Here’s Why We Say Stay Out of the Woods When Looking for Your Lost Dog
When a lost dog has been sighted in an area of the woods, we strongly advise people to STAY OUT of the WOODS for various reasons. First, many dogs become triggered into the “fight or flight” mode when they become separated from their owner/guardian. This means that the slightest movement or sound can trigger them to bolt and run in panic. When we say you should not “chase” a dog this includes calling out for a loose dog to come to you, walking (even slowly) towards a dog while making direct eye contact, whistling, clapping hands, following the dog on an ATV (or on any mode of transportation) or doing anything to focus your attention on a dog.
A common search method we see owners use is ATVs or side-by-sides keep in mind that the sound from the motor of an ATV, UTV, Quad, Side-By-Side, Dirt Bike, Etc. will scare them away before you get near them.
Why Does My Dog Not Respond To What I’m Doing?
When you do any of these (calling out, following, chasing, etc.) with a dog whose brain has been triggered into the fight or flight mode due to high cortisol being released in his brain, the dog will most likely run, even from his own family. And when you walk around to “search” in the woods for the dog, anytime you step on a branch or leaf that cracks or you make any noise, it can send the dog running out of the area. We see dogs pushed out of the woods all of the time. This completely frustrates the attempts by teams who’re working to calm and then capture the dog when well-meaning but untrained rescuers keep these lost dogs on the run.
Here are a few examples from our trained members of why you should stay out of the woods.
- We had a dog that went missing from a boarding facility. The facility was transparent and immediately asked for help, a lot of people flocked to the area on foot, in cars, four-wheelers, and with drones. While searching the wooded area she ran into, she eventually left the area in the opposite direction and was discovered to have been hit by a train.
- We had a lost dog that wasn’t in a wooded area, but it a wide open space (but same concept of why you don’t go out with search parties). A Borzoi named Princess. Folks would flock to a sighting. She would flee the area of the sighting. She then traveled many miles – Cheyenne, WY to Colorado ; back to Wyoming ; then to Colorado again. She never settled because of human interference. She was hit on 34 in Colorado. This case changed my entire team. It was the first and only loss on a case and it destroyed me mentally.
We understand that there are a lot of good people out there wanting to help you get your lost dog back home. The issue with large search parties early on is they may scare your lost dog away from the point of escape or place where the dog was lost from. Most lost dogs will gravitate to wooded areas because it provides them with safe cover or shelter from things it feels are a threat. They don’t take the time to say, “Hey you are my Mom, Dad, or someone trying to help”, they just run.
Many dog owners insist they “know” their dog well enough and that their dog “would never run away from me” or “he always comes when I call him.” The problem is that when a dog is in fight or flight mode, the sympathetic nervous system can temporarily block memory. The dog becomes on high alert, filled with fear, due to excessive cortisol. This explains why many dogs do not recognize their owner/guardian initially but do once the dog has calmed down. Once a threat is over, cortisol levels drop and the parasympathetic nervous system slows the stress response by releasing hormones that calm and relax the dog. This explains why “Calming Signals” work so well—they help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms a dog down to the point where he may respond to food and even to the owner’s scent (which the dog can only detect once he is calm).
To understand more about lost pet behaviors you can visit the links below.
So, What Can I Do?
Keep the area quiet, allow the dog to calm down and settle. We recommend setting up a food station with a bucket of water (in warmer climates) and a trail camera near the location where your lost dog was last sighted. Providing food and water like this will help keep the dog in this area so that a team can work to humanely trap the dog.
The best time to enter the woods (usually about 10-20 feet) to set up a feeding station is in the middle of the day when research shows (from the book “Ecology of the Stray Dog” by Alan Beck, plus anecdotal evidence) that dogs tend to hunker down in the middle of the day.
What Kind of Food?
The food should be canned dog food with gravy or something that smells really strong. Please, do not put out dry dog food. Dry dog food does not have a strong scent by itself. If you don’t have canned dog food you can use a burger, deli meat, boneless fried chicken(do not leave out chicken bones!), etc. Things like liquid smoke, tuna juice, barbeque sauce, and soy sauce can be added to increase the smell of the food you are putting out for your lost dog. These can be mixed in a spray bottle (dilute slightly with water) and spray up on tree limbs above where the feeding station is set up. You can even use a ladder since getting the scent high will carry the scent further away.
If the wooded area is close to your house usually within a few hundred feet, you can grill some smelly food like burgers, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, etc. to create a scent cloud to attract your dog back to the house.
Why Do I Need a Camera?
The camera is needed to see exactly what ate the food. When it comes to lost pet recovery we need to know for sure before putting up any type of trap, otherwise, you may trap something you were not expecting.
Make Sure You Tell Everyone
When your dog goes missing most people will turn to social media which can be a good thing, but remember that not everyone is on social media. You need to do a boots-on-the-ground campaign for your lost pet. It is important that you get the word out about your lost dog in the areas where your pet went missing. We recommend creating Large Neon Posters instead of smaller 8 x 11 fliers. The reason for the large neon posters is so that people driving by them can read them easier. When creating your posters keep in mind LESS IS MORE! All too often we see fliers and posters loaded up with information that make what someone is trying to read too cluttered. Keep it simple, Lost dog or cat at the top, a picture, and a phone number to call.
We also recommend going door-to-door to notify people about your lost pet. It is important not to skip anyone. Most lost pet recovery professionals get frustrated when owners say they talked to everyone and when we come out we find that isn’t true. Remember that the one person you miss may have seen your lost pet and just hasn’t told anyone yet. That can be the one clue that brings your lost pet home safe. Be sure to advise the people your talking to about not chasing, or calling for the dog and to STAY OUT of the WOODS.
Another great thing to do is to take those Large Neon Posters, a few friends and do an Intersection Alert. This is where you stand at an intersection and market your lost pet to drivers as they stop for stops signs or traffic lights. Tag-Your-Car is another option. Using special neon markers you can turn your car into a rolling billboard.
When Should You Search The Woods For Your Lost Dog
The absolute only time to search the woods is when you know for a fact the lost pet is hurt, has been missing for a long time, or you have been instructed to do so by a trained missing animal response individual or professional group. Remember that wooded areas are where your lost pets may feel safe, and we don’t want to stress them out anymore than they already might be.
When in Doubt Seek Professional Help
We know how stressful losing a pet can be, so if you need professional help, please check out our Pet Detective Directory for someone close to you for assistance.