How to find a lost dog on a trail
It’s a pet owner’s worst nightmare: Halfway on a hike, away from home, Rover leaps into the brush and can’t believe it. Ten minutes go by, twenty, one hour and it’s time to face the fact that your dog is good and lost. What to do next can be counterintuitive.
That’s where Seattle animal researcher James Branson comes in. For 13 years he has used his dogs to find other animals, calling his Operation Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue (although his researchers now include a 13-pound white poodle and a gargantuan German Shepherd mix named Tino, short for Valentino. Squishy Wordsworth). Branson modeled his techniques on those taught by Kat Albretcht, a former police officer and bloodhound turned dog sleuth; he saw his ad for dressage lessons on a bulletin board at a dog park near Seattle and signed up.
Today, he receives over 800 calls a year from homeowners looking for their lost companions. Many are destined for city disappearance, but hiking trails near Seattle are not a rare destination.
“When a dog is lost, it’s almost always the case that the human is doing the wrong thing,” explains Branson. After thousands of searches and hundreds of successful discoveries, he found some tips and tricks to increase the chances of finding Rover.
Don’t shout their name
Every owner of a lost pet has likely broken this rule, yelling at the dog whether he can be spotted in the distance or not. But hearing his name can only serve to ward off a panicked animal.
“It’s like when I was in second year, and I didn’t want the teacher to call me by my name,” Branson says; a stressed dog does not want the attention to be focused on him. This can scare away or hide a confused animal. In his experience, calling a dog’s name only helps a third of the time, but otherwise interferes with the process.
Call another dog’s name
A finicky puppy may freak out at their own nickname, but hear a best friend’s name? It works, Branson says. Calmly using a sibling’s or playmate’s name will help the lost person know where the humans are and, better yet, greet them to something familiar.
Branson notes that well-trained Tino is unlikely to move away from him, but if the 120-pound inflatable balloon did move away, he would instead call Mu, his cat-detection lab mix and Tino’s favorite friend. . Even chatting at a normal volume can help project calm and allow the lost dog to find you.
Check the start of the trail
Your bitch is not as clumsy as she looks. Branson notes that about half the time, dogs lost on hiking trails are found in the parking lot, even miles away. “A lot of times they just take it back to the car,” he notes, which is also why physical labels with the owner’s name and contact details are important. Branson remembers a dog named Snow who got lost while running behind his owner’s mountain bike; Snow was found 28 days later and ten miles from the trail, sleeping on someone’s porch – reunited only because the puppy had its owner’s phone number on it.
(Oh, what if someone suggests that you leave a trail of your own urine for your lost pet? Branson has never, ever seen evidence that does anything.)
Lose your shirt
When an owner has to put a stop to their search, leaving an item of clothing where it was last seen can give a lost animal a place to return. It will smell familiar and the animal can just curl up on the sweatshirt left behind. However, Branson does not recommend spreading your entire basket of dirty clothes in the forest, as he has seen before. “Just, like, a pair of socks,” he said.
If the animals are spotted but not caught, Branson uses calming cues, a series of behaviors and facial expressions that project comfort and safety. He will sit on the floor for hours, avoiding eye contact, and let the dogs come to him.
Hire an expert
Albrecht’s Missing Animal Response Directory lists 34 animal researchers across the United States who may be able to help you if you ever lose your dog.
But Branson notes that research in the wilderness has its limits; he can’t let Tino follow his nose on ground he can’t handle on his own. And since his search dogs can’t work for more than a few hours at a time, even reaching the last spot seen can take a long time.
Yet his dogs find their target about 25% of the time. His first detector dog, Kelsey, made about 100 discoveries. And success takes many forms: Tino’s first victory, in 2018, was to follow a 150-pound deaf from the Great Pyrenees named Puppy. Tino circled Branson up a long ditch several times before spotting Puppy’s white head, most of his body mired in a mud hole.
One caveat: Branson cautions against hiring any outfit that guarantees success, or whose fees seem extravagant. “There are no regulations” for what he does, he says. He charges around $ 300 for a single multi-hour outing, but has seen fares run into the thousands.
Branson, unsurprisingly, advocates universal use of the leash on the trails, although he understands that some owners will let their dogs run free. But he says what the owners do can make or break the result of a lost pet. “I wish I knew what they were thinking,” Branson says of the lost animals he’s stalking. “But I know the whole psychology of humans interacting with them.”