Reprinted with permission by Mel at No Dog About it Blog

Cupcake’s first day home after being lost for 12 days.

I was reminded once again this past weekend how much we dog owners don’t know about missing pets. That’s not a judgement in any way,  just an observation. So few of us really know or understand what happens to a pet when they become lost.

This past weekend someone asked me why any lost dog would not just go to their owner once they saw them. It’s a good question. I think most of us just assume that our own dogs would come running to us as soon as they saw us. After all, we’ve cared for them, fed them, cuddled with them and loved them. But, sadly that is not the case for every lost dog – even your lost dog.

I first read this story (Dog Lost for Four Months Recognizes Family by Whistle)  on Life With Dogs back in October. It’s a good example of how a lost dog can become confused and disoriented when they are lost for several days or months. Luna, the dog in the story, was missing for four months. When her family finally found her again, she didn’t recognize them, and even walked away from them when they arrived to be reunited with her. It took two days, six visits and a distinctive whistle by the owner, for her to realize it was them. What had been a puzzling circumstance finally resulted in a happy reunion for all.

As many of us already know, not all dogs are created equal (if they were our lives would be pretty boring!). Some dogs are happy-go-lucky, love people and other dogs, while others are much more wary and unsure. Puppy mill dogs are especially wary of strangers. They’re also more skittish. They are less likely to stick around and see if the human approaching them is “their” human or someone intending to harm them. As a result, they are much harder to catch and usually have to be trapped.

But a dog does not have to be a puppy mill dog to react this way. Many lost dogs tend to go into “survival mode”. They are frightened, unsure, hungry, tired (exhausted) and on constant alert. In many cases, they are fending for their lives. The longer they live in this state the less likely they are to recognize their owner on sight – and in fact, they are less likely to stick around and wait to see if it if the person approaching them is their owner.

A year ago this week, my foster dog, Cupcake, was missing. As a lost dog and owner, Cupcake and I had a lot going against us finding one another again – she was a puppy mill dog, had only been with me a little over a month, and was frightened of strangers. She was dodging traffic, coyotes and people in the twelve days she was missing. Talk about being in survival mode – she was definitely in it.

When we finally were able to see each other again it was at a warehouse loading dock. Even as people blocked all her avenues of escape, she continued to run back and forth, trying to find a way out. I was standing right there and she didn’t even recognize me. I called her name and she kept running. I asked if she wanted to go home to see Daisy and Jasper (my other two dogs) and she stopped for a second, then keep running – she was in survival mode, searching for a way out.

It wasn’t until I sat down with my body turned sideways from her, with my head bowed down and avoided eye contact with her, that she came close enough to smell me. I still remember the moment she started to realize it was me. She lifted her nose to the air and sniffed me. Then she moved closer and sniffed again. When she finally got close enough to really sniff me, and to hear my voice, she sighed. It was at that very moment she realized it was me. She leaned into me. She finally knew she was safe.

All lost dogs act differently. As owners, we need to know that before our pet goes missing.

We need to know that chasing a lost dog is one of the worst things we can do. It only reaffirms to the dog that people should be avoided.

So what should you do when you encounter a lost dog or your own lost dog?

  • Sit down.
  • Turn your body so your back or side is to the dog.
  • Keep your eyes averted and bow your head so as to look non-threatening.
  • Toss tasty treats (hot dogs, chicken, smelly cheese, etc.) behind you or to the side of you.
  • Don’t talk.
  • Wait patiently for the dog to approach you. Don’t make any sudden movements, but continue to toss treats.
  • Don’t grab the dog when they get close, but wait patiently and build trust.
  • Speak softly, but if they back away, stop talking and just continue to toss treats until they trust you enough to come closer.

Cupcake – Happy to be back home!

24 Responses to “Why your lost dog may not run back to you.”

  1. Joey

    Thanks for telling your story. When you get a dog spend every minute trying to find that one thing that is irresistible to them. I found my rottie went nuts for a laser pointer or beam of light. Yes it was bad for cars… But the one time she got free I grabbed my 2 items and just light guiding a plane to land i used those items to get her to do a u turn and come chase the light thru the main door and back home.

  2. Angie

    I had a German Sheppard named Bobbie who had been abused before I got her and would only respond to me. Being only 8 years old, that was an honor to me. We were “soul mates” from first meeting. No one understood the connection between us but it. Or that was how it felt.
    My aunt and uncle had a fenced in yard and were to watch her while my family went on vacations. When we returned I discovered that Bobbie had jumped the fence (I think to find me) within the first hour there. They had tried all week to catch her with no luck. I cried myself to sleep all the next week. We went back that weekend to go look some more for her and I spotted her as we drove into the neighborhood.
    My mother had to force me to stay in the car til it stopped and I jumped out, crying with joy and started calling her the way I always did when I got home from school. Bobbie turned immediately toward me and came running almost knocking me over.

    • Jeanette

      I had a German Shepherd and he would escape from my new apartment and find his way to our childhood home, which was about 3 miles away! I had no idea how he knew what direction to take.



