Lost Dog Behavior

How a dog behaves when lost and how far they travel depends on 1) their personality, 2) their appearance, 3) how they went missing, and 4) where they went missing.

Dogs have different temperaments, depending on breed, age, how they were raised, and just plain genetics. Some dogs would hop into any car or enter any open door, while others would prefer to avoid all people and be on their own. Some don’t even like to leave their own front porch, and others will take off and be in the next county before the owner even knows that they’re gone.

People also have different behaviors towards different types of dogs. Small dogs and purebreds are usually assumed to be “someone’s lost pet.” Mixes are often assumed to be “just a stray.” Larger dogs, especially the breeds usually thought of as “dangerous” are often outright avoided by people.

Dogs become lost for several different reasons:

  • They find an open gate or door and take advantage of the chance to explore!
  • They escape from the house or yard to go after another animal, a car, a female dog in heat, etc.
  • They become scared (by another dog, fireworks, thunder, car accident)
  • They are accidentally or intentionally displaced (get lost while camping, hiking or at a rest-stop, stolen)

The answer to the question “What does a dog do when it gets lost?” isn’t a straightforward one. It’s a mixture of 1) Why the dog became lost; 2) The dog’s temperament; and 3) What the dog looks like. A small, friendly Toy Poodle who happened to find an open door is likely going to sniff around in the front yard, maybe go to the neighbor’s yard, and get taken in by that neighbor. A shy Doberman who got scared by a thunderstorm might be half a neighborhood away, hiding behind a building. An energetic Husky who has jumped the fence to go after a deer might be miles away, completely avoiding all human contact.

IMPORTANT! – If Your Dog Ran Away in Fear…

If your dog ran away because something scared them, they may enter what is known as “survival mode.”  When in survival mode the dog may not recognize his owners or other people that he knows and is likely to run from everyone.  For more information on this important topic, see “Don’t Call Your Dog!”

So, how do I search for my dog?

DON’T WAIT. Don’t assume that your dog will come home on its own.

VISIBILITY AND ADVERTISING are the key. Everyone in your neighborhood should know that your dog is missing.

When a dog goes missing, the first question should be “Who has it?” While some loose dogs can stay out on their own for days or weeks, the much more common scenario is that someone has picked it up and taken it to a shelter, brought it into their home, or brought it to a rescue group. Fact is, you just don’t see all that many dogs wandering the street. Eventually, they get picked up.

If your dog has just gone missing, look at who is out on the streets and talk to them right away.  Someone might have picked it up, seen someone else pick it up, or seen it walking.  Stop everyone on the street and ask if they’ve seen your dog. You can’t be shy about this! Do you live near a school? Grocery store? Anywhere that there are a lot of people who might have see it?

If your dog has been missing for a couple of hours, think back to what was going on when it went missing. Was there a ball-game at the local park, where someone might have seen your dog and picked it up? Was there a thunderstorm? Do you remember seeing a deer or maybe a strange dog?

Call out some friends and start doing door-to-door interviews to try to find people who might have seen your dog.   Start near where it got lost, and hope that someone saw it, so you can at least get a sighting and a direction of travel.  If you can at least figure out the direction it went when it started, you can figure out which way to concentrate your immediate search.  The earlier you can figure out which direction your dog went, the less distance it’s gone!

Start advertising immediately!  One of a couple things is going on, and all of them are going to be helped immensely by the proper advertising right away!  If your dog is still running loose, then you’ll start getting phone call sightings and you can track him down before he gets injured.  In the best case scenario, someone has picked up your dog and wants to be a good samaritan but doesn’t know who he belongs to.  Getting the big posters up will get your dog home right away in these cases!  Then, there are, very unfortunately, the people who decide “I’ve fallen in love with him” and want to keep (steal) the dog they found on the street.  Yes, these people are way more common than they should be.  For these people, the 22 x 28 inch posters are even more vital than they are for everyone else.  In these cases, I call them the “YOU’RE GUILTY!” posters.  Many more times than once have the big posters gone up and within an hour the owner has gotten a call that someone has the dog in their home!

Call your local shelter(s) and leave a Lost report. Call Caltrans Maintenance at 510-286-6444 (for Northern California) to ask about dogs found on the freeway.

Drive around the neighborhood slowly, calling your dog’s name. Hang one or two of the posters off of your car. Your dog might recognize your engine or your voice and come out. Even if you don’t find your dog, you’ll make a spectacle of yourself, and everyone who sees you will know that there’s a missing dog!

If your dog has been missing for more than a day, you should check the shelter(s) daily. Physically go out to the shelters and look.  The volunteers are a great resource and absolute angels for what they do, but sometimes they’re just way too overworked to take the kind of care you want, to make sure that your dog really isn’t there. Start checking the Internet and Rescue Groups immediately. Some dogs don’t go through the shelter system before they make it onto the Adoptable list at a rescue group.

DON’T GIVE UP! Even if you live in a high-predator area, or near a freeway, don’t assume that if your dog is gone for more than a day, that it must have been injured or killed. It probably hasn’t! Even if it has been gone for days or weeks, don’t assume that you won’t get it back. Many dogs have been recovered WEEKS after they have gone missing!