IMPORTANT! – Please be aware that there is currently NO regulation or independent certification of search dogs for missing pets, and anyone can call their dog a search dog even with little or no training. Some people genuinely want to help and believe in their dogs’ ability, but their dog may not be fully trained and may frequently make mistakes (e.g. lose the trail or follow a wrong trail). Even a poorly trained dog will have some successes. Other search dog handlers are unfortunately more interested in making money than in helping people find their pets. A bad track is not only a waste of money, it will have you wasting time and other resources focusing your search in the wrong areas.
A properly trained tracking dog generally requires 12-18 months of training before the dog can accurately run lost pet searches. This training might be accelerated if they focus on the dog’s training full time as they do in the military and police. However, most pet detectives do not have the time or resources for this type of training. Be wary of anyone that is working a tracking dog after less than one year of training. Once a search dog is working lost pet cases, they should continue training on a regular basis to ensure reliability. Air scenting or area detection dogs may be adequately trained in as little as 3-4 months.
The training of the pet detective is also important since most lost pets are not found during the search and on-going support is often critical. Although often referred to as “pet detectives,” only a few are actually licensed private investigators. Most provide education on lost pet behavior, physical searches similar to search and rescue operations, assistance with effective advertising, rental of equipment such as cameras and traps and/or help with catching loose pets. Others may refer to themselves as lost pet consultants or missing animal response technicians and may or may not offer on-site assistance. There are also many volunteer lost pet searchers and even some non-profit groups.
Make sure that you are aware of the training and expertise of the person that you hire whether they are a paid professional or volunteer. There are a few groups that offer training and/or certification for missing pet work. The Missing Animal Response Network offers online trainings for pet detectives, shelter volunteers and search dog teams. Missing Reunite (formerly Missing Pet Partnership) offers an online Missing Pet Consultant training. And Lost Pet Professionals provides their own training and certifications through the Missing Animal Investigators of America and the Missing Animal Scent Dog Network. I personally trained through the Missing Animal Response Network and (formerly) Missing Pet Partnership and can vouch for the quality of their online and in-person trainings.
Before you hire anyone, make sure that they are a real business or volunteer and have a good reputation. Most pet detectives do not solicit. Be wary of anyone that contacts YOU for paid services. There are some scams out there that collect payment for lost pet services and never provide these services!
Check their website:
- Do they have an About section that clearly describes their experience and training?
- Do they clearly describe the training and abilities of their search dogs?
- Do they have any training or experience in dog or cat behavior such as a dog trainer, wildlife biologist, veterinary technician, pet sitter or shelter volunteer?
- Do they have training or certifications in search and rescue or missing pet work?
- Do they clearly describe the services that they offer and their fees?
- Do they include a Services Agreement or Terms and Conditions page on their website? This will often include cancellation and refund policies.
Search online for reviews and complaints:
- Check for online reviews such as Yelp! or Facebook. When checking reviews, be aware that most tracking dog teams will have some complaints. This is often due to the high cost of services combined with the often-unrealistic expectations of many lost pet owners. However, be wary of anyone with lots of negative reviews and avoid any with less than three stars.
- Check the Better Business Bureau. Most pet detective businesses will not have a listing, but if you see one with unresolved complaints, this is a definite red flag.
- Before purchasing any on-site services, make sure you are confident that you are dealing with a real business/person. Also check out their refund/cancellation policies. Some may provide partial refunds if you find your pet prior to the search, but others have a strict no refund policy.
Ask them questions:
If it is unclear from their website, call or email the pet detective or search dog team with questions about their services.
- What type of search dogs do they have?
- Are they scent-specific (i.e. only locate your missing pet) or general (e.g. find all cats)?
- Can they detect animal remains or predator kill sites?
- Are they able to check potential sightings? Most scent-specific dogs should do this, but some may not. If they don’t, this may be an indication that their dog does not have a good negative indication. (The dog should indicate whether there is no scent at the location rather than go off searching for the scent.)
- What are their qualifications, experience or training?
- Do they provide support beyond the search such as consultations, posters, equipment rental or assistance with capture/trapping?
- Will they provide a GPS map of the search dog track? This is important especially if you cannot go on the search and/or if they don’t provide other on-going support, so you can share the track with others.
- Can you or are you expected to accompany them on the search? A GPS map of the track is a must if you are unable to participate in the actual search.
- What is their “walk-up find” rate? This is where the search dog “walks up” and locates the missing pet during the search. Don’t be surprised if these are very low. Rates less than 10% are common.
- What is their overall success rate? If they offer services/support beyond the search dog, they should be able to give you an estimate of the likelihood of finding your missing pet. Success rates of 60% or more are common, but be wary of anyone that states a success rate over 90%.