  4. Janelle

    Thank you for posting! Very informative! I have a 6 yr old Sheltie that rarely leaves my side…would be heart breaking if she got lost! Now I kno what to expect and what to do if she did

  5. Susan

    This is really great information from the pets perspective. I have 2 litter mates and they are best buddies. They have different coats and 1 goes to the groomer frequently, the other once a year. They pine for each other when they’re separated. I’ll definitely use the other for enticement if they ever get loose.

    The one trick I’ve had to use twice, and it worked great both times, was when they got out of the yard because someone had left the gate open. My grandpa said if a dog looked upon you as it’s leader, it would follow you anywhere. So, I took off running in the direction I wanted the dogs to go and both times they did follow me straight back to the yard.

  6. Tif Ross

    This is a good post. I wish I would’ve heard some tricks earlier. As I have seen dogs run from people a couple times, when they are on the loose. Once, even saw a poor puppy eventually get hit:( after probably at least 20 people tried to stop the people in opposite incoming traffic in Reno. It was super sad. It kinda of incredibly hard to catch some dogs sometimes, who have strayed or gotten loose from their yard. Some come to you, but most I think don’t. It real hard to catch the dog to find its’ owner a lot of times, especially depending on the dog or breed. :(

  7. Dennis V.

    Thank you kelly for posting the great info., its always good to have a happy ending^O^ and cupcake is beautiful… people in general including myself really don’t think of this kind of info. (what the dog is thinking/going thru) we assume that they will know us the minute they see or hear us and come running to us…I have a golden retriever/husky mix 4yr.old dog that i got at six weeks old,i noticed while raising/training him that he mostly identifies things thru smell, including myself, i take him everywhere with me we’re kinda inseperable,when i go grocery shopping , one place i don’t bring him…when i get home i noticed that he goes in my bathroom and always takes my bath towel and brings it to his bed and curls up with it, he doesn’t take any of my clothes or shoes, just my bath towel, i always give him a treat when i get home, so when i do go out without him and get home he expects a treat when i walk thru the door,he doesn’t always respond everytime i call for him, but knows the word treat and imediatley comes when he hears the word ^O^, i hope and pray he never gets lost and its heartwrenching when i see a post of a family that loses a dog or a family pet, thank you again for the great info.and welcome back home cupcake!!!

  8. Tracy

    Good advice, and might I add that if your lost dog has companion dogs at home, you may want to bring them along when trying to reclaim your lost pet. I have fostered several dogs who are “broken” in one way or another, and many times my “normal” dogs have been the ice breaker in getting these frightened souls over their fear of human contact. It won’t work in every case, but moe often than not, it does.

    • Linda

      That’s exactly what I do Tracy. I have a puppy mill Husky I adopted. The husky breed is something of an escape artist. And they cover some ground! I have a very stable golden retriever who is the huskies best friend. I brought her with me on the search. The golden led me right to the husky and the husky came to the golden. Perfect catch!

      • Becky

        I also have a husky. He’s not a puppy mill dog, but he is a very used, abused and neglected husky. He first came to me about 8 months? or so ago and I tracked down his owner. At that time, seeing no signs of abuse of abuse or neglect (key word “seeing”) I had no choice but to give him back with no questions asked. When I saw that they were putting him on a tether, I did, however, offer to call a friend that builds fences to get dogs off chains for the community, and I also offered to pay to have the dog neutered out of my pocket myself as well as pay any vet costs if he needed rabies or booster shots. I thought, these weren’t bad people, they just needed a little help. The husky came back to me on July 5th, ribs and spine showing, dehydrated, eating all the food I put in front of him and with a cable hanging from his collar. My husband was walking one of our other dogs when he showed up in our yard and he didn’t know my husband and wouldn’t go near him, so my husband knocked on the window to get me outside because he remembered me talking about the husky I took back months before. When I went outside, the husky instantly remembered me and ran to me as weak as he was, and gave me kisses and hugs! He wasn’t ok with my hubby until I had hubby bring out food and water for him. I decided right then that I was going to do whatever I had to do to make sure he never went back to his abuser…I was able to convince the owner to surrender the husky to me w/o a fight and he has been here since. He has escaped once, and I found him w/in 30 mins.. He came right to me, but getting him in my truck was a bit tougher as he wanted to stay and play w/the neighbors dog. I am usually really good w/gaining the trust of scared dogs, abused or otherwise, but there have been a few exceptions to that. I have even been able to gain the trust of some very feral cats and tame them enough to find them homes. Thank you so much for your tips! Even as long and as much as I try to “help” dogs, I never looked at it that way. But I’ve only ever once seen a dog not want to go to their owners on the occasions of abuse w/the exception of one of my childhood dogs that was missing for the better part of a year….but again, my parents didn’t care much for the dog and only got him out of revenge against the neighbors who let their dogs run loose, so thought it would be good payback if ours caused mischief also. He wouldn’t go to my mom, but he saw me, and came running! He tackled me giving me kisses!

