Lost causes: Catching a dog who's on the loose is an art form all its own.
Today, of course, that's all changed. In many parts of the country, a more diligent dog culture -- and increased compliance with leash laws -- has ensured that the majority of companion dogs are safe behind secure fences, or inside houses or kennel runs when their owners cannot supervise them. When you do see a dog trotting around the neighborhood, the assumption is that he has escaped or was dumped, and is lost and/or imperiled. And the first impulse of most "dog people" is to try and catch him, before he wanders into traffic or another equally life-threatening situation.
Of course, like people, dogs have different personalities. Gregarious, well-adjusted dogs are typically easy to catch; they'll just amble up to you, tail a-wagging, and the game is over. But other dogs may be insecure, timid, reactive, or undersocialized, and for them the experience of being out in the wide, wide world can be extremely disorienting, if not downright terrifying. In these cases, catching a panicked dog is something of an art. You need to know what will spook her, what will soothe her, what precise move you need to make, and when to make it.
Here are some dos and don'ts for landing a lost dog back home, safe and sound. And that applies to both of you.
DON'T GRAB. This really is common sense, but sometimes, in the excitement of trying to secure a dog on the loose, instinct takes over -- with unfortunate results. Consider a news report from January, in which a California woman attempting to rescue a pit bull from an interstate ramp in West Sacramento grabbed for the dog and got badly bitten in the ear.
Suffice it to say that that's a blueprint for how not to capture a loose dog: Don't make sudden moves, and don't try to immobilize a loose dog by clutching him to your bosom. That lady would have been better off opening her car door and trying to entice the dog to jump in, using the vehicle as a "trap" of sorts until help could be summoned.
"If you lunge, dogs may bite because they're afraid," says Bonnie Folz of Howard Beach, New York. She first got involved in finding lost dogs with the case of Vivi the Whippet, the dog who famously found herself loose on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on the way home from competing at the Westminster dog show in 2006. Vivi was sighted for months, but never caught. Folz was inspired to continue helping owners of lost dogs, especially lost sighthounds, which can quickly turn feral when on the lam.
* DON'T CHASE. You'll need to override your biological programming here: It's human nature to run after something you want. The problem is, the dog will likely run even faster, sometimes directly into danger -- in particular, oncoming traffic. When trying to catch a lost dog, often less is more.
The same applies if you see a dog wandering in traffic, in particular a highway or busy road: Don't jump out. Instead, put on your flashers and follow the dog as best you can, provided you do not create a traffic disturbance. Or pull over somewhere safe, and call highway patrol to see if an officer can assist in stopping and slowing traffic. Bottom line: Don't take any chances in getting hit yourself.
* DON'T TALK. It is incredibly counterintuitive, when you see a loose dog, not to call to him, slap your leg encouragingly, or otherwise send an auditory signal that you are happy to see him and would like him to get closer. But that's exactly what you shouldn't do, says Kat Albrecht, a police officer turned pet detective from Federal Way, Washington, who founded the non-profit Missing Pet Partnership in order to help communities develop services to find lost companion animals.
"When dogs are flooded with adrenaline, they are very reactive, and they make associations with things," she explains. "The first person who encounters a lost dog might call the dog or pat their leg or whistle, and if the dog is already in that fight or flight mode, he will likely panic."
The dog may then associate those overtures with something frightening and overwhelming, and bolt whenever he hears them, even if it's his owner who makes them; he may simply react without processing any of that information.
* DO USE CALMING SIGNALS. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, the 2005 book by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, popularized the concept of mimicking the body language that dogs use to communicate peaceful intentions, avoid conflict, and defuse tension.
Calming signals include yawning, using peripheral vision and blinking (never long, direct stares), and oblique approaches (moving from the side, not head on).
You're not very likely to catch a dog if you are moving toward him in a direct line, standing ramrod straight and staring at him. "What you're doing with this is mimicking a predator," Albrecht says.
* DO GO "LOW AND SLOW."
The key, Folz explains, is to get down to the dog's level, and be extremely patient. She recalls a friend who has Pharaoh Hounds who once spent three long hours sitting nearly motionless in a field before a dog who had escaped at a nearby show decided to go over and check him out -- and try his treats.
Albrecht also recommends dropping to the ground, then faking indifference. Her favorite move is to pull out a bait bag that makes a lot of noise when touched -crinkly potato-chip bags filled with hot dogs are a favorite - and pretend to indulge in a movable feast, dropping morsels on the floor all the while.
"Say 'Nummy, nummy,' and make lip-smacking noises -- that's a universal language to a dog," Albrecht says. "If you focus on a hot dog you dropped on the ground, and maybe act like you're eating food off the ground, right away their guard drops because they think you're not even watching them."
Albrecht recommends sitting down, or even lying down flat with the food on your stomach, and watching the dog only from your peripheral vision - again, no staring. "It could take 45 minutes to an hour, or longer, for the dog to advance toward you," she says. If they get close enough at this stage, some dogs will catch the scent of a familiar person and "go through an immediate recognition," Albrecht says. "Owners describe case after case where a dog starts whining and wagging his tail" after recognizing his human at long last.
* DO GET A "MAGNET DOG."
Sometimes, a lost dog is so suspicious of humans that another four-legger needs to be called in to ride shotgun. A "magnet dog" is any friendly, playful, gregarious dog who might entice the lost dog to approach. Since a large dog can be boisterous and harder to handle as the lost dog nears, look for a reliably dog-friendly toy or medium-size breed as your sidekick. Follow the same rules as if you were alone: Don't look directly at the lost dog, keep your body angled away from him so you are not facing him head on, and yawn or blink. Hopefully, you'll just fade into the background. "The skittish dog typically gets tunnel vision," Albrecht says. "He becomes so focused on looking at your magnet dog that he doesn't even notice you.
