A few days into a family vacation in faraway Bora Bora, Lynn Janata got an unwelcome email from her dog sitter in Renton, Wash.: We have a situation here. Cali has gone missing. The 14-month-old Australian Shepherd had bolted through an open garage door. Although the sitter took quick action, each time Cali was spotted, she was farther and farther from home.
With the help of friends in the Seattle area, Janata contacted Jim Branson, a volunteer with Missing Pet Partnership (MPP), a local group that helps recover lost animals. Branson’s black Labrador, Kelsy, is trained in scent-detection for tracking other dogs. Several times, Branson and Kelsy found Cali’s scent, but they weren’t able to keep up. The dog crisscrossed a three-by-five-mile territory during her seven days on the lam.
Every morning, from the island in the South Pacific, Janata ran down Cali sightings. “People gave so much of their help to try to find our dog,” she says. “But Cali was freaked out; she wouldn’t come to anyone.”
When the family returned from their distracted vacation, they went directly from the airport to search for their dog. Janata headed to the intersection where Cali had last been sighted. And she saw her. “To me, it was a miracle — there she was, sleeping on somebody’s front porch,” she says. “But in the back of my mind, I’m hearing Jim say, She might even bolt from you.”
So Janata sat on the ground with her back to Cali and set out her favorite stuffed toy and treats. When Cali didn’t come forward, Janata lay on her back. That’s when the errant pup started sniffing the air. “Then she just broke into a run and jumped into my arms,” she says. “I started crying.”
Sitting with her back to Cali was hard for Janata. “I’m sure she wanted to run to her when she spotted Cali in that yard,” Branson says. “She may have wondered if my advice to lie on the pavement was the best way to catch a dog.”
He had been skeptical once himself. “I was like everyone else before I learned about this,” he says of the approach, which is based on calming signals developed by Turid Rugaas, a renowned Norwegian dog trainer. “Almost nobody knows about this before we tell them, and it’s everybody’s natural instinct, when they see a dog on the run, to chase it. That almost never works.”
This is just one of several critical truths gleaned by MPP during a decade in pet recovery and hundreds of searches for lost dogs and cats.
It Takes a Village to Find a Lost Pet
There is no precise figure for the number of companion animals lost every year. Estimates range widely between 2 and 5 million, according to Kat Albrecht, who founded MPP in 2001. The lack of reliable statistics is a measure of the issue’s low profile. Albrecht and her fellow searchers have been trying to improve these statistics for more than a decade.
We wrote about Albrecht in 2006, soon after she published her memoir, The Lost Pet Chronicles, which covered her transition from police-dog handler to pet detective (go to thebark.com/pet-detective to read the story online). At the time, she was a working pet detective in Fresno, Calif., focused on establishing a missing-pet recovery protocol and training lost-pet detection teams. Since then, she has moved her operation and shifted her focus. In 2008, she relocated to Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle, where cooler, damper weather is better for training scent-detection dogs. She trained four new pet-search teams, of which Branson and Kelsy are the only active searchers.
Albrecht is, in general, moving away from training pet-tracking dogs. In part, unsavory pet detectives caused her change of heart. “Several people ended up claiming they had fully trained their dogs when they hadn’t,” and making promises they couldn’t keep, she says. Today, MPP volunteers help with local searches, including carrying out public alerts and deploying wildlife cameras and humane traps; they also provide sophisticated expertise, such as search dogs and magnet dogs (more on that later). They rent out equipment and ask for — but do not require — donations for consultations and scent-detection-dog services.