By Sam Connelly, Pure Gold Pet Trackers


A Missing Pet.  It’s every pet owner’s nightmare.  Pets can sometimes behave in unpredictable ways, and when they do, it can be tragic. Thankfully, there are preventive measures that can both keep pets safe and home, as well as many ways to prepare in case of emergency.  This article outlines those ideas and also discusses some of the tools to use to bring a lost pet back home.

The main reason pets go missing is complacency, the belief that an animal will behave just the way it always has before.  This leads owners to take dangerous chances with the animals in their care such as putting them outside without supervision, walking them off leash near roads or densely populated neighborhoods, taking their cat from the car to the vet office without a carrier.  Another dangerous practice that leads to lost pets is walking a dog on a flexi-leash (the kind that have a hard handle and a long cable that rolls up in the handle and extends out as your dog pulls).  These leashes provide a false sense of security and control over the dog but, in truth, the handle prevents a tight grip.  Additionally, when the leash is let out, it is unmanageable and creates accidents like tangled leashes or darting dogs that can dislodge the leash.  When that happens, the handle “chases” the dog down the street banging and scraping on the pavement intensifying the already terrifying situation.

The fact is that under the right circumstances, ANY pet will run.  Lost dogs include police dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, obedience champion dogs, even service dogs that should never leave their partners.  Circumstances that caused these cases include multiple car accidents, fires, home invasion, car theft, show handler neglect, groomer mishandling, and thunderstorms.  These are just a few of the unexpected incidents that have caused a normally calm, obedient and reliable animal to suddenly bolt away.

Many things contribute to a runaway pet including any change to their regular routine.  Most pets don’t like change.  Disruptions such as vacations, moving, parties, home construction/renovation, yard work, new pet care providers, new additions to the family like a baby or additional pet, can cause an adverse reaction in a pet.  Specific holidays, like the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are terrifying due to the flash and crash of fireworks, and Halloween with the parade of costumes and knocking on the door can also create stress and the desire to flee.  Thankfully, these ideas will help keep pets safe at home.

These measures will go a long way toward keeping your pets safe and minimizing their opportunity for escape if they become startled or frightened. 

  • Doors: Secure pets in a crate or bathroom with a music playing to muffle the other noise.
  • Secure fencing: Before you put a dog out in the yard make sure there are no holes in the fence or areas where there are things piled up along the fence like firewood, lawn furniture, children’s toys, etc. that the dog could use as a step to get up over the fence. If you have an athletic dog don’t leave it in the yard by itself even with a secure fence.  A long line attached to a central tree, post or a heavy tire for fence jumpers and diggers will keep them from escaping.  Install gravity locks on the gates so that when your child or the person mowing your lawn goes out and releases the gate it automatically swings shut and locks.
  • Double leashing: For the first month or so, or until your dog gets over the distress of moving to a new home, it should be walked on a double leash system where one leash is attached to a properly fitted (2 finger gap) flat collar or martingale. Then a second leash is attached to a properly fitted harness, one with a ring in front for strong pullers.
  • Baby gates: Utilize baby gates to block or at least slow down your dog’s access to open doors and if the door is going to be open for more than a moment, put the dog in its crate or close them in another room until you finish what you are doing like bringing in groceries, loading the car for a trip, taking the kids to school or letting one of your other animals in or out. Baby gates are also useful if you have a cat to give them a place to escape if the dog is playing too rough.
  • Leash Drag: Leave the leash on the harness for the first few weeks except when they are securely locked in their crate and put it back on as soon as they come out. That way if they decide to barrel past you at a door you have something that you can step on to stop them.
  • Crate training: If your new dog has not been abused in a crate, you should crate train them for their safety and your peace of mind. Feed them in their crate, when you let them out to play, leave the door open so they have the option of going in if they want to.  Dogs are den animals and like to have a secure “place” where they can go if they feel stressed or afraid.
  • Zip ties: Securing all joints on your crates and carriers with zip ties will ensure that they can’t come open at an inopportune moment. I do several searches each year where the crate or carrier has failed and the animal escaped.
  • Obedience training: Even if your dog is calm and relatively compliant you should take a basic obedience class with them to help build the bond between you and help them to accept you as the alpha of your pack.
  • Socializing: Socialization with people and other dogs/cats/small animals is very important for your dog’s confidence and trust. Once they understand how to react around other people and animals your pet will be calmer and more outgoing instead of timid and skittish.
  • Medication: Consider asking your vet to prescribe calming medication for extreme cases

