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What to Do if Your Dog Runs Away

We’ve officially lost Baxter four times.

The first two times were very early days—three months into him coming to live with us—and due first to my arrogance in letting him off leash too soon and second to me not keeping a tight enough grip on the leash when he took off to chase something in the dark.

The first two times we lost him, my husband spent hours walking through the fields and woods around our property until he found Baxter and brought him home.

The fact that he found Baxter was mostly luck—with a big dose of stubbornness. There was no way my husband was coming home without our dog.

The third and fourth times involved Baxter’s independent nature and the kindness of strangers.

Knowing that we’ve been through a few runaway incidents, Lindsay asked me to write about what to do if you lose your dog.

First, I will say that solid recall, a strong bond with your dog and obedience training are all important.

You never want to lose your dog and basic training is your best foundation to prevent that. See my post: How to train a dog to be off leash.

But, if you do find yourself separated from your dog, here are some of the things that I’ve found helpful.

What to do if your dog runs away

What to do if your dog runs away

1. If you see your dog going, try to capture his attention.

Usually I can tell if Baxter’s too distracted to be off leash by the position of his ears or his overall body language, and I’ll quickly clip a leash on him.

However, if your dog is out of reach or has already taken a few steps in the wrong direction, your first step is to try to help him tune back in to you. Clap your hands, call his name as loudly as you can, whistle, use your most excited voice.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, run away from your dog. This may make him think you’re playing a game and he may chase you.

During one of our early off-leash hiking classes, one of the dogs took off full speed down the trail. The owner called him and the dog didn’t slow down or look back at all.

Seeing the situation, our trainer called his name once in her loudest voice and then let out a piercing, high-pitched yodel. The odd sound got the dog’s attention.

He looked back, turned around and this time when they called him—“Come on back, buddy. Let’s go!”—he came.

I’ve used this technique successfully once with Baxter. While I don’t know how to yodel, a big “Wooooo-hoo!” was the sound that came naturally to me. It’s not a sound I usually make on our walks and was enough to get Baxter’s attention.

What to do if your dog runs away

If your dog does come back to you, reward that. Clip a leash on him and immediately give scratches and pats. Tell him he’s such a good boy. You want to recognize the correct behaviour—that he came to you. This is not a moment to punish him for running away.

2. Leave something of yours where you last saw your dog.

This tip came from my father-in-law who used to hunt with beagles. In scenarios where the beagle followed her nose and wandered too far away, my FIL would leave his jacket in the woods.

When he came back the next morning or at the end of the day, the beagle would be curled up on his jacket. The familiar scent attracted the dog and gave her a temporary home base.

3. If your dog runs away, spread out.

My husband’s instinct is action. He wants to look for the dog, and he will walk and walk and call and call until he finds him. The group I hike with will do the same thing.

Everyone takes a different route and walks out, calling for the missing dog. In this scenario, it’s helpful to have everyone’s cell numbers so that you can call off the search if someone finds the dog.

What to do if your dog runs away

4. Wait where you are.

Inaction may not be your first instinct, but in my experience, Baxter usually hasn’t actually run away. He’s chosen his own adventure for a little while, and then he comes back to the trail.

I’ve learned his comfort zone can be up to 10 minutes long. Initially, I would stand on the trail and wait for him to come back. But I quickly learned that if I keep hiking, soon enough he will charge up the trail behind me.

5. Make sure your dog is identified.

Baxter never goes outside without his collar and tags. His tag has his name, our home phone number and my cell number. Dog tags are tried and true for a reason. See our post: What to put on a dog’s ID tags.

The two times Baxter has been caught by strangers, they have immediately called the numbers on his tags, and I have been able to pick him up right away.

Be aware that sometimes, your dog may become separated from his collar. Baxter also has a microchip, which identifies him as our dog and is associated with all of our numbers. The cell number is important because we’re not always at home, especially if we’re hiking.

Before a hike, I always make sure my cell is charged. Rather than packing my pockets, I like to use my Mighty Paw treat pouch to carry my phone along with my car keys and poop bags.

You might also want to consider licensing your dog.

6. Trust your dog.

The two times Baxter was picked up by other people, I feel very certain he would have found me if he had the chance. In one incident, he had dashed into the woods on our property during our evening walk.

Knowing he knew the neighbourhood very well and could find his way home, I walked back to the house rather than trying to battle through the thick forest.

I sat on the front stoop watching for him and had the phone at my side in case someone found him, which is what ended up happening. However, Baxter was walking in the direction of the farm when a driver picked him up and called me.

7. Contact all the shelters and pounds within several miles.

If you do not find your dog within a certain amount of time, obviously you will start contacting the local pounds/shelters in your area.

It’s a good idea to contact the shelters within a large range such as the next town or county over in all directions or even further. Especially in rural areas, Lindsay said she has heard of dogs that are turned into shelters or humane societies over 50 miles from where they were last seen.

This could be because the dog covered a large distance or because the people who found the dog drove quite a ways to a shelter.

The point is, contact all the shelters in your region and keep contacting them. Often.

8. Have a recent photo of your dog on hand.

Keep a recent photo of your pet on your phone or by email that you can easily pass along to animal control, use on social media or put on posters.

What ideas do the rest of you have? What should you do if your dog runs away?

