Though the number of animals that end up in local shelters and are reunited with their families varies by community, Best Friends Animal Society surveyed more than 2,000 shelters nationwide and found that in 2021 only 21% of lost dogs got back home.
“It’s terrible. There’s a huge percentage of pets that probably could be returned to their owners that are not getting returned right now,” says Marc Peralta. He is the chief program officer for Best Friends and has run shelters and animal control departments across the country.
Experts say while many well-run, well-meaning databases, social media pages and missing pet websites exist — no centralized, “official” site exists that all shelters, animal welfare agencies and the public use to report lost and found animals nationwide.
“It’s kind of a free for all,” Marc says. “Everybody’s independent. It is ineffective.”
Without a central pet reporting system, your lost dog could be in someone’s home five blocks away or in a nearby community’s shelter and you may not know.
“It definitely is frustrating that there isn’t a system that everyone uses. There is a gap,” says Jessica Simpson, senior public policy specialist from the Humane Society of the United States.
That communication gap could leave you at risk of never seeing your dog again. “We have to find better solutions to make it easy for people to find their pets,” Marc says.
Steps to find a lost dog
Given the disjointed system, if you’re looking for your lost dog, the burden is on you to do all you can to find them. Experts say here’s how:
- Mobilize helpers
Call in favors — you’re going to need assistance. Mobilize a small army quickly.
“Get your neighbors, social media friends and other people to help. There are so many things that need to be done it becomes an impossible task for one person to try to do this alone,” says Kat Albrecht-Thiessen, a police officer turned pet detective who runs the Missing Animal Response Network and trains people and dogs to find lost pets.
- Start searching ASAP
Look for your dog in their favorite places, like parks, neighbors’ homes or your local store that gives out treats.
If your dog is fearful, don’t sound panicked when you call them, they’ll pick up on that.
“Don’t call their name; instead, sing,” Kat says. “It helps to calm everyone down. The dog is still going to hear you.”
- Try food, cameras and traps
If your dog took off in the woods or a specific neighborhood, put out food and a motion-activated camera. If it captures pictures of your dog, then you know they’re still in the area.
Contact a pet detective team or animal control officer to set up a humane trap to try to catch your dog.
- Use your scents
Dogs have remarkable senses of smell, so leave familiar ones for them to find. Put out your dog’s bedding, carrier — or your clothing with your scent.
“We’ve seen a lot of cases where the owner is out there for hours trying to find the dog. It gets dark, they leave and when they come back the next morning, the dog is in the parking lot where they’ve left a crate or blanket,” Kat says.
- Scour local shelters
If your dog ends up in a shelter, you must find them quickly. Some facilities only hold dogs for a limited number of days. If you don’t claim your dog, they could be adopted to a new family or euthanized. “You’ve got to beat the clock,” Jessica says.
Report your lost dog to every veterinary clinic, animal control department, and shelter in your area and surrounding cities or counties. Go to your local shelters every day. Be relentless.
“You’re going to have better success finding your pet if you are driving and checking (the shelters) yourself, and not just filing a lost report and waiting for the universe to do what it’s supposed to,” Marc says.
- Notify your dog’s microchip company
Immediately tell your dog’s microchip registry your dog is lost. Make sure your contact information is up to date in their database. Some companies will help look for your dog.
“They’ll send email notifications to people in the immediate area to highlight the fact that there is a missing animal,” Jessica says.
- Go big with lost dog signs
Don’t post measly flyers. Think big: 2 feet tall and wide, neon-colored poster boards that people can’t miss.
Post them where your dog went missing with only keywords and your phone number.
“Use five words people can read in five seconds when they’re going 55 miles an hour. ‘White poodle. Red collar. Lost.’ Make the letters big,” Kat says.
Kat points to this television show video as an example of how people may see a lost dog flyer, not pay attention to it and even walk right past the missing dog.
- Make your car a mobile billboard
Use washable markers to write your dog’s description on your windows. Add your dog’s picture then drive around.
- Contact local media
Did you lose your dog in a newsworthy way? Is your story compelling? Email local media outlets with details and ask them to do a story or share your dog’s information on their website or social media pages.
- Post online
Post your lost dog on community websites like:
Use social media and lost and found pet sites like:
If someone says they have your dog, ask them to send a picture to prove it. Be cautious if they ask for money, even if you’ve offered a reward.
- Check online
Repeat the steps above, but instead, search the sites for your dog.
Petco Love Lost allows people to search by location. The site also uses facial recognition to match photos of lost pets with found pets and works with more than 1,800 shelters.
The nonprofit hopes to partner and integrate with other missing pet websites and create that one official, free, central reporting site.
“We are determined to make this work because we know the incredible impact it will make on the lives of pets,” says Susanne Kogut, president of Petco Love.