Dogs

How to Prevent Dogs from Getting Lost

Have you ever regretted naming your furry friend Rover because he kept living up to his name? Despite their amazing noses and a homing instinct, dogs can and do get lost. And dogs that are unhappy, or need something you haven’t provided them, can be tempted to run away.

How can you make sure your dog comes home? If he goes missing again, how can you maximize your chances of finding your pet again? And if Rover knows the way home after all, why isn’t he coming back?

To answer those questions, we need to consider what kind of animal dogs are.

Dogs, which are descended from wolves, are intelligent, social predators, with lots of energy and very strong instinctive drives.

They hunger to play, to chase things, to explore their surroundings, to socialize and form bonds with other dogs and with their human friends. They have a powerful drive to find mates and make puppies.

At the same time, they live in a world that can be very fearful for them, especially for the smaller breeds.

Our environments, particularly our cities, are full of strange smells and noises for a dog. Cars and traffic threaten their lives.

lost dog sign
Image credit: Canva

Our neighbors may own dogs who are hostile to yours – it’s not your fault or Rover’s, it’s simply natural for dogs to be territorial. If Butch is bigger than Rover, Rover may simply be unwilling to cross Butch’s territory to get home.

And then we have things like fireworks.

Do you have to lock Rover in every fourth of July?

Record numbers of pets run away every New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July due to fireworks-induced panic.

Against this tendency to go wandering, we have the dog’s homing abilities.

Ever so often we see news of a dog making an epic journey to reunite with its owner. There’s Pero, a sheepdog who made a 240-mile trek across Britain. And Bucky, who walked 500 miles from Virginia to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. These are just two of many such stories.

Dogs have been proven to use at least four methods of navigation: an ability to mentally map terrain, an ability to recognize landmarks, and their senses of smell and hearing.

You can be surprised at how far away Rover can smell you – yes, even after you’ve showered!

Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, fifty times what we’ve got, and the part of their brain that processes scent is 40 times greater than the equivalent part of the human brain. Under ideal conditions, a dog can scent you from up to 12 miles away.

Wait, does this mean when Rover disappeared he knew his way back all along?

Bad Rover!

Maybe not. A dog’s homing ability is not infallible.

A dog panicked by fireworks might run so far he ends up in the completely unfamiliar territory, causing confusion. The scent of the home may be undetectable because the dog is upwind of your house.

Rover’s breed also plays a part.

The anecdotes of dogs coming home after a long trek usually involve larger hunting or working breeds like sheepdogs and Labradors, who may have keener noses and better instincts, or simply had the bravery to make the trip.

Smaller breeds may very well know the way home too, but because the world is much more intimidating for them, they can get too scared to go. Fear and confusion will amplify each other, making it impossible for Rover to use his knowledge of the route home.

There also a lot of obstacles and dangers to a lost or wandering dog, from vehicles to stray and feral dog packs, to well-intentioned persons who mistakenly take the dog in thinking it’s been abandoned.

There’s one more common thread running through the return stories, and it may be the most important one. In all the cases, the returning dogs demonstrated deep bonds with the persons they came back to in their behavior afterward.

They came back for love. Does Rover love you enough to come back?

How to Keep Dogs from Running Away

To prevent your dog from running away, you need to control the drives that could make it bolt: the drives to explore, hunt, play and mate, and fear. Don’t punish your dog for having them, they’re just natural to all dogs. Most importantly, give your dog positive reinforcement to come back if ever it bolts.

Know Which Dog Breeds Most Likely to Run Away

Many high-energy, high companionship-need breeds easily get frustrated at home especially when left alone, and so tend to run away. Large, athletic working and hunting dog breeds are particularly prone to bolting because of their energy and strong drives to explore and play.

Take extra precautions with the following breeds most likely to run away:

  • Australian Shepherd
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Treeing Walker Coonhound
  • Jack Russell
  • German Shepherd
  • Spaniels (Cocker, English Spring, Cavalier King Charles)
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • Border Collie

Dog Breeds Good at Escaping Confinement

You also need to take extra precautions with dog breeds that due to size, athleticism, or sheer smarts are good at escaping confinement.

Small, fast runners like Chihuahuas just slip out the door faster than you can close it, agile jumpers like Boxers laugh at fences, and the mischievous Husky will simply tunnel under what it can’t leap.

Watch out for Houdini breeds such as:

  • Basenji
  • Beagle
  • Cairn Terrier
  • Chihuahua
  • Chinese Crested
  • Dachshund
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • Miniature Pinscher
  • Norfolk Terrier
  • Shi Tzu
  • American Pitbull Terrier
  • Basset Hound
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Black and Tan Coonhound
  • Boxer
  • Chesapeake Bay Retriever
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • German Shepherd
  • Golden Retriever
  • Greyhound
  • Portuguese Podengo
  • Siberian Husky
  • Anatolian Shepherd
  • Catahoula Leopard Dog
  • Great Dane

Large, intelligent breeds will often figure out how to open a locked door, particularly those of the lever type.

