What to do (and not to do) if your dog goes missing in cottage country

Bear, Greg's dog on the day he was found after going missing Bear shortly after he was found. Photo courtesy of Greg McLeod.

One of the joys of going to the cottage is sharing the experience with your family and friends, and that includes furry family members. So when Greg McLeod set out for his cottage in French River, Ont., this past Canada Day weekend, he and his wife, Julianne, brought Bear, their nine-month-old golden retriever with them. Bear was no stranger to the cottage. He had been around fireworks before, but out of an abundance of caution, Greg and Julianne had Bear leashed and on a harness during the festivities. But when the first boom went off, Bear bolted, and Julianne lost her grip on his leash. What followed was a chaotic 61-hour search for Bear featuring sleepless nights, countless search parties, beef broth, and a little luck. The ending was a happy one, with Bear appearing less than a kilometre from where he disappeared, but if Greg were to do it all over again, there are some things he would have done differently after speaking with pet recovery experts. 

What to do in the first few hours your dog goes missing

Getting the word out to the community is the first step you should take after your dog goes missing, says Denise Coulombe, a trained animal search and rescue technician in Fredericton, N.B. and the co-founder of the Maritime Animal Response Team. She recommends starting with local veterinarians, animal shelters, and SPCAs so they are aware in case someone brings in a lost dog. 

Spread the word on social media, but beware of scammers

Social media platforms, specifically Facebook, are great because you can join cottage and town-specific groups in your area and share posts to notify people in the community to be on the look out for a missing dog. The community can notify you of animal sightings, which can help inform search efforts, says Coulombe. “In many communities, there are Facebook pages and groups called lost and found pets in various towns and cities.” Once you start putting your information out there, beware of scammers. Greg received several text messages and calls from people claiming to have either seen or to have caught Bear. “After two days of no leads, I’m standing on my neighbour’s dock, and I get a text message: ‘I’ve found Bear.’ You’re desperate and you’re emotionally fragile, so you have to be careful,” says Greg.

If people do contact you about a possible sighting, Coulombe suggests that owners ask for:

  • The exact location the dog was spotted
  • The direction it was headed
  • A description of the dog (to avoid mistaken identity)

What to include on a sign for a missing pet

Coulombe has a specific strategy that she uses when posting signs to ensure they are seen in high-traffic areas. “I recommend using big corrugated bristol board in a neon colour that follows the 55/55 rule: five words that can be read in five seconds at 55 kilometres an hour and include a picture of the dog and use specific words such as ‘Lost dog, if spotted, call immediately.’ Put them at intersections, along the road where the dog ran off, and at coffee shops and gas stations. Even if the nearest gas station is a 40-minute drive from your cottage, if it’s the only one around, it’s likely heavily trafficked. Not to mention, Coulombe says dogs can travel up to 30 kilometres a day, depending on their size, so you want to cast a wide net.

  • Spread the word on social media
  • Notify nearby vets, animal shelters, and the SPCA
  • Create scent trails leading out from the last place your dog was seen or at your cottage (see scent tips) 

What not to do when your dog goes missing

“Our natural reaction when you see a running dog is to call out to them or try and catch them,” says Coulombe “That’s a big no-no because when a dog escapes, generally it will go into flight mode. It’s a physiological response that occurs when an animal feels threatened,” says Coulombe. With that in mind, you want to avoid doing the following:

  • Don’t chase the dog
  • Don’t call out to the dog
  • Don’t approach the dog

What should you do if you find a lost dog

  • Check it for tags with contact information
  • Take it to a vet or shelter (they can scan a microchip if the dog has one) 
  • Post in local community groups on Facebook

What you should do if you are the owner and you see the dog

  • Get on the dog’s level, lay on the ground
  • Call out softly
  • Prepare a food bowl
  • Always carry pungent treats with you

Scent tips

  • Beef broth
  • Bacon grease
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Dirty clothes with your scent (anything with a strong scent)

Tips for loss prevention and recovery of a dog

  • Microchip 
  • Up-to-date tags
  • GPS tracker
  • Don’t offer a monetary reward, this attracts scammers

Helpful resources

Note: Some are paid help, and some are free. It’s expensive to conduct recovery efforts and organizations like MART depend on donations.

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