Help! My Dog Is Missing

By Michelle Polly and Sue Nicolini

I cannot think of any situation more heart rendg than finding a pet missing…that first feeling of dread when you see an empty fenced yard, an open front door, or call your dog’s name and get no response.

According to recent statistics less than 16% of dogs that become lost are reunited with their owners. Also a significant number of newly adopted shelter dogs can become lost in the early days of adoption to a new home.

Before a significant bond is achieved, pets can leave their new homes and be unable to find their way back because they don’t yet recognize the environment or the people they are living with as their own.

For these reasons it is important that pet owners take steps to insure that their beloved family member have every chance to be successfully found.

Of course there are ways to prevent your animal from becoming lost in the first place.

Make sure your dog or cat has a collar on at all times with up to date information including your name, address and a current phone number so that anyone who finds your pet can quickly identify him as yours and get him back to you safely.

Microchips are another useful tool in identifying animals that are found. Make sure that this information is up to date as well.

There are also computer programs and devices that will track your dog or cat should they become lost.

But even the best intentioned pet owner will sometimes find themselves in the terrible position of having lost their dog or cat and realize that they have no idea what to do.

The steps outlined here will be a guideline to follow in the event you find your pet missing. Most of these guidelines pertain to lost dogs, but some of them will be useful in finding your lost cat as well.

Step One

The first step is to determine that your dog or cat is indeed lost and not just hiding or locked in a room or space that they cannot get out of.

Not long ago I was unable to find my Standard Poodle Mallory. I was putting away Christmas decorations in the machine shed and did not notice that she had followed me into the shed. After returning to the house, I called her and did not get a response. She is always good about coming when called so I was not too worried until several minutes had passed and she still had not appeared. I fought down the feeling of panic and retraced my steps and sure enough she bounded out of the shed when I opened the door. Even though she heard me calling her, she waited patiently for me to free her and had remained silent.

If after a few minutes you still have not located your dog, it is time to take action. The first twenty four hours are the most critical time to implement the steps outlined in order to be successful in finding your missing pet.

Step Two

Try to determine how your dog became lost. Did he climb over the fence? Did someone leave the gate open? Did he run through an open door? If he was tied outside did he chew through his leash?

Having this information can help to determine how long he or she has been off of your property and can point to the frame of mind your dog was in at the time he left.

A dog leaving through an open door may not be in any hurry to get far away and be close to home --perhaps at the neighbor down the street where his doggie friend resides. However a dog that has been left unattended to chew through a leash may be more inclined to hurry off after freeing himself.

If you have an idea of how long your pet has been gone, it can be useful to determine how far away she might be.

Step Three

After making some determination about the length of time Rover has been gone, the next step is to begin your search.

  • One family member or friend should stay behind in case the dog returns home or be available should someone find her and attempt to call the number on her collar.
  • The searchers should have phones with them in order to be able to communicate with each other should one of them find the missing pet.
  • Flashlights are good tools to take with in order to look under bushes, behind cars or if the search goes from daylight hours to darkness.
  • If you have a recent photo of your dog or cat take that with you also. It will help people to be able to spot your pet quickly if they know what breed or type of dog or cat they need to be on the lookout for.
  • It is very important to tell searchers not to call your pet by name as they search. A group of people shouting the pets name can cause an animal that is frightened and disoriented to go into hiding instead of responding to their name. A favorite squeaky toy will more likely get his attention and response than loud voices that he or she may not recognize.
  • Bring bait with you also. Something you know your pet cannot resist. When dogs are lost, they can become frightened so it is very helpful if someone who spots your dog and can get close enough to them to offer food. Soft smelly treats work better than hard crunchy bones that do not have a smell that will tempt.


Most dogs will range approximately one to one and a half miles from the place they left and then begin to double back on their own sent. That is unless they are pushed beyond that boundary by people chasing them.

When a dog is “lost” he does not know he is lost and most dogs look at being loose as a big adventure.

He or she will most likely stop at interesting smells or to visit places where other dogs reside. However do not assume that your dog has not traveled beyond the range of one to one and a half miles but make a thorough search in the immediate area before branching out.

Set a time limit on how long you will search before you gather to regroup and share information.

