Lost Dog!

Nothing will get a lost dog home faster than a collar with a phone number on it.

Few experiences in the field are worse than knowing your dog is out there somewhere yet having no idea where. I’m not talking about a dog that’s working 50 yards away in some thick cover that you can’t see or hear. I’m talking about a dog you last saw 30 minutes ago that hasn’t checked in and isn’t responding to your calls, or one that was headed for the next county the last time you glimpsed its back end. 

GPS collars have all but eliminated the not-knowing-where part, but occasionally collars fail and even today not everyone uses one. New Year’s Eve 2021 was a case study in how things can go wrong in a hurry. We chased woodcock in the morning, hit some quail cover afterward, and when everyone else peeled off for other obligations, I saw a great opportunity to work my nine-month-old pup by himself. About 20 minutes into the run I called to him as I changed direction. He didn’t respond. I watched the yardage climb on the GPS—200, 300, 400, 500 yards—and then things really went sideways. The signal from the collar dropped, and in that fraction of a second my hunt for birds became a needle-in-a-haystack search for a puppy.

Lessons come hard and fast on the battlefield. Here are a few I took home that day.

Before You Go

Collar

Make sure your dog has a collar with your phone number on it. Add your name, mention that a reward is offered or that the dog has an RFID chip, but most important is that phone number. A phone number will get your dog back faster than anything else. None of that other information matters if the person who finds your dog doesn’t know how to get in touch with you. I’m amazed at how many people put a collar on a dog with no information on it. This is zero help in getting your pup home.

All of my collars have my name, city and state; my cell number and my wife’s cell number. Nothing more. If someone finds my dog, they’ll know if it is likely lost, how to get in touch and who they’re talking to.

Microchips are a nice piece of insurance, and you should spend the $30 or so that one costs; but they help only if your dog ends up at a vet’s office or a shelter. Don’t put all of your eggs in that basket.

Carry cards with your info on them

Business cards are fine. If you don’t have any, you can make them easily with a computer and printer. Even slips of paper with your contact info are better than nothing. When you run into people in the area where your dog went missing, it’s a quick way to get your info to them without everyone having to dig out cell phones. And in the event that they see your dog but can’t get close enough to read the collar, they’ll still be able to reach you.

Keep your GPS units updated

Manufacturers of this equipment periodically release software updates that add features and fix bugs. Some of these relate to features most of us never use, but not always. (More on this later.) You should check for updates every month or two.

When You Realize Your Dog Is Lost

When you realize your dog is lost, it’s important to take a minute or two to assess the situation. Are you in a populated or remote area? How much daylight is left? How far are you from home (or your bed for the night)? The answers to these questions will help you make the best decisions in the coming minutes and hours.

Pursuit

A dog won’t run in a straight line forever. Eventually it will either get tired or lose the scent of whatever had interested it, at which point it will loop back or start working the area. If you can see your dog or have GPS contact, it’s probably worth pursuing on foot. 

There are two schools of thought about calling to a runaway dog as you pursue. One holds that as long as the dog can hear you, it won’t think it’s lost. Honestly, you probably called several times before the dog got out of range and it didn’t work, so more calling isn’t likely to suddenly make the dog reverse direction until you get quite close, which is the basis for the other approach. If you’re closing the gap between the two of you, keep quiet until you’re well within 100 yards, where you’re more likely to catch the dog’s attention, make eye contact and have it respond. 

If you’re not able to close the distance or the distance grows, you’ll need to make a decision about whether it’s better to maintain pursuit or go back to the truck and try to head off the fugitive. This depends on factors like how far away the truck is, how tired you are and the topography. Do you have enough water to maintain a long pursuit? Can you shed gear and find it later? Can you get closer to the dog in a vehicle than on foot? Make your call, and then commit to it.

When I lost GPS contact and couldn’t get a visual on my pup, I turned around immediately. There were enough roads in the area that I could cover more ground on wheels than on foot. 

Getting the word out

Talk to everyone you see. If the other individuals have cell phones, text them a photo of your dog. Now they’ll have your number and an idea of what to keep an eye out for. If someone doesn’t have a phone, hand him or her one of the cards with your contact info. Yes, your dog should have contact info on its collar, but if several days go by, that card might remind someone who sees a dog running around that you’re looking for one. And if your dog won’t get close enough for someone to read the collar, that card is gold.

Work the area, and use that final hour of daylight to search from the last known location of the dog. Whether it’s the last place you saw the dog, heard its bell or got a GPS location, your time is best spent searching from there. The dog is more likely to be close to that spot than anywhere else on the map.

When darkness falls

If you can’t spend the night, a time-honored piece of advice is to leave a piece of your clothing in the area. Dogs often backtrack, and something with your scent on it may hold the dog close until you can return the next day. The tactic has worked for enough people that it gets handed down year after year.

If you can spend the night in your truck on site, it’s probably worth the effort. If not, get back and resume the search first thing in the morning or as soon as you can. Again, time is critical.

If you have social-media accounts, this is a useful way to spend the evening. Get the word out with images through your personal accounts and any hunting or outdoor groups you can access. Include relevant info along with the last place you saw the dog. Don’t wait several days to do this. 

This is also a good time to gather the phone numbers of area animal shelters, veterinarians and law enforcement. Call the shelters and vets first thing in the morning, and be sure to let them know if your dog has an RFID chip. I keep my dogs’ chip info on my phone for this reason. Call law enforcement before you go to sleep. They have people working around the clock.

Mentally, it’s hard coming to grips with the fact that your dog might not be riding home in the truck that day. Not knowing is the worst part, but your dog is probably OK. Regardless of how pampered they are at home, dogs are built for survival; and short of serious injury, they can manage on their own for a while. Shortening that stretch of time is your job.

In my pup’s case, the GPS held the last point of contact, so with daylight fading, I went there and took a good look at the surroundings. Across the road was a stand of very thick planted pines, and I reasoned that the dense canopy could have prevented the GPS signal from getting to the satellite. Nothing certain, but possible and certainly better than setting off in a random direction. I’d looked there earlier, walking a few hundred yards down the adjacent forest service road without luck, and my plan this time was to follow the road to its end at the river, figuring a dog likely wouldn’t swim across just for kicks. This time I didn’t get very far when I came around a bend to find a little white dog staring back at me.

These suggestions are aimed at finding a dog in the field, but many apply to a dog that gets out of the yard. If this happens in a neighborhood, quickly move social-media efforts up the list. People check their accounts all day long, and the more eyes you have looking early, the better.

It should be apparent that preparation is more important to a happy ending than reaction. If you haven’t done the right things before you go, the odds grow against getting your dog back quickly. Take a few minutes now and stack them in your favor. And if the unthinkable happens, work a plan and use your time wisely. 

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1 Comment

  1. says: Martin Grohman

    This is a great article with excellent advice. I have found that when my dog is really lost, he lies down, curls up and waits for me to find him. But eventually he will get up and look for a house or a road.
    What worked for me was to call the only store in the small town where I lost him and ask if anyone had seen a dog. Once I did that I had him back in 15 minutes.
    I was relieved beyond belief, and pup acted like nothing had happened 🙂

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