Updated: Oct 2
A guide from personal experience when I did not have a guide to help me.
Losing your fur baby or coming across a stray pup can be stressful situations. For pet owners who view their dogs as family, it can feel like you've lost a child. If it's a lost dog you've found, you want to get them home safely. Our pets give us unconditional love and priceless memories, so it's heartbreaking when they go missing. As a pet portrait artist that captures the unique spirit of fur babies in one-of-a-kind art pieces, I've seen how deeply that bond runs. This past weekend, hiking in the woods, my partner and I came across a lost pup. We weren’t sure what to do when calling the numbers on the tag didn’t work and figured everything out on our own. Since many of our customers have dogs we decided to summarize what we learned to help furry caretakers prepare for the worst.
Here's my guidance on what to do if your dog becomes one of those who are missing to give them the best chance of returning home. Skip to the relevant section if you're short on time!
Guide for Pet Parents Who Have Lost a Pup
What to do if you lost a pet:
A lot of the advice I found applied to people who had lost their pups. There is a lot of overlap, read on to find out successful strategies to find your pooch.
First 24 Hours - Critical for Lost Dogs
According to the ASPCA, a lost dog's chances of being reunited with their owner significantly drop after the first day, so time is of the essence. Only about 30% of lost dogs without ID get returned and this is what eventually helped us find the lost dog’s owners - so if you don’t already, get your furry friend ID’d either by collar and/or microchip. Ensure the IDs are up to date! Immediately contact local animal shelters and animal control to file a report, provide detailed identifying information and your contact info in case someone turns in your pup. Post urgent notices on Nextdoor, Facebook, Instagram and other social media apps popular in your area. PetFBI.org and FindingRover are two pet services commonly recommended in our searches. They use facial recognition technology to match lost pets with photos people upload when finding animals. Include a clear photo of your dog, distinguishing features, when and where they went missing, and your contact info. Continue to monitor these sites for possible matches and leads. While not necessary, offering a reward can motivate people to be on the lookout.
Get Out Searching ASAP
Put up physical "Lost Dog" flyers with tear-off tabs around your area and anywhere your dog may have wandered. Do targeted canvassing around parks, trails and other places you walk your dog. Talk to mail carriers, UPS/FedEx drivers, neighbors and anyone else out and about regularly who may have seen your pup. Bring your dog's bedding or favorite toy - dogs can pick up a familiar scent from impressive distances. Use treats to entice a shy dog. Check under porches, in shrubs and other hiding spots your dog may crawl into if injured or scared.
Harness the Power of Social Media
Ask friends and family to share notices about your missing dog widely on their own social media feeds. It’s no secret that many people today are always active on social media, casting a wide net online maximizes visibility. Post updates if you get any leads or reported sightings to keep people engaged. Social media has helped local humane societies increase their reunion rates to over 15 pets/day!
Contact Local Vets
Provide your dog's description, microchip number if they have one, medical conditions, etc. Vets often scan strays for chips and tend to see more injured animals. Give vets in all directions your dog may have traveled permission to share your info if someone brings in your pet.
Stay Hopeful and Proactive
Though heartbreaking, remember most lost dogs took an unexpected adventure and will find their way home within a few days. Keep spirits up by displaying your dog's portrait proudly to visualize their return. Stay proactive with search efforts - don't wait for your pup to come to you. Use tactics above to increase likelihood of getting your fur baby back safely where they belong. Remember, in a recent study, 93% of lost dogs were found alive. Those are great odds!
What To Do If You Find a Lost Dog
If you spot a stray dog wandering alone, here are tips we used to successfully get the pup we found home:
A lost dog may be confused, injured, or fearful. Move slowly and don't make direct eye contact or move directly towards the dog, which can seem threatening. Speak calmly in a friendly tone. Have tasty treats in a crinkly bag and a container to hold water which will lure the dog to you. This is ultimately what worked for us. Our pup came and sat since they were really hungry from running all day in the woods. Capture them only if necessary. We placed a leash on their collar to prevent them from running back into the woods as anxiety had clearly taken control of their personality.
Check for ID
Look for a collar with tags that identify the owner. Or bring the dog to a vet or shelter to scan for a microchip containing registration info. This instantly makes finding the owner possible if their contact info is current. However, if you find the animal after business hours this can be tricky.
In our case, the owners were visiting from a different country, try WhatsApp or another WiFi based app to contact their number since their data plan may be restricted.
Provide Temporary Care
If you’re not able to find the owner soon after, take the dog somewhere safe like your car, home or a shelter while continuing search efforts. Offer water, a comfy bed, and reassurance. Watch for injuries that need medical attention. Keeping the dog contained is important so they don't wander off again. You can also call the local police department and ask for the officer on duty. They will provide your contact information to the local animal control volunteer who will contact you for the next steps.
Get the Word Out
Post online in lost pet groups and on community boards notifying others you found a stray dog. Provide distinguishing details and a photo if possible. Call local vets and shelters leaving a description in case an owner reports their missing pet. The more widely you spread the word, the sooner this pup can be reunited with relieved owners eager for their return.
Be Their Voice
If you need to hold on to the pet while you search for the owner, give the lost dog quality time and plenty of affection. Consider capturing their unique personality through pet portrait art, preserving the memory of your time together. You gave comfort to a scared fur baby who needed a friend. If no owner emerges and you have the means, discuss adopting the pup who won your heart!
Follow these Tips for a Happy Ending
Our story ends in a successful reunion. After waiting 2 hours by the trail where we found the dog, we made reluctant arrangements for an after hours drop-off with the animal control officer on duty. While purchasing dog food for their dinner at a nearby grocery store, the owners returned our messages and we were able to reunite the lost pup with her human parents, their hosts and a doggie BFF. We had found her about 4 miles from where they had first run off from the custody of their hosts to chase their parents who had left for a bike ride. Everyone was relieved they were still healthy and not injured! While we were only with the pup for a few hours she left a lasting impression in our hearts.
Losing your beloved dog or finding a lone stray can be emotional experiences. But taking quick action by harnessing community resources gives lost pets their best chance of returning home. Where they'll be greeted with wide-open arms, endless treats, and their favorite toys to celebrate being back where they belong.