How to find a lost dog: 10 steps to recovering your canine

How to find a lost dog
(Image credit: Getty)

While we all hope it will never happen to us, it’s important to know how to find a lost dog in the event that your dog somehow gets loose and runs off. Even the best-natured dogs, who love their owners and families wholeheartedly, may run away if they are scared by a strange sound or distracted by an enticing scent. If this happens, panic is a completely natural reaction! Fortunately, a 2012 survey conducted by the ASPCA found that 93% of lost dogs are eventually found by their owners. Ensuring your dog is wearing one of the best pet trackers can provide an instant solution but it also pays to learn what you can do in the days after your dog goes missing  to further boost the odds that you will recover your canine companion.

1. Determine whether your dog has a microchip and, if so, update your contact information

A microchip is a small identification chip that is implanted between a dog’s shoulders. When scanned at a veterinary clinic or animal shelter, a microchip transmits a personalized identification code to the scanner. The veterinarian or animal shelter can then contact the microchip manufacturer, provide the pet’s personalized microchip code, and obtain the owner’s contact information. 

If your dog has a microchip, this offers a big advantage in relocating your dog. Call the microchip company immediately, to let them know your dog is missing and ensure they have your current contact information. Even if you don’t remember having your dog microchipped, search your records. Rescue groups, animal shelters, and even some dog breeders microchip pets before sending them to their new homes. Many veterinarians also recommend microchipping at the time of spay/neuter surgery, so you may have authorized this service without remembering it. 

2. Contact your veterinarian to report that your dog is missing

Even if your dog isn’t wearing an identification tag on his collar, he may be wearing a rabies tag. In many cases, these rabies tags can be traced to the veterinarian that administered the dog’s rabies vaccine. Call your veterinarian to report your dog missing. Ensure that they have your current contact information, in case someone calls them to report that they have found your dog. 

3. Contact local animal shelters and animal control departments

If someone finds your dog wandering the neighborhood, there’s a good chance they will call animal control or take your dog to a shelter. Contact all of the shelters and animal control departments in your area (the Humane Society of the United States recommends calling all shelters within a 60 mile radius) and provide them with information on your dog. Be prepared to provide a detailed description and to email or deliver a recent color photograph. 

4. Contact local veterinary hospitals

Although most people will contact animal control or a shelter when they find a stray dog, some people may choose to keep the dog for themselves. If they do so, they are likely to take the dog to the veterinarian for a checkup to see if the dog is healthy. Make a list of veterinary hospitals in your area, then send information on your dog to each hospital. Especially if your dog has a unique appearance, this can help veterinary team members be on the lookout for a new patient that matches your dog’s description.

5. Search your neighborhood at various times of day

Your missing dog may remain nearby, wandering your neighborhood in pursuit of smells or other distractions. Walk or drive around your neighborhood several times a day, at different times. Look for your dog and call him. If you see people out walking, ask them whether they’ve seen your dog. 

6. Walk your neighborhood with your dog’s best canine friend

Dogs that are away from home are often anxious. Even though you are their owner and their family, they may be hesitant to approach you for any number of reasons. In some cases, the sight and smell of a familiar dog friend can help set your dog at ease. If you have another dog, or there is another dog in your neighborhood that your dog loves, consider taking that dog with you when you go for walks to search for your dog. 

7. Post flyers in your neighborhood

Lost dog flyers can be a big help. If possible, include a color photo. List specific identifying characteristics that might help someone confirm your dog’s identity. However, you may want to consider omitting one small detail from your description, so that you can easily screen phone calls from anyone who claims to have your dog. 

Post flyers on signs, light poles, and on community bulletin boards. Be sure to include your phone number, email address, or other contact information and monitor your messages and email closely. Consider offering a reward, if you are able to do so. 

8. Visit local animal shelters on a regular basis

Although you’ve left your information with the animal shelter, it’s best to look for yourself. If your dog has been missing for a few days, he may not look quite the same as he did in the photo you took when he was freshly groomed. Try to visit nearby shelters daily, to maximize the chance of seeing your dog if he was brought into the shelter.

9. Use social media to your advantage

While flyers work well to target a specific neighborhood, social media messages are often widely shared. Your social media connections can likely relate to the stress and pain of losing a pet, so they will be willing to help spread your message. This may help your messaging reach a larger audience. 

10. Set up a comfy “home base” for your dog

At the end of the first day, when you are about to go to bed, set up a comfy spot for your dog on your front porch (or wherever you last saw him). Include your best dog food, water bowl, and dog bed, as well as a few items that smell like you. That way, if your dog wanders by during the night, he is more likely to stop and get comfortable, allowing you to find him in the morning. 

Don't panic and don't give up

When debating how to find a lost dog, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and panic. Remind yourself that most lost dogs are successfully reunited with their families. You can increase the likelihood of a successful reunion by remaining calm, rational, and persistent in your efforts to follow these ten steps to finding your dog. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at