Lost Dogs: How to Get Them Back

Important lessons from a decade of missing pet recovery
By Lisa Wogan, June 2011, Updated June 2021

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.”


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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.

Albrecht’s current mission is to create training partnerships with animal shelters so they can deploy their own volunteers to help recover lost pets. MPP recently formed a partnership with the King County Animal Shelter in Kent, Wash., where they plan to launch the first-ever lost pet search-and-rescue team on July 1, 2011. Ultimately, they hope to take this training program to shelters nationwide.

Number One Lost Dog Recovery Method
In the intervening years, Albrecht has continued to search for lost pets and refine her techniques. Her biggest aha! moment since we joined her on a cat search in Fresno five years ago is probably what she calls the intersection alert, or intervention: volunteers hold neoncolored, poster-sized signs at a busy intersection near the animal’s escape point. “It’s pretty much a protest,” Albrecht says.

Take the case of a Chihuahua named Sukhi. Last year, she escaped on July 3. Her frantic owners contacted MPP on July 5, and five volunteers staked out the busiest intersection in Seattle’s Central District near Sukhi’s home, holding bright posters with Sukhi’s photo and CHIHUAHUA, RED COLLAR in large type. Within 20 minutes, someone driving through the intersection pulled over to say that Sukhi was at their house.

“The owners had put out hundreds of flyers prior to that, all of which had escaped the notice of this person, but these big signs are impossible to ignore, especially with someone there holding them,” Branson says. The “protest” creates a sense of urgency.

Intersection interventions are based on studies of “inattentional blindness,” which Albrecht read about in Temple Grandin’s book, Animals in Translation. “The hypothesis is that if you’re not paying attention to something, you won’t perceive it; it’s as if it’s not even there,” Albrecht says. The protests are designed to break through that blindness. (A related strategy is to tag a vehicle — providing the same key identifiers as on the posters — in neon ink on the back window.)

Even without staging protests, giant, bright, concise signs yield results — even weeks after old-fashioned 8-by-11 paper flyers have become rain-soaked, tattered and ineffective.

The approach for a missing dog is very different from that used to find a missing cat. Dogs run. Cats hide. To find a missing cat, you need a detailed search of your own and nearby properties. Wildlife cameras and humane traps are also helpful. To find a dog, “a search needs to be very visible,” Albrecht says. “Just massive, obnoxious marketing.”

Enduring Lesson: Persistence
When Branson lost his cat about 12 years ago, “We were told, as a lot of people are told today, ‘A coyote got your cat; there’s nothing you can do about it,’” he says. “It’s thinking like that that can prevent an animal from being found.”

Last October, for example, a cat named Burley hid in his own Sammamish, Wash., backyard for 33 days. It took persistence and encouragement, plus a motion-activated infrared wildlife camera and humane traps rented from MPP, to recover the cat.

“Having a resource like Missing Pet Partnership allows people to keep looking; it gives them tools [that help them] take active steps in the recovery of their animal rather than waiting and hoping,” Branson says. “Giving them encouragement [to look] increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.”

New Tool: Magnet Dogs
Over the past few years, Albrecht has pioneered a new technique for enticing reluctant pups: magnet dogs. The idea is to deploy a “wiggly, friendly dog” to attract a wary dog so he can be captured. It worked like a charm for a dog named Mack in November.

After escaping from their yard in Federal Way, Wash., Mack and his buddy Rocco, a pair of blue Pit Bulls, went missing for almost a month. Their owner, who was serving in Iraq, was devastated. When MPP volunteer Ryan Gamache learned about them, he made it his personal mission to recover the dogs.

Unfortunately, he discovered that Rocco had been killed and Mack had fled. But the bad news at least gave Gamache a starting point. He posted giant, neon posters that read “LOST BLUE PIT BULL BLUE COLLAR” along the major roadway near where Rocco had died. Immediately, leads came in.

Following up on a tip, he set out food and a wildlife camera, which caught images of the elusive missing dog. He then placed a humane trap near the camera, but for several days, the wary Pit Bull eluded capture. Then, a full week passed with no new photos. Gamache was discouraged, but not about to give up. (Remember, persistence!)

On January 26, he and two other MPP volunteers displayed new posters close to the last sighting. Leads flooded in the next morning. Around 11 am, MPP received fresh intel. This time, Albrecht wasn’t willing to run the risk of losing Mack. She headed to the scene with her magnet dog, Kody, a super-friendly Whippet mix. Through a variety of cell-phone machinations, Albrecht ended up just down the street from Mack, with Kody on a long leash.

“Mack immediately began to wag his tail, and walked right up to sniff noses with a tail-wiggling Kody,” Albrecht says. “My Snappy Snare was positioned over Kody’s nose so that when they sniffed noses, I could move it over Mack’s head, release the ring and catch Mack. It was a textbook capture!”

It’s also an illustration of a central philosophy of Missing Pet Partnership: try to think like the lost dog — in Mack’s case, like a dog who likes other dogs. It’s just one of many effective tools in a toolbox compiled over a decade of recovering lost pets.

Photograph by Jen Frooms

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of several books including Dog Park Wisdom.