However, even following each of the above precautions may not prevent an escaped pet in extraordinary circumstances.  Because there are so many things that can trigger a flight response, preparing for the worst is essential.    This list is will help you get prepared so you have the tools you need to get your pet back. Being prepared for an emergency, acting quickly and knowing what tools to use are the most important tools in getting a pet back home


Preparation is Key:

Scent Articles:  Make scent articles for each animal in your home, even reptiles and other exotics.  It’s easy:  Take a couple of cotton balls or round cotton pads and rub them all over one pet.  Run them back and forth to get as much fur and skin cells as possible embedded in the pads.  Place them in a ziplock bag, squeeze out all the air out and seal it.  Write that pet’s name on the bag.  Repeat for each of your pets.  A scent article gives a pet tracker the tools to track the scent of your pet.  Store the bags in a drawer or freezer.

Clear Photos:  Take clear, well-lit photos of the pet standing against a contrasting background showing their markings.  Photos that show a pet’s unique markings aid greatly in getting them home.  Also, NO black cats laying in the shadows, white dogs playing in the snow, or calico cats laying on a quilt.  Store photos in a file accessible from phone and computer if the need arises.  Photos provide you with the ability to distribute your pet’s information to a wide net to help bring them home.

Microchip:  A microchip is permanent identification that can’t be taken off like a collar and tag.  Register it and keep the information up to date when you move or get a different phone number.  A microchip can bring your pet home even from the other side of the country years later.  When a pet has a microchip there is ALWAYS hope for recovery.

These 3 simple steps prepare you in the case of your pet disappearing.

Bringing Your Pet Back Home:

Once your pet does escape, what do you do?  Again the key is acting calmly, but quickly.  The good news is that there is hope.  And more good news is that over 90% of all recovered animals are the direct result of good posters put up in a wide area as soon after the pet went missing.  So, taking the following steps immediately after your pet goes missing can help you bring your pet back home safely.

  1. Hang a dirty t-shirt on the fence, porch or a bush in the yard to help them find home.
  2. Make basic posters using this fool-proof formula:
    1. Use a clear, large photo that fills most of the page. A driver has only 5 seconds of interaction with your poster
    2. The type must be readable from a car. Include what animal is lost, phone number and clear instructions: “Take a photo and call us immediately.” This provides a helpful alternative action and distracts them from trying to chase or call out to a loose animal (which is the natural reaction).
    3. Brightly colored paper or words help to capture attention.
    4. Keep it simple so people don’t have to work to read it.
    5. One caution: Do not place flyers or posters in mailboxes. This is illegal and you can be fined.
  3. Talk to everyone you meet while you are out putting up posters.
  4. Check the shelters in person.
  5. Utilize all social media and local communication tools. Again, good picture, concise description and clear instructions of what to do and NOT to do if the pet is seen.
  6. Position your pet’s crate with something that has your scent on it near the place where they escaped. Pets frequently try to return to where they last saw their owner.
  7. Consider contacting a professional pet tracker to direct your efforts and help to bring your pet home.
  8. You are ADVERTISING the fact that your pet is missing and the more engaged the community is the better your chance for recovery.

This is a great list but nothing trumps knowing your pet.  The key sometimes lies in using your pet’s routine, toys, likes and dislikes to create the most effective strategy.  It’s important to do whatever works to bring a pet home.  If one method isn’t working, try something else.

Some great success stories:

A terrified little rescue dog was reunited with her owners by using her doggy friend in a crate inside a large enclosure trap. When she went in to see the other dog we triggered the trap.

One owner used to share a nightly vanilla pudding with his cat.  Placing a pudding cup in the trap caught Nigel that night after many nights without success.

A diluted urine trail helped a cat find its way back home from 2 ½ miles away.

Another owner’s cat loved playing in boxes, so they covered the entire trap inside and out with cardboard so that it looked like a big box.  He went in the first night the “box” trap was out.

Remember lost pets are each different and as such will react differently to being lost.  Understanding lost pet behavior and what can influence that behavior helps determine the best strategy to catch them.   Having the above tools ready to go and acting quickly are all the items you need to ensure that you can have a happy reunion with your pet.

Sam Connelly has been recovering lost pets for 16+ years with her golden retrievers.  She started training search dogs with Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S. Search and Rescue.  She had to quit doing human SAR because of a medical condition.  Since the organization had D.O.G.S. in their name, they received many calls from owners looking for help finding their lost dogs.  A brilliant friend suggested that she cross-train her dogs to track pets – the best job ever!