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Pet Wellness

Top Tips for Finding a Lost Dog

Photo: Courtesy of Randy Laybourne

Determining how your dog went missing will help you plan your strategy for finding it safely. The first question to ask yourself is how your dog went missing. Be honest. In a panic, most people jump to the conclusion that their dog was “stolen” because they’ve never been lost before, and because it couldn’t possibly have gotten out of the yard. Or could it have? Check the scene carefully. Are there holes in the fence? Did the wind blow the gate open? Did a meter reader or contractor leave the gate unlatched? Were there loud noises that could have scared your dog?

Lost dogs generally fall into one of two categories. They were either “opportunistic” or “lost from a stressful situation.”


The key factor to the opportunistic dog is that it was in a happy frame of mind when it went missing. It either saw an opportunity to wander, like an unlatched gate or opening in the fence, or it was following its nose (chasing a chipmunk, deer, etc.) and got farther away than normal. These dogs have a high probability of being picked up by a good Samaritan who didn’t want to see them get hit by a car. They may end up in an animal shelter, be rehomed, or kept by the finder.

Lost from a stressful situation

Dogs lost from stressful situations include those spooked by loud noises such as fireworks, thunderstorms, gunshots, and cars backfiring; dogs lost from places other than home, such as pet sitters, boarding kennels, animal shelters, vet clinics, or foster homes; newly adopted or purchased dogs; and those lost from car accidents and house fires. These dogs have a high probability of becoming shy, elusive dogs that may run and hide from all people (including their owners) and live indefinitely on their own. If not chased, they may return on their own when all is quiet.

Generating sightings and spreading the word about your missing dog is the key to a successful recovery.

Steps for finding a lost dog

1. Quickly hand-deliver flyers and post signs in the area where your dog was last seen. This is the No. 1 way lost dogs are found. This should be done in the first few hours after your dog goes missing. Then the radius should be expanded until you start to get sightings.

2. Contact all local authorities, animal shelters, and vet clinics. Since they do not cross-communicate, it is important that you contact each individually. Better yet, visit them in person to drop off two copies of your flyer, one for the bulletin board or front desk and one for the staff area. Do not rely on paid third-party services to do this for you by email. The open rate on these emails is very low. Your money will be far better spent printing flyers and making signs.

3. Use social media, Craigslist, and print media. These can work well in the short term, but remember that your Facebook post will slip down the page quickly and be forgotten. Craigslist ads only last 45 days and newspaper ads, although effective, will be thrown out with the trash. Use a national free centralized database like Helping Lost Pets or Pet FBI to ensure that your listing remains active until your pet is home.

4. Never underestimate the ability of your dog to survive and return home on its own.  Leave “scent” articles on the porch, including its bed or blanket, an article of your dirty clothing or your pillowcase, and some smelly food (like canned cat food). Many lost dogs do return on their own, even days, weeks, or months after they go missing. 

Never give up. Remember your dog is relying on you to hand-deliver those flyers to help it get safely home. Check out our website at www.lostdogsofamerica for more tips on helping you find your missing dog.

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