If your dog is big enough to reach the doorknob, consider changing your doorknobs to the rounded style and adding extra locks such as a deadbolt at a height your dog can’t reach.

However, if you also have an intelligent cat like this one, all bets are off:

Bond With Your Dog

The dogs that returned all had a common trait: they loved their owners deeply.

Get your dog to love you too by spending quality time with it on walks and play, talking to it, and by being a calm, reassuring pack leader and companion.

Take care not to traumatize your dog even when it’s been naughty.

By doing this, you give your dog a stronger motivation to come home should it ever wander away.

Play with Your Dog

As intelligent and athletic predators, dogs by nature have a lot of energy. A lot more energy than required for our sedentary lifestyle.

To keep a dog from running off to play, you need to drain this excess energy yourself. Use it as an excuse to get some sun and exercise yourself!

Working and hunting dogs such as Huskies and Coon Hounds need vigorous exercise to work off their steam. You can also engage their strong prey drives at the same time with games of fetch or Frisbee.

Make Your Dog Feel at Home When Moving

Whenever you stay at a different location, even just overnight, your dog can become homesick.

The loss of familiar sights, sounds, and smells are much more distressing to a dog than to a human and can be even worse when the dog knows it’s in another dog’s territory. Dogs have been known to run away right after moving, only to be found at the owner’s old house.

To make your dog feel at home wherever you are, especially when moving, make sure you keep some familiar objects around, especially those heavily marked by its scent or yours.

Give the dog its own, old bed and blanket, familiar toys, or even one of your shirts to snuggle with. This restores the dog’s sense of security.

Prevent Separation Anxiety

Some dogs become extremely anxious when their owner is away, even just for daily work. Dogs with separation anxiety often try to escape confinement and can end up wandering far from home due to their stress.

To prevent separation anxiety, you can make sure your dog has a pleasant experience just before you leave the house. Give it a treat or chew toy, or if you have time, play with it until it’s exhausted. This calms and reassures the dog, making it less likely to get the nerves again.

Take extra precautions with the following breeds most prone to separation anxiety:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • Border Collie
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • German Shepherd
  • Australian Shepherd
  • Bichon Frise
  • Viszla
  • German Shorthaired Pointer
  • Toy Poodle

Are you seeing a trend here?

Three different lists, but some suspects keep showing up!

Again, these dogs have in common high intelligence, high energy levels, and a high need for social contact. Failing to keep up with any of these needs easily results in enough frustration to make the dog run away.

If you’re still in the market for a dog, remember to choose a breed that fits your personality and lifestyle, or have a workaround such as making sure your spouse keeps the dog company when you need to do overtime if you have a high companionship-need dog.

Don’t Keep Your Dog Tethered or Caged

Dogs constantly confined by a cage or tether will work up a lot of frustrated energy.

Their natural drives to explore, play and hunt build up like a pressure cooker, and once they get loose they go crazy. Even worse, the negative experience of confinement is a disincentive for them to come back.

Confine or tether your dog only when necessary. Confinement is very distressing for a dog and can make it anxious, neurotic, and even aggressive. Even worse, a perennially confined dog is also likely to be insufficiently socialized, making it unpredictable around strangers and other dogs.

Unsocialized dogs are more likely to fight with or be attacked by other dogs.In contrast, dogs allowed to roam freely from an early age will grow up calmer, more trusting, and more likely to come back.

Spay or Neuter Your Dog

Dogs of both sexes are highly motivated to find mates and reproduce.

Female dogs in heat are likely to go wandering in search of a mate, and males, in turn, may leave home to follow the scent of a receptive female.

Not only can this cause dogs to go missing, but it can also lead them into getting run over by a car, injuries from fights with other dogs, picking up parasites and diseases from other dogs, and unwanted puppies.

To avoid the complications caused by your dog’s sex drive, it’s best to have your dog neutered or spayed.

A sterilized dog will be calmer, less likely to wander off, and best of all will live longer. It will be less prone to infections and degenerative diseases, and less likely to get into fights with other pets.

Distract Your Dog’s Prey Drive

stray lost dog
Image credit: Canva

It’s perfectly natural for a dog to want to chase squirrels or anything that seems to be prey.

However, this can easily lead Rover to accidents or getting lost. Instead of just scolding your dog for wanting to chase something, you should train your dog to focus on you when tempted by wildlife.

Dog trainers recommend teaching dogs with high prey drive to look at you and keep their attention on you with a ‘Look at Me’ game.

When you take your dog for a walk, bring along some treats. When the dog sees something it wants to chase, call its attention and reward it when it looks at you.

Make sure this happens at a good distance from the perceived prey object, so the dog doesn’t commit to the chase immediately. Move yourself and your dog away from the prey object.

The end goal is to always have Rover look at you when he sees something he wants to chase, hoping for a treat, which gives you time to take him away from there and give him a safer distraction.

Calm Your Dog During Thunderstorms and Fireworks

Dogs naturally fear loud noises such as thunder, and they tend to fear fireworks even worse because of eerie whistles and bangs combined with the scent of smoke.

