how to find your lost dog
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Caitlin UltimoHealth / Pet Safety & Injury Prevention

How To Find A Lost Dog

Five days. That’s how long it took for Valeria Vezga, a dog mom from Davie, Florida, to find her 14-year-old blind Chihuahua, Charlie.

At first, Vezga and her boyfriend didn’t realize the senior dog was actually missing. They simply thought he was off napping in a nook somewhere, not uncommon for a dog his age.

“My heart dropped when I realized he made a hole through the patio screen door, and we live on the third floor,” Vezga recalls.

Vezga quickly went into panic mode.

“I was panicking, but I knew we had to act fast,” Vezga recalls.

Going door-to-door, putting up flyers, posting on social media—Vezga did everything she could in order to find Charlie. By the fifth day, she started to lose hope and began making peace with the fact that she may not see her beloved dog again. But then, she got a call from someone at Abandoned Pet Rescue Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A good Samaritan had found Charlie roaming around the neighborhood and dropped him off.

“When the [shelter worker] walked in with my dog, [Charlie’s] blind, so he couldn’t see me,” Vezga says. “But he smelled me and slowly got more and more excited and began squealing like a pig until 10 o’clock at night.”

No one thinks they’ll be the pet parent looking for their lost dog. But it happens. When it comes to recovering a lost dog, there are two rules to follow:

  1. React quickly
  2. Use a variety of recovery tools

If you start your search right away and broaden your search to include many tactics, experts say you’ll have a greater chance of reuniting with your pet.

What to Do if Your Dog Is Lost

If you’ve looked everywhere around your house—inside and outside—and Fido is nowhere to be found, take a moment to calm down. Your dog needs you to stay focused and remain calm so that you can efficiently search for them.

Most importantly, don’t lose hope. Many shelter and animal control employees have seen lost dogs eventually find their way home thanks to the community working together.

“Throughout my years of experience, I have seen nearly every method work,” says Janeé Boswell, animal control supervisor for the Boulder Police Department and president of the Colorado Association of Animal Control Officers. “Going door-to-door, fliers, searching shelters, etc.”

Go Door-to-Door

The moment your dog is missing, go door-to-door to ask your neighbors if they’ve seen your dog.

“The first thing we did was go on foot throughout our community asking anyone if they had seen a one-eyed Chihuahua, which isn’t very common,” Vezga recalls.

Leave your contact information with each neighbor in case you dog turns up later.

Contact Local Animal Shelters

Sharon Miller, animal control director for the Baltimore City Health Department, recommends contacting your local shelter as soon as a pet is missing.

“The sooner the effort starts, the more likely an animal will be found,” Miller says.

And that includes visiting in person.

“Go to the animal shelter, walk through the animals and provide a photo if possible,” Miller says. “Many times, shelter personnel will [classify] a dog differently than a dog owner. A dog owner is calling the shelter looking for a Sheltie, and the shelter had identified the dog as a long-haired Chihuahua mix.”

Check Lost Pet Groups on Social Media

Not surprisingly, using social media is one of the most effective tools for finding a lost pet.

“Social media reaches a large population in a very short amount of time,” Miller says. “We advise always having a current picture and providing the location of where the dog was last seen, and contact information if the dog is found. Many neighborhoods in the city have associations with an online bulletin [board] to post information.”

Mike Cassidy, director of Jessamine County Public Services in Kentucky, says you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a community’s lost and found page. He recalls one neighborhood site that had only 3,500 followers, but—thanks to multiple shares—a posting about a lost dog got 6,000 views.

Vezga credits social media for ultimately bringing her dog, Charlie, home, specifically her post on a Facebook page run by PawBoost, which helps alert local pet lovers of missing pets.

“Our PawBoost post had over 1,000 likes and shares, and that’s what eventually got him home,” Vezga says. “Now, I always share any other dogs and cats that get lost on social media.”

Create a Lost Dog Flier

When creating fliers, use this handy checklist to make sure they are as informative as possible:

  • A current photo
  • Detailed description of the dog
  • Any medical issues: This can help convey the urgency in finding the dog, Miller says.
  • Valid phone number that has voicemail

That last one may seem obvious, but Boswell has found that it isn’t.