Obviously, the environment where Baxter and I live and walk is more rural and wooded as opposed to cities or neighbourhoods. And I give my dog a lot of freedom with off leash hiking and no fenced yard. Vehicles and more people add different considerations when you lose a dog.

I’d love to hear other people’s tips for finding a lost dog.

Losing your dog is scary no matter where you are. As dog owners, we want to do everything we can to prevent this dangerous, anxious scenario. However, if the worst happens, I hope that these tips on what to do if your dog runs away will help you reunite with your dog.

Have you ever lost your dog for any amount of time?

Do you have any recommendations on what to do if your dog runs away? Let us know in the comments.

Julia Preston is a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating. She and her family live on a 129-acre farm in Ontario, Canada.

Related posts:

What to know about off-leash hiking with your dog

Safety tips for hiking with your dog

Do dogs need a fenced yard?

How to train your dog to stay in the yard

Barbara Rivers

Monday 11th of December 2017

Your father in law's tip about leaving a piece of clothing behind on a trail is a great one!

Missy took off once when I had taken her and her brother for a rainy morning walk. We were about 200 feet from our home and since it started pouring all of a sudden, I figured we'd all be better off sprinting home, so I unclipped their leashes and told them "puppies, go home". Buzz was a good pup and ran right to our covered front porch, while Missy decided to take a slight detour via a neighbor's unfenced backyard, and into some woods behind their yard.

I couldn't believe it!! I forced myself to stay calm, took Buzz back inside, then opened the garage door because I figured she'd be right back. When she still hadn't returned 10 minutes later, Buzz & I hopped into my car and drove around the neighborhood, but I made sure to leave the garage door open.

We circled around the neighborhood once (about a 4 minute drive) - no Missy. We circled around again and when we came by our home the second time, who was in the garage?? A soaking wet Missy!!! I pulled into the garage, closed the garage door from within the car, and once it was closed and Missy secured, I praised the heck out of her for being such a good girl for coming back..although I really wanted to tell her to never scare Mommy like that again!!!

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Tuesday 12th of December 2017

Good for you for keeping your cool--as much as you can--and thinking to leave the garage door open. That's a really good tip, especially if people don't have a porch or other sheltered area for their dog to access on their own. And good for you for praising her too when she made her way home. It's hard to do but the right way to handle this scary situation.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 11th of December 2017

Oh my gosh, that would scare the heck out of me! So glad she came back.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 11th of December 2017

Remy will run off out of sight when we're hiking/running with him off leash. It makes me a little nervous but he stays close enough where he can hear and smell us. And he's never out of sight for more than a minute or 2. It's like he tries to be independent but he's pretty attached to us. Ace is one of those dogs who is pretty much at our side off leash.

While out running, I've come across a "lost" dog on occasion. What I've found is usually the dog is not actually lost but he's just a block or less from home and knows exactly how to get back. Once, I kept this small dog with me all day trying to track down the owners. He had a number on his tag but no address and they eventually answered. Turns out the dog lived a house or two away from where I'd found him. I think I should've just let him be.

Another time, a dog followed me on a run for five miles! He didn't have tags so I just let him follow me. When we eventually found the owners, they lived only a house or two from where I originally found the dog.

So, sometimes it's probably worth just waiting with the dog where you found him or knocking on a few doors close by. And if the dog seems calm and confident he might know exactly where he is.

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Monday 11th of December 2017

Regardless of whether the dog can find his own way home or not, I'm sure the owners appreciated your care in making sure their dogs were safe. Even though I feel like Baxter would have found me those two times that people found him, it means a lot that there are people looking out for my dog and willing to give their time to take care of him and get him back home.

Chessey Lynn

Monday 11th of December 2017

My dog doesn't go to far. When we are at the farm, sometimes he ignores my calling, I just tell him I'm leaving with out him and he comes galloping full-speed ahead back to me.

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Monday 11th of December 2017

I love the "No! Wait for me! I'm coming! I actually love you!"

Mike Rodrick

Sunday 10th of December 2017

My dog disappeared while I was in the shower due to my not having the door secured properly.I called the spca & the local animal control.He ended up being 2 blocks away at a local construction company & apparently approached some guys who were outside on their break.It got a call from animal control telling me where he is & when I got there he was tied to a picnic table wearing a flannel shirt that belonged to 1 of the guys there & water as well.Obviously they were dog lovers.When I picked him up, the guy told me that if no one came for him he was going to take him homeven because he was a great dog.Obviously I thanked him profusely especially for putting the shirt on him & giving him water.I was fortunate that he approached the right people who took great care of him.Not everyone is that kind.

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Sunday 10th of December 2017

Sounds like your dog found the right people. I love the image of him wearing that guy's shirt! In my experience, most people are very willing to help with lost dogs and make sure they're taken care of.

Laurie Longtine

Sunday 10th of December 2017

I had a rescue that thought her name was “g**d****t, get back here!” She was a regular escape artist. In addition to having her name and number on her collar, having her chipped, and calling all the shelters, I also called all the vets in the area. People would pick her up and drop her off at the nearest vet.

When I encounter lost dogs, if they have a rabies tag, I call the vet that issued the tag. They can give me the name of the owner when the dog was vaccinated. I also call the shelters to report the dog found. Our area also has a couple lost/found pets Facebook pages.

Julia at Home on 129 Acres

Sunday 10th of December 2017

A lot of good tips of different contacts to use for lost dogs. Thanks for sharing your experience.