Search Dogs

Understanding How Search Dogs Work and When You Should Use One

So, you’re thinking about hiring a search dog team to find your missing pet?  Before you do, make sure that you understand how they work, their success rates, and whether one would be helpful in your situation.  Unfortunately, many people hire search dog teams thinking that they are the most successful method to find and catch a missing pet.  In some situations, search dogs are an invaluable tool, but in others, they may be a waste of money or even make finding your lost pet more difficult.

Different Types of Search Dogs

Most people are unaware that there are different types of lost pet search dogs.  Different types are better for different situations.  Make sure that you understand the capabilities of the search dog team that you hire.  Some dogs may be trained in more than one of these disciplines.

Tracking or trailing dog

Technically there is a difference between a tracking dog and a trailing dog, but the terms are often used interchangeably.  For simplicity, I will refer to them as tracking dogs from now on.  Tracking dogs are scent-specific, which means that they require a scent-article (i.e. something that smells like your missing pet) and then they will follow scent trails left by your pet.  Some tracking dogs can also be used to check potential sightings to help verify if they are your missing pet.

Tracking dogs are most useful when a pet is missing from an area where they do not normally travel such as an escaped indoor-only cat, any cat lost away from home, and dogs lost somewhere they do not normally walk.  Some tracking dogs may be used for dogs and cats lost from their home, but these are much more difficult.  Outdoor-access cats are among the most difficult to track.  For more info, check out this article.

Area detection or air scenting dog

Area detection or air scenting dogs do not follow scent trails on the ground.  Instead they search an area for scent coming directly off of the missing animal.  Some may also be trained to locate scent pools (i.e. concentrations of scent where the missing pet spent a lot of time) or objects that smell like the missing pet (e.g. collars, clothing, clumps of fur, etc.)  Area detection dogs may be scent-specific (i.e. only locate your missing pet) or general (e.g. locate any cat in a given area).  The latter are often referred to as “cat detection dogs.”  The search area is determined by the pet detective or search dog handler based on your pet’s profile and location lost.

Area detection dogs are most useful for indoor-only cats, since these cats will often hide close to home.  They are also useful for outdoor-access cats missing from their home.  In this case, they search within the cat’s typical home range (i.e. where they travel on a daily basis) for any trapped, injured/ill and hiding or deceased* cats.  Area detection dogs are not generally used to search for lost dogs.

Remains detection dog

*Not all search dogs are trained to detect animal remains.  Others may be able to locate full or partial remains, but not a predator kill site.  Make sure that you understand the capabilities of the search dog that you hire.  This is particularly important if you are concerned that your pet was killed by a predator.

Can a search dog still work?  How long has your pet been missing?

If you are like most people, you probably did not know that using a lost pet search dog was an option until days or even weeks after your pet went missing.  Whether a search dog can still assist you depends on the type of search dog used.  Other people may try a bunch of other methods and only consider hiring a search dog after they have exhausted these methods.  If you are considering hiring a search dog, you should look into this sooner rather than later since many search dog teams are very busy and may not be able to respond for several days or even a week.

When to use a tracking dog.   How long does a scent-trail last?

The capabilities of the tracking dog depend on multiple factors including:

  • the weather and terrain in which your pet is missing
  • the type of pet missing
  • the training and experience of the search dog
  • the quality of your scent-article

Police dogs and human search and rescue dogs are often used within hours or a few days of the person going missing (or suspect running away).  In contrast, lost pet tracking dogs are sometimes used days, weeks or even months after the pet went missing.  There is considerable debate on how long scent trails last.  Based on my experience, I would generally recommend only using a tracking dog within the first 1-2 weeks.  A tracking dog might still be used after this time to check if your missing pet is still in the area and/or to check potential sightings.  However, be wary of anyone that states that their tracking dog can follow a scent trail months after your pet went missing.

When to use an area detection dog

An area detection dog can be used at any time, but they are most successful when used within the first week that your cat goes missing.  During this time an escaped indoor-only cat is most likely to be hiding nearby.  With outdoor-access cats, timing is often more important to the safety/health of your missing cat.  An outdoor-access cat may be trapped or sick/injured and hiding within their own territory.  Please note that trapped cats have been known to survive days or even weeks, so a thorough physical search is still important (with or without a search dog) even if you didn’t conduct one right away.

