When Should you Use a Search Dog?
by James Branson (Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue)
The best time to use a search dog to find a lost dog.
Two of my dogs, Fozzie and Valentino, are trained to follow the scent trail of a missing dog. I would estimate there are fewer than one hundred dogs in the United States who are trained for this job. Perhaps thousands of dogs are trained to find missing people, but those dogs are specifically taught to ignore the scent of dogs, so they can focus on people. Trailing dogs that find dogs are specifically trained to ignore humans and only search for the missing dog.
A scent trailing dog can be somewhat expensive, in some people’s view, and the search dog is not guaranteed to be successful. (I am currently charging $300 to bring Fozzie or Tino out for a search lasting about three hours on average. This is less than the cost of a typical vet visit.) Kelsy, my first search dog, searched for more than 350 dogs in her 8-year career. She found about 20% of those dogs, in the sense that she followed the scent trail to the current location of the dog, or the dog’s remains. A search dog’s success rate is of course dependent on her ability to follow a scent, but a dog’s success rate over an entire career is much more dependent on the search conditions for each case and the amount of time that has elapsed since a sighting. The best search dog in the world would have a low percentage of finds if he mostly worked cases in which the scent trail was fairly old. Kelsy provided a direction of travel on over two-thirds of her searches. Also, in about half of her cases, the missing dog had been picked up by someone before she ever started searching, so there was no dog to be found at the end of the scent trail. Kelsy’s success rate was typical of dogs who search for humans, or perhaps a little better. The search dog is only one tool, and not always the best match for certain situations. When people hear of a dog that searches for lost dogs, many people think, “Great! Come out and find my dog!” It is rarely as simple or as easy as that.
Should you hire a search dog? Should you invest the time and money in a technique that is not guaranteed to be successful? I would if my dog were missing, and if the conditions were right. It covers an avenue of discovery that is not easily covered by other means. Also, just because one method has a relatively low chance of succeeding doesn’t mean you should not try it. For example, if there are one hundred houses in your neighborhood, then there is only a one percent chance your lost dog will be at a particular house. It is statistically unlikely that you will find your dog at any particular house you look at. Does that mean you shouldn’t look? Of course not. It means you need to look at all one hundred houses, if possible, to improve your odds of finding your dog. Likewise, the use of a search dog is statistically unlikely to lead you to the exact current location of your dog, in most cases, but it is a method you might want to try, to make sure you cover that possibility. According to records I’ve kept since 2008, dogs simply come home on their own about 25% of the time. Large posters, when created properly and posted in the right place, get your dog back around 20% of the time. They are found by the search dog in about 20%-25% of the searches we do (which is a relatively small percentage of all the lost dogs out there.). A dog is located by social media about 20% of the time. The lost dog is found at the shelter in about 15% of cases. Other ways of finding your dog include a thorough physical search, using a humane trap, using an automated calling service, and other techniques. Although the search dog pinpoints the lost dog in only 20% to 25% of search attempts, that doesn’t mean it is less successful than other search methods. If your dog is currently at the shelter, then he wouldn’t be found by posters or search dogs. If your dog is running along trails in a ravine, then checking the shelter isn’t going to be the answer. The point is to use as many means of recovering your dog as possible, in order to improve your chances of finding him.
When Kelsy found the dogs she found, it was highly unlikely they would have been found by other means. One dog, Charlie, was completely hidden in a patch of brambles, invisible from the street. The owner could have walked by him all day long and never have known he was there. When Kelsy found the remains of a dog named Cookie, the evidence was nearly invisible and easy to overlook. The owners had walked by that spot several times already and they had not noticed the evidence. That key evidence would likely have never been found, if not for Kelsy’s nose, and the owners would never have known what happened to Cookie. They could have checked the shelters, waved posters, and done everything else on the list, but they would not have discovered what happened to Cookie without taking the step of hiring the search dog. In one of Valentino’s first searches, he followed a scent trail and located an elderly, deaf dog, who was stuck in deep mud, unable to move, deep in the forest. This dog would not have been found by any other means, and the search dog saved this dog’s life. A search dog won’t be successful every time, but he can cover aspects of searching that the other search methods won’t address.
To help you decide if the search dog is best for your circumstances, the list below tells you the conditions and situations where a search dog is most likely to be useful:
— When you have a scent article that is uncontaminated. A search dog usually needs some article that has your dog’s scent, such as a collar or a bed that she slept on. It works best if the missing dog was the only pet who touched that item. I would not recommend a search dog, usually, if the only scent articles smell like another dog or cat in the house as well. Theoretically, a dog can be trained to smell a scent article with the scent of multiple animals, then smell all the animals who are not lost, and then search for the dog that is missing. In practice, it’s hard enough to follow a scent trail while using an uncontaminated scent article. Using a mixed scent makes the job much more difficult.
— When your dog was last seen less than 48 hours ago. Ideally, the search dog would start on the scent trail within a few hours. That almost never happens, as it usually takes a while for the dog owner to learn that a search dog is even an option. The oldest scent trail that has been documented as being followed successfully was thirteen days old. In that case, the lost people had died, and the search dog was able to catch up because they were no longer moving. Practically speaking, if you are thirteen days behind the dog you are looking for, you could be on the right scent trail all day long and never get any closer. Scent is strongest when it is freshest, and the viability and practicality of a scent trail diminish rapidly over time. Generally, with all other conditions being favorable, if the search dog starts within 3 hours of a sighting, he would have a 90% chance of success; after 12 hours, 70%; after 24 hours, 50%; 48 hours, 25%; 3 days, 12%; 5 days, 8%; 7 days, 5%; 14 days, less than 1%. If the last sighting is over two days old, you are usually better off trying to generate a fresh sighting, and then starting the search dog on a fresher trail. The sooner a search dog can start, the higher his odds of success. However, I wouldn’t just automatically recommend that everyone hire a search dog within 3 hours of your dog going missing because most people are going to find their dogs by other search methods within the first 12 hours. So, the age of the scent trail is just one factor. Fozzie located a dog that had not been seen for 10 days, and I actually thought this dog was a good candidate for the search dog because it was very likely that he was circling the area of the cabin in the woods where he was last seen. The scent trail Fozzie followed to find this lost dog was probably about three days old.
— When the missing dog is of a type and a personality that it is unlikely she would be picked up by anyone. Cute little friendly dogs are usually picked up by the first person they meet, so the scent trail would be very short. Bigger dogs who like adventure, or who are skittish of strangers, are more likely to keep running, leaving a scent trail that can be followed. If a small dog or puppy was picked up and carried or driven away, the search dog is usually not going to be effective.
— When the weather is cool and moist. Hot, dry, windy conditions dissipate the scent, making it very difficult for the trailing dog. If your dog is missing in the hottest part of the summer, it would be better to do the search in the cool hours of the early morning, or not at all. Search dogs can also search in the snow, in many cases.
Hiring a search dog is not a substitute for the other ways of finding a lost dog, such as posters, fliers, social media, checking shelters, and simply getting out there to perform a quick grid search. In a certain percentage of cases, the search dog will turn out to be the one successful method, but this is statistically unlikely. If your dog is at the shelter, in someone’s home, or ten days and dozens of miles ahead of the search dog, then a search dog is probably not going to be that helpful. A search dog is best used in conjunction with all the other methods of finding your dog. I would be happy to discuss your dog’s situation and help you decide if a search dog could be helpful.