue for his predominant breed, as well as mixed-breed rescues. If your dog is microchipped, alert the chip company. If your dog originally came from a rescue, and his tags still have the rescue’s contact info, let the rescue know as well.
Spread the word online. Post information and photos on social media. On Facebook, see if there is a lost and found pets group for your area. If not (or in addition), search for any pet-related groups local to your area. If you’re not sure or not on social media, consider Pawboost, a service that will post to the Facebook groups for your area free of charge. Post on Twitter, Instagram, and any other social media you are on as well. Anywhere you post, ask that it be shared. Post to Nextdoor (sign up if you’re not already a member), which focuses on your own neighborhood and is free to join. If you have Ring, post on their boards. If not and you have a friend who’s a member, ask them to post for you.
Place “Lost dog” ads in your local and surrounding newspapers, and on Craigslist. Also, look through ads for people adopting out or selling dogs, as someone might be trying to rehome your dog.
Search Shelters and Humane Societies:
Search shelters in your area, and any surrounding shelters as well, since people will sometimes drop a dog off on there way to somewhere else, where it’s more convenient for them. Depending on where you live, strays may be euthanized after just a few days of not being claimed. Don’t just call—you must show up in person. Often the office staffer who answers the phone will not know what dogs are in the actual facility. Also, your dog might have been marked down as the wrong breed upon intake.
Look through the Found flyers (most shelters have a bulletin board or book of them) and leave a Lost flyer there. Be sure to search each and every run, even those reserved for the opposite sex (every now and then a mistake is made as to gender). And don’t skip the medical area! If your dog was hit by a car or otherwise injured, that’s where he’ll be. Ask a shelter staffer whether you’re allowed inside; if not, give them a few photos and ask them to take a look. Also, ask in the main office where to locate the Found postings. And talk to the volunteers. Often they’re the ones who interact most with the dogs and are a great resource. Hopefully they can keep an eye out for your dog.
If you have a local pizza place, ask if they’re willing to post a flyer on every box that goes out.
If your dog is a purebred or a mostly-purebred, keep a vigilant watch on the website of any local groups who specialize in that breed. Check the websites too of any local mixed-breed rescue groups.
If you’ve got a GPS tracker on your dog, use it. Be sure you know how wide of a geographical range the product covers.
This is sad, but contacting your local sanitation company will let you know whether your dog was killed by a vehicle.
If you live in a home with a front lawn or other prominent place, construct a large poster board and place it where passersby can see it.
You can turn your car into a mobile billboard as well. Get some car glass markers (Missing Animal Response recommends the 1/2″ tip neon Neon Glass Car Markers from Neoplex (https://amzn.to/2lR5GRG). Not to worry, this stuff comes off with window cleaner. Just be sure your lettering is large (at least 3 or 4 inches tall) and include a large photo of your dog. To see an example, click here: https://www.missinganimalresponse.com/tag-your-car/
There are companies that will, for a fee, help search for your dog by generating flyers and employing a voluminous contact list. This can be especially helpful if you work full-time or are otherwise too busy or unable to conduct a full-on search on your own. Depending on the state you live in, there may even be services available where a bloodhound or other breed can help to track your dog. Here are some invaluable resources: Mission Reunite has extensive information on search techniques and even has missing animal consultants to help. Missing Animal Response‘s website not only has lots of invaluable information, but has a listing of “pet detectives” you can hire. Pet Harbor allows you to enter your zip code and search and keep track of dogs in local shelters. They also offer an option to mail postcards to your neighbors. Lost My Doggie will, free of charge, send 25 faxes/emails to your local vets and shelters, do a listing in a lost and found section, and print lost and found flyers. They have other paid options that scale up from there.
If you spot your dog:
Hopefully, you’ll soon spot your dog. Although you’ll be thrilled to see him, since the outside world is one big Doggie Disneyland, he might not be inclined to run directly to you. If that happens, try to get him to chase you instead. If you’re near your home, have him chase you all the way into the yard, then close the gate; if not, try to maneuver to where you can grab him gently. Another trick you can try is to fall down and pretend to cry. Use a high-pitched, distressed tone. Many dogs will run to their owners in that situation.
If someone else spots your dog:
First, be sure it’s actually your dog and not one who looks similar. Ask if there are any identifying marks. If the person is close enough, ask them to take a photo and text it to you.
If someone sees your dog but does not have possession of him, ask the person NOT to chase, but to keep you aware of the dog’s location. The optimum scenario would be for them to remain on the phone with you as you drive there and they keep an eye on the dog, but at the least, you’ll have a better defined area to search. If your dog is friendly and the person can easily coax your dog into their yard, ask them to keep him contained until you can get there. (Before suggesting this, is your dog dog-friendly? If not, ask if they have a dog first. Even if your dog is dog-friendly, ask if they have a dog and whether he is as well. The ideal would be to keep the dogs separated either way.)
It’s terrible that this has to be said, but if someone claims to have your dog (and it does sound like an accurate description), meet them at a public place rather than going to their home. In front of a police station is best. If someone has nefarious intentions, this suggestion alone may put them off. If you’ve offered a reward, bring the cash to pay them.
The most important thing:
Think positive. Visualize your dog home safe and sound. Most importantly, don’t give up hope! I know of a few cases where a dog was lost and someone took him in (this is all too common) for a few months and then gave the dog up to a shelter. Keep looking, keep spreading the word, and stay strong. Here’s to your dog getting home safe and sound.
Print this Checklist:
____ On a map, circle a radius with your residence as the mid-point. ____ When searching, take: treats, toys, your other dog, a stinky T-shirt, a familiar dog. ____ Create a “Lost Dog” flyer. Photo, large text, tear-off contact info. ____ Post flyers at: – traffic lights, stop signs, intersections – veterinary offices – groomers – kennels – shelters – dog parks – pet supply stores – non-pet-related stores ____ Give flyers to: – passersby – kids hanging out/playing in street – bus drivers – delivery drivers (e.g., UPS, FedEx), sanitation workers, postal workers ____ Inform: – local rescues (breed-specific if applicable, too) – trainers – groomers – boarding kennels ____ Post online to social media and other groups. ____ Place ads in local newspapers and on Craig’s List. ____ Search shelters thoroughly and regularly. ____ Monitor local rescue websites, especially if your dog’s a purebred.
Again, never give up. My heart goes out to you, and I hope you find your dog safe, sound, and soon. ___________________________________________________________________________________
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