In early June our 11-month-old mixed-breed flat-coated retriever escaped from our yard in the university section of Uptown New Orleans. We feared the worst. Both St. Charles and Claiborne avenues were within easy range of our house. Had he been hit?
Simon looks a lot like a black Lab, but he is a little smaller (50 pounds) and a little sleeker. He’s the most friendly, good-natured dog you’ll ever meet. He points at squirrels, pounces on lizards, slides across wood floors chasing his toys.
But in the late afternoon of Monday, June 5, I left the driveway gate open. Not knowing that, my wife let Simon out in the yard to relieve himself and, mission accomplished, he just wandered off.
We launched a very intense eight-day search and learned things that might be useful to other dog owners in the same situation.
Even though Simon had a micro-chip embedded in his hide, we didn’t sit back and rely on it. I recommend that you do the same. (See below for more discussion on micro-chips.)
Here’s a handbook of some lessons I learned:
- Act as quickly as you can. A dog can travel a long way in a short time, more than three or four miles in an hour.
- Fan out in all directions. Don’t assume you know which way your dog went. I was sure that Simon followed the path of our usual morning walk. I was wrong. A dog is just following random smells or sights.
- If possible, have one person search by car and another on foot. The person on foot should walk in all directions around the spot where the dog escaped. The person in the car should slowly crisscross streets, initially within a one-mile radius. Both of you should call the dog’s name and look in every open spot. If you have only one person — and a car — use the car rather than proceeding on foot. You can cover much more territory that way.
- After combing the streets within a one-mile radius, move out to two miles. Remember that barriers to you, a human, are not barriers to your dog. A dog can cross construction barriers. He can cross big streets. A dog can cross small streams, even rivers. We are sure that Simon crossed the concrete and chain-link fence barriers for the drainage and street construction on Jefferson Avenue. We also suspect that he made it all the way across Louisiana Avenue, which meant crossing another set of construction barriers.
- If you don’t find your dog quickly, then you have to get systematic about a search process that can last for days. Here are the major components of that process: (a) Small signs; (b) large signs/posters; (c) word of mouth; (d) the Internet; (e) hiring a pet detective/pet finder (if you can afford one).
- I think the small signs (flyers) are the single most important element of the process. Use letter-sized paper. It can be regular printer paper, or, ideally, something a little thicker. You can make your own flyers or use one of the free templates offered on numerous web sites, such as FidoFinder or HelpingLostPets.
- The important items on the sign are: (a) the announcement that the pet is lost; (b) the name of the pet; (c) a description of the pet, including any identifying features; (d) a picture of the pet; (e) your phone number; (f) the amount of any monetary reward. (A reward can be strongly motivating — anything between $100 and $500 should do the trick.)
- Be brief. Don’t write a book. You just want to get people’s attention and give them the essential information.
- Buy a staple gun, extra staples, and a jumbo-sized roll (or two) of clear packing tape. Start in that one-mile radius. Divide it into four quadrants (NW, NE, SW and SE), and attack them one at a time, placing signs at intersections every two or three blocks.
- Here is my method for putting up the small signs: Pick only ONE pole at an intersection and put three or four small signs on it, wrapping them all the way around to increase visibility by creating a continuous band. If the pole is wood, use the staple gun. If it’s metal or concrete, use the tape and wrap it all the way around. (At major intersections with a neutral ground, post your flyers on three or four poles.)
- Along with street poles at intersections, don’t forget to post signs at community gathering places: coffee houses and restaurants, grocery stores, veterinarians’ offices, playgrounds and, of course, dog parks where pet owners congregate.
- Move on to the larger two-mile radius, posting signs at every sixth or seventh intersection.
- Do not put flyers in individual mailboxes. I did that, and I shouldn’t have. You simply cannot cover enough territory to make this worthwhile, and it’s very time consuming.
- Along with posting signs, the second most important strategy is to use the Internet. Once you get the word out on that medium, it will spread like wildfire. People will notify their friends and post comments to you. I was amazed how many people heard about our search. We got emails from strangers, with reports of dog sightings or just words of encouragement, all very much appreciated.