* DO INVEST IN A SNAPPY SNARE. If you are trying to catch a stray dog that you have observed over a period of days, or if you frequently see stray dogs where you live, having one of these unique tools could be a big help. The Snappy Snare is a large nylon loop with an instant release trigger; it becomes an instant leash when deployed. The product costs about $50 and is available at animal-equipment sites such as camp-bellpet.com and animal-care.com.
"The Snappy Snare is designed to be used with one hand; that's the advantage to using this as opposed to using a catch pole," explains Albrecht. "It's a device you can use when you are attracting the dog to you."
Because the Snappy Snare requires only one hand, your other hand is free to hold your magnet dog, who should be in a harness or a collar and long lead. Note that, unlike a catch pole used by animal-control officers, a Snappy Snare is not rigid, and will not offer the same distancing protection if the dog is aggressive.
Albrecht finds that the best time to use the Snappy Snare is when the two dogs are "nose to nose." To perfect your technique, practice on a stuffed animal.
* DO FENCE ME IN. During the search for Vivi, rescuers hoped that the wily Whippet would wander into someone's yard so the gate could be shut and she could be secured. It never happened; she preferred travelling at night and hanging out in cemeteries, where there were lots of rabbits, and not so many people. But if you have dog-savvy helpers, they might be able to help you "herd" the lost dog into just that sort of fenced enclosure by simply using body language.
WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns reports having caught stray dogs in her neighborhood several times simply by opening a gate on the side of her house that leads invitingly to a large back yard, allowing her dog into the unfenced front yard (acting as a dog magnet, as Albrecht suggests), and then instructing her dog to "go get in," which he understands as the cue to go into the backyard. Almost always, Kerns says, the strays will follow her dog through the gate, which she can then close; then she calls her dog into the house.
"It helps that the dogs can't see that the backyard is enclosed as they go through the gate," she says. "They don't ever seem to recognize it as a place where they can get trapped until it's too late and I have them safely enclosed." And once they know they can't escape the yard, Kerns says, most dogs readily allow themselves to be leashed.
* DO USE THE INTERNET. There's a Facebook page for everything, and that includes lost dogs. There are also pages for footloose Fidos that cover specific states, cities, and breeds.
"Social media is great at getting the word out and especially to generate sightings," Albrecht says. If your dog is lost in a particular community or town, posting on its Facebook page will attract attention from the non-doggie crowd. You might not only get leads, but also volunteers who can distribute fliers or search for you.
Don't forget other popular sites. Though craigslist.org has gotten a bad rap in rescue circles, many people post free "lost" or "found" ads on the site.
* DON'T BE UNPREPARED. Many rescuers (especially those who specialize in lost dogs) always carry a leash in their car, along with treats. In a pinch, a looped belt will do. As you are searching, or waiting for the dog to approach, keep the leash in an inconspicuous but handy place. That way, if you do grab hold of the dog, you can put it on as quickly as possible, before either of you panic.
* DO SET A TRAP. With particularly hard-to-catch dogs, a dog trap may be your last hope for a capture. "It's always an adventure trying to get a trap," says Folz, who recommends checking with shelters and rescue groups to see if they have an appropriately sized one that they are willing to lend out. Networking on social media sites such as Facebook can also help turn one up.
Before you even set the trap, "you have to make sure you can get the dog to come back to the same area," Folz says. "Set up a feeding and watering station, and keep it monitored." Any kind of food with an attractive, strong scent will work; Folz is partial to cat food or Kentucky Fried Chicken. A motion-sensor camera can be used to record footage to determine if a regular visitor is your lost dog -- or the local raccoon family. If electronics are out of your budget, or too high-tech, Folz suggests sprinkling flour or sand around the station so you can analyze any tracks that are left behind.
"Some animals get savvy and don't go all the way into a trap; their necks are long enough so that they don't step on the metal plate" that triggers the trap to close, she says. Folz gets around this by zip-tying a meaty bone to the top of the trap at the very back, so the dog is forced to step in and stay there. She will also pad the bottom of the trap with a heavy blanket or towel so the dog does not feel the metal plate that triggers it to close.
* DON'T ASSUME THE WORST. Once you've caught the dog, resist the urge to write a storyboard for the poor, frightened creature. "When you catch the dog, think 'lost,' not 'stray,'" Albrecht stresses. "Yes, some dogs are dumped, but not as many as most people think."
Often, the mental or physical state of a found dog wrongly reinforces the idea that she couldn't have come from a loving home. "The condition that a dog is in is often not an indication of how it was treated," Albrecht says. In the case of dogs that are emaciated and in poor condition, "it could be that dog has been on the loose for a month or more."
Similarly, don't automatically assume that a skittish or reactive dog has been "abused." More often than not, this is just the dog's temperament, and the person to blame is not the owner, but Mother Nature herself.
* DO GO TO THE SHELTER. Some people who capture a lost dog are reluctant to take her to the local shelter, for fear she might be euthanized. But even if you don't want to leave her there, Albrecht recommends visiting to inform the shelter that she has been found, as the local animal-control facility will be one of the first places an owner will check.
Also, many shelters have scanning equipment that you can use to read any microchip implanted in the dog, and learn who her very worried owners might be.
Denise Flaim of Revodana Ridgebacks in Long Island, New York, shares her home with three Ridgebacks, 10-year-old triplets, and a very patient husband.