In the United States, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are dreaded by animal shelter personnel nationwide as the top dates for pets to run away.

To keep your dog from running off due to thunder or fireworks, you must help it deal with its fear. Give it a sense of security by keeping a calm presence or a place to hide. For high anxiety dogs, you can try desensitizing it to recordings of fireworks sounds, or use devices like thundershirts.

Other anti-panic measures include:

  • Keep the dog indoors, and bolt the doggy door
  • Let the dog hide in a travel kennel, with its blanket and toys for familiarity and security; put a towel or blanket over the kennel, darkness can be reassuring for a dog that wants to hide
  • Let the dog hide in a closet (but put shoes and clothes out of reach – anxious dogs will often chew whatever’s handy)
  • Cuddle the dog on your lap
  • Close the curtains, and turn on the air conditioner so the dog can’t see or smell the fireworks
  • Play white noise such as the radio or TV; play classical music, it’s been proven to calm dogs
  • Take your dog on a holiday in the countryside to be away from the fireworks

If you’re living in Asia, be aware of when Lunar New Year falls, and other local festivals celebrated with fireworks such as Diwali in India.

At these times there are often not only fireworks displays but also many homeowners and their kids setting off firecrackers on the streets.

Some of these festivals are based on a lunar calendar, so their dates change from year to year. Anticipate these so you can prepare your dog.

How to Help Dogs Find the Way Home

Also consider measures to help your dog confidently find its way home should it ever go wandering, particularly if you have one of the high-energy breeds.

The good news is, most of this is can be done in conjunction with your dog’s daily walk. You just need to include this agenda in your strolls together.

Exercise, Socialize and Familiarize

Long daily walks are an excellent way to work off your dog’s excess energy while getting yourself some sun and air.

As you exercise your dog, take time to let the dog socialize with your neighbors and their dogs, and take various routes so your dog becomes familiar with the different environments around your home.

This will help Rover build up his mental map of visual, aural, and olfactory signposts, get him used to local conditions especially hazardous ones such as traffic, get him to accept unusual things in the area as normal such as the sound of an oncoming train if you live near the tracks, and to accept and be accepted by the neighborhood dogs.

This makes it easier for Rover to cross their territories going home without getting attacked. It’s also very useful to have your neighbors able to recognize your dog, so they can help you find it if ever it goes missing.

Without this, unfamiliar territory can be highly unsettling and confusing for a dog, or too tempting to explore on his own especially if he can smell a fertile female or a source of food nearby.

Teach Your Dog Road Safety

It’s also a good idea to teach your dog to fear, or at least not to chase cars, and to wait before crossing a road. You can do the latter by teaching your dog to always sit whenever you come to a road crossing and to go only when you say so.

Smart dogs will eventually learn they should cross only when the road is clear, and may even learn to recognize traffic lights especially if the Walk signal comes with an audible cue.

You can also try teaching the dog never to cross a road, but this could backfire if Rover ever ends up lost on the other side of a road from your house.

If you own a dark-coated dog, make it more visible to motorists with a brightly colored, reflective collar or doggy jacket.

How to Find a Lost Dog

In case the dog goes missing, you can maximize your chances of finding it by using a mix of search methods. Combine physical searches of the neighborhood with immediate postings of lost pet notices on social media, and call or email the local animal control office and nearby shelters.

Install a GPS Tracker

A GPS tracking device can be clipped on to your dog’s collar, and some models also come with their own easily recognized collars.

This requires investment in the tracker itself plus a subscription to their online service, but it can be worthwhile particularly if you live in the countryside.

Search the Neighborhood

Walk, drive, or bike through your neighborhood.

Searching by bicycle is ideal as it lets you cover a lot of ground, while your body’s exposure to the environment makes your scent easier to detect for your dog. Carry your leash, a picture of the dog, and some treats to lure it back.

If the dog has been missing for more than a day, carry some water.

Search for Lost Pet Online

Post lost-pet notices to social media, particularly community pages if your community has one, and to lost-pet pages and groups.

You can also use online search services such as Petkey.org. Make sure to include a clear, recent photo of your dog.

Call Animal Control and Nearby Shelters

Call nearby animal control offices and shelters. You can find a listing of animal control offices, shelters, and animal welfare organizations here and here.

Can Dogs Be Traumatized After Getting Lost

In general, getting lost can be traumatic for a dog, resulting in symptoms like PTSD. Dogs, particularly anxious breeds, can become depressed, lose their appetites, become withdrawn, or display compulsive behaviors like chewing furniture, or even become aggressive when approached.

When you recover your lost dog, you may have to help it get over the traumatic experience through re-establishing its old routines, play, and if a dog is unresponsive to these, allowing it to retreat into a safe, private space that only they can occupy.

This can be their bed or kennel, their favorite sofa, anywhere as long as you let them have it to themselves for as long as they need to get their confidence back. Make sure it’s warm and contains or is surrounded by familiar objects and objects with their scent and yours.

Lastly, be patient. Dogs can’t use words to vent their fear and frustration, so they can take a while to readjust to being back home.

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