“I can’t tell you the number of times that people will provide a phone number that does not have a voicemail set up or the voicemail is full,” she says. “This becomes very discouraging for authorities who may have found the animal or for a finder who can’t reach the owner.”

After creating the flier, you can utilize it for all of your other search efforts: for hanging up around the neighborhood, posting online, handing out to rescues, local vets, etc.

Search Beyond Your Neighborhood

Many dogs stay close to home, but each dog is different and the distance they are likely to travel can’t be predicted. If your dog has been lost for more than a couple of days, expanding your geographical search may help.

“I have seen several cases where dogs are found in one city, a person locates them and loads them in their car, then takes them to their local shelter, which could be cities away,” Boswell says.

Other factors can also add unexpected distance between home and where your lost dog ends up.

“A dog that runs away out of fear, such as from fireworks, will bolt in a panic and not recognize where he went, becoming truly lost,” says Susan Bulanda, MAT, CABC, a certified animal behavior consultant and adjunct professor, author and lecturer in Pennsylvania.

“A male dog following the scent of a female will travel very far,” she adds.

Cassidy points out that there are some breed-based tendencies that may affect a dog’s roaming distance.

“Some breeds like to run more than others. Huskies, Beagles and hounds are susceptible to hunting,” Cassidy says. “If they get on the trail of some kind of wildlife, they’re going to keep going.”

Depending on the circumstances, Bulanda says it’s best to post signs and let organizations know about a lost dog for at least 100 miles away.

Ask Family and Friends to Help in Your Search

The more people that can help you search for your lost dog, the better.

When Vezga lost her dog Charlie, the first thing she did was call her close family and friends to help her.

“One person stayed home and created ads, while others went out to talk to people and leave fliers,” Vezga recommends. “This was the most effective way we gathered information on who had seen Charlie.”

And if you have children, keep in mind that they’re missing their furry friend, too—and can help. How, exactly, depends on the age of the children, Bulanda says.

“If they are old enough, they can make phone calls to veterinarian clinics, shelters and rescue groups,” she says.

If not, they can help write posters for their parents or older siblings to distribute.

Boswell also believes children should be involved.

“It allows them to feel involved and become an active part of the solution,” Boswell says. “It’s also important that parents do not give them a false sense of hope. Be optimistic, but also realistic.”

What to Do When You’ve Found Your Lost Dog

So, you’ve posted fliers, visited local and adjacent animal shelters and your dog has been found. Great! But now what? Don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t act as happy to see you as you are to see them.

“We always hope they will come running to us, tail wagging,” Boswell says. “However, their demeanor in an unpredictable, open setting can drastically change their behavior.”

Some key factors that experts say may play into your pet’s response to you and how quickly they adjust to being back home are:

  • Your dog’s general behavioral tendencies
  • Their relationship with you and other family members
  • The length of time they have been missing for
  • What the dog experienced while being lost

“It may take hours or a day or so for the dog to return to its calm, relaxed state,” she says.

When going to pick up your found pet, Cassidy recommends bringing something the dog is familiar with—a favorite treat or toy, or something else that reminds them of home.

Once your dog is home, examine their physical and mental state. They may require a trip to the vet.

“If the dog was lost for more than 24 hours and is dirty, looks uncared for or does not act normal, the dog should be taken to a veterinarian for a checkup, since the dog may have eaten noxious things or been bitten or stung by a snake or insect,” Bulanda says. “The dog should be given a bath, carefully groomed and checked for any injuries, punctures or other signs of a harmful encounter. In some areas it may be necessary to look for things such as ticks, fleas, etc.”

Boswell says to pay special attention to your dog’s activity levels, as well as their food and water consumption.

If your dog does not return to their normal behavior in two or three days, and their physical health has been cleared by their vet, Bulanda recommends speaking with a certified canine behavior consultant.

At the end of the day, no matter how prepared you are—sometimes, things just happen. If you lose your dog, utilize this guide to get your dog home, and be kind to yourself.

“It’s not your fault and things just happen,” Vezga says. “While searching for your dog, my biggest advice is to stay hopeful and believe that there are dog lovers out there that would take care of your dog if he seems lost.”

Watch Vezga and Charlie’s sweet reunion after spending five long days apart:


By: Elizabeth Anderson Lopez and Lindsay Page 

Video courtesy of Valeria Vezga

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