  9. WoodyD

    Thanks for these tips – I had no idea. We’ve been fortunate never to have lost any of our shelties. It always breaks my heart to see those “lost dog” posters for any dog. Now if I’m ever in that situation, I’ll at least understand more how the dog must be feeling and approach it properly. So glad Cupcake is home!

  10. Molly

    One of my Welsh Springers acted like this after being lost for just two hours! She was normally a super-confident girl who loved everyone but even after such a short time lost, she ran away from me when I called. I lay down on my front (on the sand fortunately) and didn’t look at her while I repeated the names of her two daughters whom I also own. That was enough to bring her within sniffing range and she then recognised me. I was amazed at how quickly she became disorientated on a beach that we walk on every day.

    So glad you got Cupcake home safely!

  11. Jeannie

    Thank you for posting this. So many don’t realize these very things about our fur kids. Working in rescue, we are faced with the scared pup all the time and even in a foster home, these tips are invaluable to help a new foster develop that trust when moving in. The key is to present yourself as non-threatening in any way shape or form. Not only to remind a companion who you are but to lessen the threat of a scared dog bite.

  12. Dianne

    Thank you so much for letting everyone be aware of how dogs will act differently when lost, and also when they are found again….
    We lost our Kelly one night when some neigbours set off foreworks, and she fleeed in run mode ..Thankfully some of our neigbours found her that night sitting in the water…and when I arrived she took a few moments before she came to me, and then it was total reliefand happiness on both our parts! We were so afraid that she would head up the hill towards the highways, or meet up with the coyotes!

  13. Amy

    Back in 1997 my Sheltie, Bleu, ran off while in the care of a relative ( out of State ) while we ran to the store. After searching, calling, and even renting a helicopter ( to look from above since it was early spring and there weren’t leaves on the trees yet ) for 2 weeks, we, and his sister Pinkie our other Sheltie, heartwrenchingly, had to leave and get back to work. We had people there still looking and checking every few days at the shelter for us. The months kept going by ( 7 to be exact ). I had given up hope of ever seeing him again. Then one day we got a call from a lady who said she thought she saw our boy. The calls she had to make to find us was astounding. This was before the internet was as widely used as today. She first went to the police department to see if anyone reported a dog missing matching his description. She had them go through this big book, all the way back to 7 months previous and got our name and number. But, we had moved and changed our number during that time. She called everyone with my maiden name, at the time, in Wisconsin, and everyone where that name was mentioned in the limited resources online. Somehow, she got a hold of the realtor my parents used when they moved to northern Wisconsin. He in turn went to my sisters house and asked her if anyone in our family had lost a dog in Pennsylvania. He gave her Lisa’s ( our angels’ name ) number. I happened to be sick and off work at the time. I called her and she told me she thinks she found Bleu. She and her husband got a live trap from the Humane Society and took turns that night to try and catch him. They did. We got a call the next morning from the Humane Society telling us they think they have our boy, and could we describe him. I told them he has his name tattooed in his ear ( before microchipping, this was the next best was of permanently ” marking ” them ). They told us they have our boy!! My ( now ex ) husband hopped in the shower and drove non-stop there to get him. He recognized his Daddy immediately, even after all the time he was on his own. Well, he finally made it home after 7 long months on his own. He passed away in 2006. He was and always be my ” heart ” dog. Pinkie passed away a few months after him, mostly from a broken heart after losing Bleu for a 2nd time. But they both now reside in my nightstand in urns, for when I pass away, they can be finally laid to rest with their mommy :)

    • Susan

      This just brought tears to my eyes. What a miracle! I fully understand about the urns by the beside. Those are my plans, too. Thank you for sharing. This is definitely devoted unconditional love!

      • Gloria

        OMG –

        I am so thankful to know the story had a happy ending!
        I was also in tears reading it. Thank God there are people in this world that would go the extra mile to help a lost animal and try to reunite it with its owner.

        Thanks for posting this information… I had no idea about most of the points made…
        I am sure it will help those in the future…

        Thanks for sharing!

  14. Valerie

    Great article!!! Thanks so very much for the do’s and dont’s. Our adrenline is running and we are not thinking clearly in these situations. Will share on my page.

    Thanks, Val

  15. Ann

    OMG this is so interesting ,I didn’t have a clue.I never experienced this situation either .It is still nice to know. So glad you are all reunited and happy. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Julie (aka MaggieMae

    Thank you for this wonderful advice! We have adopted Shelties and have the scariest times when they got away without really knowing us well. Our newest girl is very shy and has been abused. She slipped out of her Martingale collar 3x during the first month – it was so difficult to get her to come back. Now she will stay right near us even if we happen to drop the leash. Your advice is perfect for those of us who have skittish Shelties!!

  17. Sullivan

    Thank you Kelly for these good tips, there is a lot of useful information here. There are a lot of things I didn’t know, and sure hope I never have to implement.

    • Sullivan

      I’m really so very sorry, I forgot the single MOST important part of my post . . . WAHOO!!! WELCOME HOME CUPCAKE. Who would be more happy in this situation, you or Cupcake? I’ll say a prayer for you and your family tonight.


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