Spot The Dog – NOW WHAT?

Based on prior experiences, this document provides general guidance – not rules set in stone. If your dog is lost, you should seek advice from animal care professionals.

You finally spot your dog –  now what?  Stay calm – your dog is likely in survival mode and overly cautious.  Expect this behavior and assume you need to outsmart it. 

Always carry a leash and quart-sized bag of “bait” in your vehicle and when you get out to walk or sit in a search zone, be it a minute or hours, always take them with you. Wrap the leash around your waist like a cinch belt, so it’s outside, handy, and ready to use. Carry a quart bag of cooked and diced hot dogs and/or tasty tidbits like liver or chicken. If the dog likes toys, carry a favorite type that’s normally associated with happy playtimes. “Cesar” brand dog food comes in small, easy-to-carry, plastic tubs with peel-off soft foil top.  Pack six or so (spares) in the car and carry some in your pockets when out in search zones. Buy non-gravy varieties so contents can be portioned or pinched off to toss like a tidbit. It’s been a staple part of my baits since 2001.

Arriving at a site – Don’t slam doors or shout.  Be forewarned, not shocked – many dogs bolt when a person approaches or makes eye contact.  And yes, even a favorite human.

Assume you must earn your dog’s trust, as if you’re a stranger.  If the sighting is current, the dog may still be in the immediate vicinity – or not.  Don’t drive all over, park the car and get out. A dog may feel safe and stay under a deck OR bolt when it realizes escape routes are limited. Sitting in an open field gives a dog space to wait and see what you’re up to OR it may just bolt. The lost dog chooses how close you can get.  Be patient and let it adjust to your presence. See the dog or not, talk using familiar phrases like: “Want to go for a ride?”  “Want a cookie?” Say whatever usually gets a quick positive response.  You can and should sweet talk any dog. Never approach head on.  Turn, face sideways, and walk slowly with arms close to your sides.  A dog must accept each step.  Advancing 100 feet may take a half hour – be patient. Never show your teeth.  That’s the same as baring your teeth (growling) in canine language. Never stare.  Not only is that a challenge, a predator stares at intended prey before attacking. Avoid making sudden movements.  Stop and sit down if the dog looks like it’s going to bolt. Talk in soft, reassuring tones:  “What a good girl!”  “puppy-puppy!”  “I’m so proud of you!” and “Are you hungry?”  Let the dog’s body language be a guide as to how fast you move.  The goal is about 25 feet or where the dog can see bits being tossed and then smell the bait food.  To help ease a dog’s anxiety, make submissive gestures every so often, like closing your eyes for a few seconds and bowing your head down and off to one side.  When luring, the dog should be focused on one person.  Everyone else needs to disappear.  A backup can be 100’ away.

The goal is to lure the dog close, so eventually it’s right next to you, wanting more to eat.

Hold a piece of bait, pretend you’re eating some and enjoying it.  :O  Smack your lips and lick your fingers.  Say “Pretty good cookies – do you want some?”  With a gentle underhand motion, toss a few thumbnail-sized bits in the general direction of the dog.  Toss each bit so it lands progressively closer to you.  Wait for the dog to eat before you offer more.

The dog might grab a tidbit and retreat OR move closer.  Praise all forward movements. 

*DON’T OVERFEED A DOG!   Why should a wary dog come to you if no longer hungry?

*DON’T RUN OUT OF FOOD!   Why should a hungry dog go to someone with no food?

** NEVER grab an unfamiliar dog.  You risk being bitten or seriously hurt.  You will also have to get shots if the vaccination history is unknown or rabies vaccine isn’t up to date.  

Luring successfully can take minutes, hours, or repeated attempts over time.  When the dog is less than an arm’s length away, you should already have a game plan.  What will work best – a gentle hand or quick grab?  Cautious dogs may readily eat out of your hand but back away very quickly when you reach out to touch them.  Offer food in one hand that’s lowered to the ground and keep your other hand free and dry. You can wipe wet hands on clothes or bring a facecloth.

The dog has a collar, is happily eating, and very friendly.  Gently attach a leash with dry hand.

The dog has a collar and is eating out of your hand but looks like it could still bolt any minute?  When the dog bows its head and is eating from your hand, focus and grab the collar.  Quickly attach a leash and wrap it around your wrist.  Make sure collar is snug and can’t be slipped.

The dog isn’t wearing a collar and is friendly.  Try to get an adjustable collar and/or lead over the neck – two (2) leads are better.  Gently but quickly adjust collar to a snug fit.

The dog isn’t wearing a collar, is friendly and eating, but backs away from being touched.

If deemed a safe option:  As it eats from your hand, grab by the neck.  For small dogs, do a whole-body hug and slip a lead (or two) around neck.  ASAP put on a collar – like a Martingale.

For safety, “grab/hold/body hug” methods should only be attempted on your own dog.  When trying to catch a dog, you can startle it, and it can startle you with a yip, nip, or bite.  If the dog has lost a lot of weight, the collar might be quite loose and easy for you to grab BUT a dog can also slip out of that collar very easily and why countless dogs get lost in the first place.

Hold on tight and immediately take up slack with your hand until the dog is safely secured.

Don’t look for the dog – let the dog find you.  Look along paths or known travel routes for a good spot to put a blanket down.  Wait with bait and “happy” items.  If the dog’s nearby, throw down a light trail of bait leading to you.  Though a dog may be caught off-guard momentarily, you’re in an excellent submissive position to start sweet-talking and luring with food and toys.

Her favorite human lay on the ground in the middle of a cornfield, softly saying familiar phrases.  A half hour later, the tiny dog, shivering with fear, slowly, on her belly, crawled to her human.

A favorite human sits on a blanket with pizza and bait bits.  Within an hour, a dog comes out of hiding and, slowly but surely, goes right to the person.  Many happy stories with blanket pizza!

Exhausted, lost dogs are further stressed by well-intentioned groups of people.  They often make a dog bolt into the streets and further danger.  Have a game plan for everyone to follow.

If someone spots the dog, have a plan for who calls who, and who responds to the site.

If groups (family or not) start tromping, dogs usually prove to be adept at remaining elusive.

It’s common for “rescues” to get lost during transport, in foster care, or as newly adopted.

You can get a dog to recognize you and your scent.  Start with food and water bowls set every day at the same spot.  Sit & talk for short “bonding” visits.  The dog may show itself in time and later allow you to be there as it eats.  This sets the scenario for a safe and successful capture.

DON’T give unlimited food or water to a dog that’s been lost for a long time – you might make it seriously ill or worse.  See a veterinarian immediately or 24-HR emergency clinic.


                                Debbie Hall  copy 2/2005

                              Debbie Scarpellini Revision Jan 2022

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