There are few things more heartbreaking to me than losing a pet. I see the signs all the time--on light poles, in convenience stores, on the internet--and my heart sinks because I know all too well what can happen to a wandering dog or cat in this people-centric world we live in. Homeward Bound was a nice adventure tale, and sometimes amazing things DO happen, but all too often our lost pets remain a mystery, never to be seen again. Or worse.
I'll never forget the day my latest rescue Holly disappeared. It was only a couple of weeks after I had picked her up wandering down a lonely stretch of road a few miles from my house. Holly is a big, beautiful, goofy bundle of love coon hound, and I had been having to sequester her in the back part of my house while away because she was a chewer. When I came home one evening, the back door was wide open, Holly nowhere to be seen. I was crushed. I wandered around for awhile, but it was getting dark, so I just left the porch light on and decided to resume my search in the morning.
I printed out some fliers to distribute around the neighborhood (well, I call it a "neighborhood", but it's little more than a dozen or so farmhouses dispersed over a square mile section of country road), collected up a handful and set out to find Holly. I asked Snoopy if he wanted to go for a walk...pretty much a sure thing. The two of us covered one end of the community and then turned around to head back. As we passed my front yard, I had a hunch: Holly has an unmistabable bark, a classic coonhound moan, and she's LOUD. If she was off in the woods somewhere I wasn't going to have any luck with the fliers. But if I could make her bark.....??
I stopped, almost directly in front of my house and said "Bark Snoopy". He replied happily, and all the dogs in the neighborhood started barking too. And then, just a few seconds into the canine cacophony, I heard Holly's unmistakable howl. It worked!
We hustled to the far corner of the community, down a dirt road named after the residents, past a couple of old farmhouses and a couple of newer "manufactured homes", until we reached the furthermost house in the neighborhood. And there she was, tied to a chain in the back yard, collar and brand-new rabies tag missing, howling like she'd treed a racoon, I knocked on the door.
"Can I help you?"
"Hi, how are you? That's my dog in your back yard."
"Can you prove that?" I held up the flyer that said LOST DOG and had her unmistakable mug on it. "Yeah, well I guess it is."
And just like that, I had Holly back. She jumped up on me and started licking my face. I took her home to a joyful reception, and she scarfed down a bowlfull of food. But I knew in my heart that I had lucked out. She could've just as easily been gone, forever.
At this point I sat down and started doing some thinking. Fences, runners, even locked back doors....all are susceptible to failure. What happens when your little family member gets out? How can you find them again? What if they get lost in the woods, get taken in my strangers, get abducted by some jerk wanting quick cash, get sold to dogfighters? By nature I tend to contemplate worst-case-scenarios--it's part of my job. And I was making myself crazy.
A collar with a tag is a good start, but what if the collar comes off? Microchipping is a great solution, but what if someone takes in your dog and doesn't check?
Losing one of my family members simply IS NOT an option. I only knew Holly for less than two weeks, and she had only been missing for less than 16 hours, but it was the longest 16 hours of my life!
This called for some research. Here's what I found out.
Starting From Scratch
Losing a pet is traumatic, and no one wants to just sit around and hope someone will find it and contact you. If you don't use a registry service you still have some decent options. The Humane Society's Center For Lost Pets is a nationwide network that partners with shelters and can provide a forum for pet owners to broadcast their loss. They provide services for lost and found pets, plus advice and other free services, like a template for making a personalized printable flyer. (Here's another)
Of course, there's always Google and CraigsList - Try everything!
There are several other services specializing in finding lost pets. Some are purely charitable, and free, while some sell merchandise and pet gear to support their services. All are worth checking out.
Missing Pet Network
Get My Dog and Get My Cat
Fido Finder and Tabby Tracker
Pet Amber Alert
Amber Alert For Pets - provides mostly free services but requires paid membership to list a missing pet.
Petfinder.com - is primarily for people seeking to adopt pets but they offer an impressive registry of pets from shelters across the country. Worth looking into, when all else fails.
Tagging & Registration
The very first line of defense to protect your dog from getting lost is with a tag. Of course, your dog is supposed to have a rabies tag, and in most cases that's plenty. Vets and shelters keep rabies tag information in a database, and owners can usually be found that way. But there are good reasons to supply more than a simple rabies tag. Many dogs will be suspicious of strangers, not come when called, and who can blame them? A tag with the dog's name and the owner's contact information can cut the retrieval time down significantly. More importantly, if your pooch has health or diet issues, it could help a rescuer avoid doing something inadvertently harmful.
Personalized tags can be found at most pet stores, but if you really want to protect your pet you have several different tagging registries to choose from.
Lost My Doggie provides basic free and paid services with smart tags and registries.
Help Me Find My Pet is a free service related to the Petkey family of services, which also provides smart tags.
ID Tag dotcom is another smart tag provider with registry.
Microchipping is one of the best ways to make sure your pet will be located. Microchipping has the advantage of working even if your pet's ID tag gets lost. The disadvantage is that someone has to recover your pet and have them checked for the microchip to be of use. Nevertheless, the success rate for microchipped pets is high. Home Alone is the most widely-used and well-known microchipped pet finding service in the United States. Help Me Find My Pet (mentioned above) also utilized microchip databases for their efforts (though not exclusively).
GPS, Facial Recognition, and Other Methods
And then there is the wonderful world of GPS tracking. This is hands-down the best option, but it's also uniformly the priciest. The most common providers of GPS collars and gear are Tagg, the RoamEO (both use collars and provide tracking devices), and the Garmin GTU (also used by athletes). Consumer Reports tested the aforementioned three and gave a pretty good rundown of their pros and cons here.
There is also the SpotLite, which uses an iPhone instead of a proprietary device for location, and the GeoDog, which does the same for Android.
These devices have the added benefit of NOT being dependent on a rescuer. For someone who lives in the country this can be crucial. However, like collar tags, they risk being lost or removed. But it's an added layer of protection, well worth it for people who live in rural or sparsely populated areas.
Finding Rover is a new service that uses facial recognition technology and a cellphone app to locate missing pets. it's an intriguing idea with a lot of potential but at the moment it relies solely on both finder and owner having registered with their service to be of use. Also, it's only available for iPhone at the moment; no word on when or if they plan to branch out to Android or others.
Honestly, if it were up to me, I would use every single service and device I just listed. Well, in many ways, I DO. I AND my pets are registered with most of the services above--my pets for ID and me to get alerts--and all my pets are microchipped. I haven't used any of the GPS devices, but it's on my wish list.
So there you have it. Nothing is foolproof--unfortunately--and even the best-laid plans can go awry. But with a little precaution and preparation pet owners can not only minimize the risk of losing their dog to begin with, but can exponentially increase the chances they'll be recovered if they do. And if you're like me, you'll do everything in your power to keep your family intact. It's a cruel world out there, no place for a wandering dog or cat. Stay safe.
Peace, Love, and Chewy Toys,