Sparked by two lost dogs whose owners reached out, a few of my friends, realizing that there is very little, easy accessible information available, recently formed a Lost Dog Networking Group. It is an open group and you can find it at NSLDN@groups.facebook.com. Unfortunately, the group is growing at an incredible pace, even spreading to other provinces, and I say unfortunately because the reason that it grows so fast is because so many dogs bolt or wander away, and don’t find their way back home. Their owners now have a wonderful resource they can approach, and that is great, but ideally dogs shouldn't be lost in the first place.
Below tips hopefully prevent that you find yourself needing help to reunite with your canine companion.
- Walk your dog in your neighborhood, daily, and take different routes. Your dog should be very familiar with his surroundings and, from any direction, know where his home is. Put “find home” on command and test your dog. Make going home when you’re heading back a tracking game and let him lead you, and, by the way, do the same if you frequently visit parks and trails. Instead of "finding home", have your dog find the car in the parking lot. If something were to scare him, chances are he'll "flee" to the car and wait for you.
- If you own a wanderer, introduce yourself and your dog to your neighbors. Bring them a bottle of wine and attach a card to it with your phone number and instructions what do to if they spot Spot. Our very amiable Newf Baywolf, who rarely missed an opportunity to go socializing, was gone on rare occasions, but never lost, because our neighbors knew and enjoyed him, and knew us, and either brought him home or called. Having a collar and tag on your dog is a given, but if your neighbors know that your dog is friendly, and that you are too, they'll likely be more accommodating and helpful.
- If your dog has testicles, be extra careful of open doors and yard gate latches. I don’t share the popular opinion that everything on four paws needs to be neutered, but the fact is that intact dogs tend to have itchy feet – and a nose for a ready-to-mate girl dog.
- Be also extra careful with a new dog. DO NOT let your newly adopted dog off the leash the next day. He doesn’t know you yet, and has not formed a grateful bond to you in 24 hours just because you rescued him and gave him one bowl of kibble. From your dog’s point of view, you might be nothing more than just another transitory pit-stop, and he has no reason to stay put or listen to you. Social belonging isn’t automatic – it comes with time. You also know nothing about the dog. You don’t know what drives him and scares him; what he does when an environmental stimulus motivates him, or which way and how far he’ll run when something spooks him. Invest in a 30-50 tracking leash that allows you to find out more about your new pooch, and practice a really reliable recall, and then give him free reign.
- Don’t take your dog off the leash if she is skittish and timid – no, not even at the dog park. When we lived in Calgary, within a span of a few weeks, three dogs were lost in a popular park we regularly visited. One was scared by a train whistle and ran away, and two were bullied by a couple of out-of-control dogs. Two dogs were eventually found, one was never to be heard of again. All three dogs were described by their owners as timid and skittish by nature, and one was just adopted from an animal shelter a few days prior.
- Train a solid down position stay away from every entrance door, including the yard gate, and practice with the doors opening and staying open. Your dog should not exit the house, or leave his property, without a specific command, and only with his person. Condition that by practicing whenever you have a minute or two, at different times of the day, and always combine a specific word with your exiting the entrance points together. It’s doable. Really, it is. It just takes time and patience. If you are really ambitious, the door opening could become your dog’s cue to run to the toy box, or his crate, instead of outside.
- When you are out, your dog should be in. In the house, or at least in a secure and comfortable dog run, with a warm shelter to retreat to, and toys, and water. Treat a dog run as an outside home, used only when you are not home, and never as a place that isolates, segregates your dog. When you are home, your dog should be with you. I don’t care how many acres you own, your dog should never be roaming unsupervised, cause then roaming unsupervised becomes a habit. Trail your home range together, check the boundaries together, and you establish a solid social bond that increases the chance that your dog wants to stay on home turf voluntarily.
- Build a real fence, if you must, not an invisible one. I met numerous dogs who were so motivated by an environmental stimulus that they took the shock, and escaped the shock collar fence - and got into trouble, or lost. A dog trainer friend and rescuer wrote a fabulous blog post on shock collar confinement you can read at http://blog.gmds.ca. Dogs also escape when the battery goes dead and the warning beep doesn’t happen, and when the owner forgets to put the shock collar on the dog first thing in the morning. If you rely on a tool to keep your dog put, you’re dog will go when you don’t have the tool. Plus, in my opinion and based on my experiences, shocking a dog changes who he is, and the relationship with you, and by extension the place where he lives.
- You, your home, and property should always be perceived as a safe place; a refuge where never anything bad happens. Never. No shocking. No harsh training. No punishments. Escape is extreme avoidance, and I periodically meet dogs who feel, at least, ambiguous about their home base, and the people who live there. If you are, in your dog’s mind, a 100% predictably safe place to seek shelter with, he is more likely to stay put, or run to you, not away from you, when frightened.
Said all that, accidents happen. Even with all precautions taken, even with the nicest owners, and the best home, a dog might spook and bolt, or is enticed by a scent, sight or sound he'll curiously investigate, and then becomes disoriented and gets lost. In that case, it is critical that you get a sighting. You gotta know where your dog is before you have a chance to reunite with him. How to go about it is exactly the kind of information the Lost Dog Network can help you with, and is also available at www.lostdogsearch.com.
When you have a sighting, you need to be very careful that you don’t frighten your dog into bolting again, cause then you have to start from scratch. You might assume that your dog is as happy to see you as you are to see him, but that is not necessarily so. He could be confused, scared, panicked, suspicious, hurt or sore, and in that frame of mind is very sensitive to the slightest trigger, including you. He will continue to run away if someone, even you, is encroaching into his flight zone. The threshold how far you can safely approach is easy to determine. If your dog has you on his radar, but doesn’t increase the distance, you are good. Don’t try to get closer, but entice your dog to come to you. Say familiar words that elicit a positive emotion. Familiarity alone doesn't cut it; what you say has to feel good to your dog. Stuff like: “Wanna go for a car ride?” or “Wanna play with… (fill in the name if he has a favorite dog friend)”, are examples. Speak with your calm and casual voice, not a panicked one. Breath normally and keep your body loose, and don’t fixate on your dog or he’ll feel targeted and might, yup, run.
I know that is tough to do for an emotionally devastated owner, who, maybe after days of searching, finally sees his dog. But it is said that humans have a cerebral cortex that can overrule emotions, and convincing a confused dog to trust is a good time to apply that skill. Remember, one wrong step can cause him to bolt again, and then you have once more no idea where he is.
Other than familiar words and gestures, have your dog's favorite toy or blanket with you to trigger memory. And leave food, small pieces of delectable people food, and your smell, stinky socks, and retreat, so increase the distance to give your dog enough space to safely sniff and eat. Repeat leaving and retreating as often as you need to, and slowly, patiently, you'll trigger his curiosity and reestablish trust.
Any of the above can trigger your dog’s memory, and make him feel secure with you again, and then he’ll come to you, and you are reunited – a happy-end story everyone wants to see, and keeps the people with the Lost Dog Network motivated and in the game.