Search Dogs

Note: This article is actually from my password protected Lost Pet Instructions pages, but I thought it was so important, that I am duplicating it here.

The idea of using a search dog, similar to those used by Search & Rescue groups, is compelling to many people who have lost their pet.  These lost pet search dogs do exist though they are few and far between across the country.  However, before hiring someone with a search dog, there are some very important questions that you should ask yourself.

  1. Is this person a reputable pet tracker or pet detective?
    • A bad track is not only a waste of money, it will  also have you wasting time and other resources focusing your search in the wrong areas.
    • For more information visit Missing Pet Partnership’s (MPP) Find A Pet Detective Warning.
    • Also make sure that you understand the capabilities of the search dog(s) that you are hiring.
      • Is it a scent-specific tracking or trailing dog?
      • Is it an area search dog such as a cat detection dog, which is trained to search for evidence of any hidden/trapped/deceased cats?
  2. How long ago did your pet go missing?  Is it still possible for a search dog to follow the scent-trail?
    • If you are considering hiring a pet tracker, do not wait to contact one.  They can be difficult to find and may have to travel a long distance to reach you.
    • Depending on the weather and terrain, and the dog’s experience and training, a trailing dog may be able to follow the scent-trail of your missing pet up to several weeks after they went missing.  A trailing dog may also be used to verify possible sightings even if your pet has been missing for a longer period of time.
    • For more information visit MPP’s How Long Can Scent Survive?
  3. Do you have a good scent article?
    • To use a trailing dog, it is very important that you have a scent article that smells only like your missing pet.  This may be difficult to find if you have multiple pets.
    • To preserve a scent article, place it inside a Ziploc plastic bag or unscented trash bag, preferably without touching it yourself.
  4. Do you expect the search dog to locate your missing pet during the search?
    • Very few searches end with the search dog actually finding the lost pet (a.k.a. “a walk-up find”), probably as low as 5-15%.  The likelihood of having a walk-up find is higher if you have a search dog on-site within 48 hours or if your lost pet is trapped, seriously injured or deceased.
    • The reasons that you usually will not have a walk-up find include:
      • Someone picked up your pet (usually friendly dogs or curious, out-going cats).
      • Your pet is frightened and is avoiding the search dog team (usually skittish dogs and most cats).
      • Your pet has been gone for so long that s/he has made scent-trails all over the place, and the search dog never gets to the end of the trail.
    • You may be asking yourself, “what’s the point of using a search dog if they won’t find my lost cat/dog?”  Search dogs can provide very useful information to help find your lost pet such as:
      • They are not deceased or trapped in the immediate area.
      • Where they went initially (a.k.a “direction of travel”) and/or where they spent most of their time.  This information can help you determine where to put up lost pet posters, hand out flyers, and possibly use a feeding station, surveillance camera, and/or humane trap.
      • When you are getting numerous sightings at different locations and don’t know where to focus your search.
  5. Are you prepared to do the necessary search follow-up to find your missing pet?
    • A search dog is often a very useful tool to help you locate your lost pet.  However, I have seen far too many people put all their hope in the search dog finding their pet and then are emotionally unable or unwilling to continue the search after their pet is not found that day.
    • Even with a search dog, it may take several weeks to several months to find your missing pet.  A minimum suggested search effort is six weeks.
  6. Should I hire a search dog team?
    • A well-trained search dog will almost always provide useful information for your search.  However, there are some cases where one is more useful than others.
      • If your pet is elderly, sick or injured and finding them quickly is a priority.
      • If your pet is very skittish, and you haven’t received any sightings despite well-designed lost pet posters.
    • A search dog will be most reliable in cases where your pet is lost from an area that they don’t frequently visit such as:
      • An escaped indoor-only cat.
      • An outdoor-access cat that escapes from a strange location such as the vet’s office.
    • In other cases, it may be more difficult for the search dog to find the correct trail (i.e. freshest scent-trail) and provide you with useful information.  This is most likely to happen in cases where there are many old and new scent-trails in the search area such as:
      • An outdoor-access cat that goes missing within his own territory.
      • A dog that goes missing from an area that he frequently walks or hikes in.
    • Search dogs are often somewhat to very expensive (anywhere from $60-$100 or more/hr plus travel).  You should generally expect to pay anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars.  In some cases, you might be better off spending your money on some good lost pet posters (not 8 1/2 x 11 flyers) and possibly a humane trap or surveillance camera.

If you’re still undecided on whether you should hire a search dog team, Lost Dogs of America has another good article.

Ten Things You Need to Know Before Hiring a Tracking Dog