When to use a remains detection dog

Police and search and rescue dogs have been used to locate human remains weeks, months or even years after the person died.  The ability to find remains over time really depends on the training of the search dog.  Be sure to ask!  The biggest problem is that in the case of a missing cat or small dog, there may be minimal remains to find, especially after a predator attack.  I have sadly seen far too many instances where a search dog handler concludes that a lost pet has been killed by a predator based on minimal evidence, and in some cases the lost pet is later found alive or deceased elsewhere.

Do you have a good scent article?

This is only important if you are hiring a tracking dog or a scent-specific area detection dog.  A scent article is something that smells like your missing pet such as clothing, a collar or brush with their fur.  You can also collect scent from furniture or a cat tree by using a sterile gauze pad.  To preserve the scent article, pick it up with gloves or a plastic bag and seal it inside an unscented plastic bag.  Store in a cool dry place, but preferably don’t freeze.

If you have multiple pets, it may be difficult to find a scent article that smells only like your missing pet.  If you present the tracking dog with a scent article that has multiple scents, they may follow the wrong scent trail.  This is less important if you are using a tracking dog and your other pets have never been outside in the search area (such as other indoor-only cats).  If you are unable to obtain a good scent article, consider hiring a cat detection dog or a pet detective without a search dog.

What is the likelihood that a search dog will find your missing pet?

Very few searches end with the search dog actually finding the lost pet (a.k.a. a “walk-up find”).  For an escaped indoor-only cat, the probability of a walk-up find may be as high as 20% if the search is done within the first 24-72 hours when your cat is most likely hiding nearby.  After that time, your cat may be traveling around (though often still close to home) and may avoid the search dog.  Walk-up finds for lost dogs and outdoor-access cats are much lower, often less than 5%.

Reasons why the search dog may not find your missing pet:

  • 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).  In fact, a good search dog handler will often stop a search when their dog indicates a very strong scent.  They want to avoid scaring your lost pet out of the area or into a potentially dangerous situation (such as into the street).
  • The search dog never gets to the end of the trail.  Very common for lost dogs that are capable of traveling many miles within a single day.
  • The missing pet has scent trails all over the place and the search dog can’t work through them all.  This is common with an outdoor-access cat lost from home.  It may also occur with a lost cat or dog that has spent a day or longer hanging out in the same area.

Why use a search dog if it’s unlikely they will find your missing pet?

Search dogs can provide useful information to help find your lost pet such as:

  • They can help rule out that your missing pet is deceased, trapped or injured/ill and hiding in the immediate area.
  • A tracking dog can provide a “direction of travel” (i.e. where your missing pet initially traveled) and/or where they have been spending most of their time (i.e. scent pools).  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.
  • Some search dogs can help verify sightings by checking for your lost pet’s scent in the area of a potential sighting.

Are you prepared to do the necessary search follow-up to find your missing pet?

A search dog can be a useful tool to help you find your lost pet.  However, even with a search dog, it may take several weeks to several months to find your missing pet.  I recommend a minimum search effort of six weeks.  I have seen far too many people put all their hope in the search dog finding their pet and then they are emotionally unable or unwilling to continue the search after their pet is not found that day.  Other people put all their resources into paying for the search dog and then don’t have money for other important (and often more effective) search tools such as posters, cameras or traps.

Should you hire a search dog team or pet detective?

After reading this article, you may be asking yourself whether you should hire a search dog team.  In some cases it may make more sense to hire a pet detective without a search dog, find a lost pet consultant or volunteer or hire a licensed private investigator.  To help you with your decision, I have included situations below where it is most and least useful to use a search dog.

When to use a search dog for a lost dog:

  • When time is of the essence such as a puppy, very old dog, sick or injured dog or a dog dragging a leash.
  • You live in a rural area and there have been no sightings of your dog.  Make sure to first put up EFFECTIVE lost dog posters over a large area to confirm that your dog has not been seen.
  • You have multiple sightings miles apart and do not know which (if any) are your missing dog.  A tracking dog may be able to help verify the sightings by checking for your dog’s scent.
  • You have a strong concern that your dog may have been taken by a predator.

