Every year, millions of pets go missing across the country, and many are never found. These once-loved companions may end up being hit by cars, absorbed into free-roaming stray populations, or impounded in animal shelters. In Northern California, more than 300,000 missing pets end up in shelters every year, and only about 10 percent will be found and reclaimed by owners.
When a pet goes missing, most people don’t know what to do. They may walk around the neighborhood calling and shaking a bag of food, or they may post flyers. They may check the local shelter. After a week or two, most people give up, because they can’t deal with the grief and uncertainty or because they believe their pet has died or been taken into someone else’s home.
“Three years ago, I lost my dog,” said Missing Animal Response search dog handler Lynnette Ruder of Castle Rock, Colo. “I was devastated. Someone recommended I hire a search dog handler, so I did, and at that moment, I knew this was something I wanted to be involved in. I saw how much good my dogs and I could do.”
Ruder studied with Pet Detective Academy Instructor Kat Albrecht of Nanaimo, B.C., who is the founder of Missing Pet Partnership, a national nonprofit dedicated to lost pet prevention and recovery. Albrecht teaches a comprehensive program of owner counseling and multiple search techniques, including the use of wildlife cameras and live traps and examining forensic evidence in addition to training dogs to follow the scent trail of a missing pet.
“Most any breed can be a MAR dog,” says Albrecht. “Medium size is ideal, although there are exceptions. Brachycephalic dogs overheat easily and don’t take scent well. Older dogs may have difficulty physically doing the work. An ideal MAR dog has no fear or aggression and loves other animals.”
Ruder uses her Sheltie, Bear, and Australian cattle dog, Hope, for MAR work. She primarily does physical searches for the owners of missing pets and partners with a volunteer group that provides counseling and other support. “It’s hard work, but so rewarding,” she says. “You are running behind your dog, sometimes for a long distance, over broken ground or up hills. You may need to search multiple times to verify sightings of the missing pet in different locations. You and your dog need to be in shape.”
According to Albrecht, dogs can start getting the hang of following a scent trail in a few months, but to train a reliable MAR search dog takes 12 to 18 months. It takes many repetitions, but it’s a winning moment when a dog “gets it” and understands what you are asking for. Following their nose is one of the most natural things a dog can do.
Albrecht stresses the importance of teaching dogs the “negative trail,” which is a way of indicating that the scent they are supposed to follow is not in the search area. If they are always rewarded for following a scent, they may pick some other random scent and go after it. “Improperly trained dogs and handlers can lead owners on a wild goose chase,” she adds. “Because of that, we are working towards setting industry standards and certification so the owners of missing pets will know they have hired someone they can trust.”
MAR search dog handling is a rewarding hobby for some and a career for others. There is currently a need for dog handlers in Northern California, so Albrecht encourages anyone potentially interested to contact her via email, info@katalbrecht.
“You need to be prepared for a lot of hard work, and a commitment to that work,” says Ruder, “but if you feel this is right for you and your dog, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. It’s a ton of fun, and finding a missing pet is so rewarding.”
Want to learn more about Missing Animal Response? Check out Kat Albrecht’s books on Amazon, Pet Tracker and Dog Detectives. Visit KatAlbrecht.com to learn about training opportunities, and MissingPetPartnership.org to learn about MAR and LPPR initiatives in communities and animal shelters across the U.S. and beyond.
Brigid Wasson is the founder of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting, providing infrastructure building, management-team support, and lifesaving programs for animal shelters across the country. She lives in Sonoma County with three dogs: an Anatolian shepherd, a corgi/terrier, and a Pomeranian/terrier. For more information visit AnimalShelterSuccess.com.
Main article photo by: Photo of Lynette Ruder and Bear courtesy of Ruder