If you spot the lost dog, do not rush up to them or try to catch them. I have found it useful to sit on the ground and call the dog softly to you. Make sure you use soft body language and do not startle the dog by attempting to grab at them at first. The dog will find you interesting if you are sitting and offering tasty treats.

In suburban settings where there are more people out and about, dogs may be picked up by someone who spots them wandering the streets.

Some folks will hang on to the dog and attempt to find the owner by doing an investigation themselves. It will usually be a couple of days before these “finders” will begin to notify authorities such as area veterinarians, shelters, or animal control officers. For this reason it is important to saturate the area with posters. Posters are highly effective in getting lost pets reunited with their families. It is very important that the posters be large enough to be seen by someone driving past in a car. Do not expect people to stop and get out of their vehicle to read the poster so key information must catch their eye.

“Lost Dog” printed very large identifies the purpose of the poster. Display a picture of your pet under the “Lost Dog”. Your telephone number should be next in text as large as will fit the page. These three key bits of information are all you need, but a brief description of the lost dog can be helpful. It does not matter what sex or health needs your dog has, you just need to grab attention with the poster.

Offer a reward for the person who finds your pet. Sad as it may seem, people can be motivated to help when there is a chance for monetary reward. It will also be an incentive for people who find your dog to actually bring him back to you. For some, stray dogs are animals free for the taking. A reward may be the only reason that they don’t keep your dog for themselves. Be aware of scams that target people who are in an emotional turmoil about their missing family member. One such scam is a phone call from a truck driver informing you that he has found your dog wandering down the road and picked him up. He promises to return your dog when he receives the reward money so as to pay for the cost of time and effort to return her to you. Do not wire anyone money in exchange for the return of your dog. Never exchange money with anyone until they have returned your pet safely to you.

Step Four

If a preliminary search has left you unable to locate your pet, the next step is to visit personally your local shelter and animal control facility. It is important that you visit these facilities as you want to make sure you look at the animals that are there to see if your pet has been brought in. Even though you may describe your dog to staff over the phone, it is possible that pets can be incorrectly identified in their computer system.

A personal visit will make it possible for the staff at the shelter to see your posters first hand and also have extras for the public to see and to take when they visit the facility.

A preliminary phone call is nice before you visit the shelter or animal control to make sure that they have time to meet with you. Visit as many local shelters as possible and phone the rest leaving pertinent information. Mail them flyers as well. The same procedure should be followed with local veterinarians. Visit the ones that are close by in person, and call the ones that are a little bit farther away.

Another useful source for your search is the internet. Most states now have websites that post missing pets. Make sure if you utilize this tool that you visit the site every day and update with any information that you receive during your search, for example sightings of your pet that have taken place. This will help to keep the search current and in the mind of people that are visiting the site.

Craig’s List is also a place that you may want to consider posting. Remember that the more people who know that you are looking for your lost dog the better the chance that someone will at least spot him or her. Sightings help to narrow down the area where your pet was last seen.

Don’t forget to tell your neighbors that you have a missing pet. They may have seen your dog and not realize that he or she is lost. Neighbors can be more pairs of eyes that are on the lookout for your pet.

If your pet has not turned up in a few days, stop, regroup and take a break. You will be exhausted and emotionally drained if you try to continue your search with no break. Enlist others to continue the search and take some time to respond to your online sources and to plan the next step of your search.

Don’t give up!

As difficult as losing a pet is, there are enough “happy ending” stories that teach us the value in continuing the search for the ones who wander away can have a happy ending.

With help and a good and positive outlook, you may be one of those that is happily reunited with your beloved pet.

  • Make your flyer with good picture of pet and contact info
  • Contact Animal Control
  • Contact local shelter(s)
  • Contact local kennels – they often get called when people find dogs
  • Contact local vets
  • Put your lost dog on Facebook Page “Lost Dogs of Illinois” and “Lost Dogs of Wisconsin” if you are close to the Wisconsin border
  • Post your missing dog on Craig’s List
  • Notify your postman and UPS drivers. Give them flyers.
  • If you are near Apple Canyon Lake or The Galena Territory notify their security. Their drivers are also out all day and may have seen your pet.


You can email your flyer to many of these locations. Lost Dogs of Illinois and Lost Dogs of Wisconsin Facebook Pages will create the flyer for you.