When NOT to use a search dog for a lost dog:

  • If you have multiple sightings of your dog in one area, you DO NOT need a search dog!  You already know where your dog is located.  Going into that area with a search dog is more likely to chase your dog out of the area than it is to locate them.  In this case you should consult with a pet detective or get other assistance with capture and/or trapping from an experienced trapper.
  • If you have sightings of your dog in locations miles apart.  If you are confident that these are your dog, then a search dog is less likely to provide useful information.  You need to focus on posters!  Consider getting help from a pet detective or lost pet volunteer on how to make truly effective posters and then how to catch your dog once they are located.
  • If your dog was likely stolen or picked up, then it’s unlikely there is a scent-trail to follow.  If you strongly suspect theft, you may be better off hiring a licensed private investigator in your state.
  • If you can’t easily afford to hire a search dog, save your money for more effective search methods!  Most importantly, learn how to effectively advertise for your lost dog.  If you can afford it, hire a pet detective, do a consultation or purchase an e-book on finding lost dogs.

When to use a search dog for a lost cat:

  • When time is of the essence such as a kitten, very old cat, sick or injured cat or a cat dragging a leash.
  • Your cat was lost from a location away from home.
  • An escaped indoor-only cat.  This is one of the easiest searches for a tracking dog and one of the most successful for an area search dog.  However, this is also the type of search where you are most likely to be successful without a search dog as long as you learn how to effectively search.  If you can easily afford it, consider hiring a search dog.  If not, consider hiring a pet detective without a search dog, getting help from a lost pet consultant or purchasing an e-book on lost cat behavior.
  • You suspect that your cat is trapped or hiding somewhere inside your home.  In this case, make sure that the search dog is capable of this type of search, which has its own challenges.  Ideally they will also have other tools such as a thermal camera, amplified listening device and an endoscope (for seeing inside walls or small places).  A pet detective without a search dog can also be effective in this type of search as long as they have the necessary tools.
  • An outdoor-access cat lost from home.  Few cats are found using a search dog, but it is very important to rule out that your missing cat is trapped, sick/injured and hiding or deceased within their territory.  This type of search can also be done by a pet detective without a search dog or on your own (if you learn how to do it effectively).
  • You have multiple sightings in different areas and do not know which (if any) are your missing cat.  A tracking dog may be able to help verify the sightings by checking for your cat’s scent.

When NOT to use a search dog to find a lost cat:

  • If you have multiple sightings of your cat in the same area, you DO NOT need a search dog!  You already know where your cat is located and the last thing you want to do is risk chasing them out of the area.  Even if you know where your cat is located, catching them can still be challenging.  Consider getting on-site assistance from a pet detective without a search dog, doing a consultation or purchasing an e-book on lost cat behavior.
  • If your cat was likely stolen or picked up, then it’s unlikely there is a scent-trail to follow.  If you strongly suspect theft, you may be better off hiring a licensed private investigator in your state.
  • You are missing an indoor-only cat and don’t have a lot of money.  Don’t waste your money on a search dog!  Save your money to purchase humane traps, surveillance cameras and posters/flyers.  You have a very good chance of finding your missing cat if you just learn how to search effectively.  Depending on what you can afford, hire a pet detective, get a consultation or purchase an e-book on finding lost cats.
  • You are missing an outdoor-access cat and don’t have a lot of money.  Save your money for effective advertising!  A thorough physical search within your cat’s home range is still very important!  Consider hiring a pet detective without a search dog to assist you in your search or learn how to conduct an effective search yourself.

Can you afford a search dog and other important considerations:

Can you afford a search dog and still have money left over for posters, cameras and traps?  There are very few volunteer search dog teams.  Most cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.  If you need to pay for travel, this can make them much more expensive.  If paying for a search dog will be a struggle, then you are better off spending your money on a consultation or on-site assistance from a pet detective that will provide other more effective services.

Given the low success rate of just using a search dog, follow-up support and services are very important.  Do they offer services and support beyond search dog services?  If not, can you afford to also hire a pet detective or lost pet consultant to assist you on the remainder of your search?  Again, this support is often critical.

If you are still unsure whether you should hire a pet detective or search dog team, don’t wait to get started on your search!  Getting started quickly with the right techniques can make the difference between finding your lost pet quickly and taking weeks (or longer) to locate them.  Check out my FREE Lost Pet Search Checklists to get you started.

How to find a pet detective or search dog team?

After reading this article, you may have decided that you would like to hire a search dog team or a pet detective without a search dog.  Lost Pet Research and Recovery offers on-site assistance in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.  On-site services include searches with cat detection dog, rental of surveillance cameras (a.k.a.  wildlife cameras) and humane traps, postering and assistance trapping skittish hard-to-trap lost pets.

If you live outside of this service area or if you are looking for a tracking dog, check out this guide.