- There are three aspects of the Internet to bear in mind: (a) Websites devoted to lost dogs. Go to the sites. Post the information about your dog. HelpingLostPets and FidoFindercom are two of them, but the list keeps changing. (b) Neighborhood web sites. The one we relied on was NextDoor.com. There are lost-pet pages on such sites, and the traffic is heavy. (c) There are lost-pet pages on Facebook as well. Make a posting there, and ask your friends to post your information on each of their individual pages, so that their friends will see it and pass it on.
- Word-of-mouth is almost as important as the Internet, and quite often intersects with it. When people aren’t sharing via the Internet, they are chatting face to face. So, tell people about your dog, and give them a flyer if possible so they can pass on accurate information.
- One important source of word-of-mouth help are veterinarians and animal shelters, animal control facilities, and the local SPCA. Contact every one of them, either in person, by phone or email. I prefer personal or phone contact, followed up by an email that encloses one of your flyers. Do not limit yourself to the veterinarians and shelters in your neighborhood. We visited all of them within a 12-mile radius, which covered much of the metro area, including nearby suburbs.
- If your dog has a micro-chip (as ours did), that is a big plus, but you cannot sit back and rely on someone to know about chips or read them correctly. The chip could malfunction. It could move around inside your dog’s body so it doesn’t show up when he is scanned. That’s why a chip is no substitute for in-person contact. Make sure your flyer gets posted prominently and check back every few days with veterinarians and shelters for new intakes.
- I employed a pet finder. I will give her a plug here, since she was so helpful. She is Bonnie Hale, 314-369-2784, www.LostPetSpecialist. She has a bloodhound who will actually track your lost pet, if you contact her soon enough. That service is expensive. At lower cost, she also provides coaching on her system for posting larger signs, working leads and placing phone calls. I suspect that other pet detectives/pet finders have similar services. Check out their references and make sure they are legitimate, and if you can afford their fee. They may well be very helpful.
The difficulty with this entire process is that the dog could be anywhere. He could have been picked up by a well-intentioned person in a car, and driven to that person’s home many more miles away. He could have traveled in a circular route, ending up close to your home. Somewhere along the way, he could have been taken in by a person who is trying to “shelter” the dog.
You need to try to cover all those possibilities. The large signs are intended for major intersections and highways, to reach people who picked up the dog in a car without realizing that the “stray” was someone’s pet.
Many people believe that after wandering around for a while, dogs try to make their way back home. If that occurs, they will make it back inside the one- or two-mile radius. That is what all those smaller signs are for.
This is, apparently, what happened to Simon. The bloodhound tracked him for a route that covered a total of 5 ½ miles, all the way across Louisiana Avenue toward Downtown. Then he seems to have curved back to a point about 1.25 miles due east of my house. That’s where the bloodhound lost the scent. (The trail was five days old, and it had rained.)
The good news: Simon was found eight days after running off, about eight blocks from our house. Someone had seen one of our small signs, called us and held Simon until we could pick him up. We were ecstatic.
In adapting these rues to your own situation bear in mind that there are many variables, ranging from the dog’s personality — does he run away from strangers? — to weather that limits the dog’s mobility or the ability of the bloodhound to track him. You can read about all of these variables on the internet.
One suggestion that we took from the Internet was to put items on our front porch that might attract Simon — things that carried his scent, such as his bed and fabric toys. We added a piece of my clothing so he could pick up my scent. We also put out some food and water.
One thing we didn’t do — and should have, I now realize — was to leave a gate open so that, if Simon had made his way back home, he would have been able to get into the yard. The thought of a dog making it back home, but having no way to get in, and then leaving again, is a really hard one.
During the eight days that Simon was lost, we talked to a great many people who shared stories of their lost dogs. In most cases, the dog was recovered — often in unexpected ways, and sometimes after a period of weeks or even months. So don’t lose hope!
When I first saw Simon, he was lying in a kennel at the vet’s, weak and very hungry. He had lost five pounds — a full tenth of his body weight. He had also sustained a leg wound, which is why my wife took him to the veterinarian’s after the good people who found him brought him to our house. I bent down and gave him a big, long hug. He sat up, wagged his tail very fast, licked me, then lay back down and went to sleep. He needed, and deserved, a lot of rest.
I wish you good luck and the return of your dog.
Robert M. Steeg is a native New Orleanian, a father of two, and a real estate lawyer who is active in civic and community affairs. He has owned two previous dogs, that each lived to the ripe old age of 17 years. Simon was adopted from the LASPCA, an organization Steeg supports.
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