How to find a lost pet? Science, patience and fried chicken

A Maryland volunteer group has helped thousands of pet owners with simple tricks and tasty treats

Published on: January 23, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 31, 2023 10:17 AM EST

Man holds his search and rescue dog as it sits on top of a cage.
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One autumn day in Ellicott City, Bolt lived up to his name.

The honey-colored shepherd mix was meeting a prospective foster family when he took off running. Humans chased after the dog, but he sped out of sight. The volunteers who had been trying to find him a foster home put up posters. Callers reported spotting the dog a few times, but he zoomed off when they got close.

It’s a dilemma that pet owners dread: When Fido or Fluffy escapes, how do you bring them home safely? The biggest problem, animal rescue experts say, is that most people initially do everything wrong.

“The things that seem intuitive to you are the exact opposite of what actually works to bring your pet home,” said Denise Harris, a co-founder of the Ellicott City-based nonprofit Lost Animal Resource Group or LARG. “You’re panicking. You’re going to run out there and send search parties out and scream your dog’s name and chase it — and chasing is the worst thing you can do. People have big hearts and think they’re helping, but they’re not.”

Two men talk over a wooden gate as they wait for the potential capture of an injured stray pitbull.

The key is to think like a dog, said Bob Swensen, another LARG co-founder. Dogs get overwhelmed when multiple people are calling their name. And when dogs are chased, instinct instructs them to keep running. In a short period of time (just how short depends on a dog’s temperament, life history and the events surrounding the escape) dogs switch into “survival mode.” Their bodies flood with adrenaline and they seek a water source and a safe shelter. All humans — even their beloved caretakers — appear to be threats.

“They’re not acting like your dog anymore,” said Swensen. “They’re acting like a wild animal who will do anything to survive.”

Swensen, Harris and their third partner, Carmen Brothers, formed LARG in 2019 after connecting through the community of pet trackers. Each trained with a Vancouver-based organization called the Missing Animal Response Network, which was founded in 2005 by Kat Albrecht-Thiessen, a former bloodhound-handling police detective.

“I knew how to train dogs to find people, and I started wondering why we didn’t have dogs that found dogs and cats,” said Albrecht-Thiessen.

Her organization has trained more than 600 people in the United States, Canada and other countries, who in turn have coached thousands of other volunteers and pet owners, she said. LARG maintains a network of volunteers who help find lost pets throughout the region. There are other groups, including some in the Baltimore area, who use a similar approach, but they received a different form of training.

The pet trackers recommend creating bold signs with a photo of a pet, the words “Lost. Do not chase,” and a phone number. There’s no need to explain your pet’s favorite food or quirky habits. The trackers recommend tacking up scores of simple flyers, posting in regional lost pet groups on Facebook and contacting shelters.

Another key part of Albrecht-Thiessen’s technique? Calm down and be quiet.

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“If someone contacts us and tells us they lost their dog and they have 15 people out there calling and yelling, we say, ‘Tell them all to go home,’” Swensen said. The noise and chaos only frightens a dog in survival mode and makes it more likely to run away, he said.

Instead, the LARG folks recommend setting up a feeding station for the dog, with food, water, and soft fabrics that smell like the people and other animals in their household. The station should be in a quiet spot near where the dog was last seen.

Man holds dog food in a plastic Tupperware container to feed a lost dog.

Then you wait.

The rescuers recommend letting the dog get comfortable with the feeding station and then using what they call “calming signals” to help them overcome their fear. That means crouching down low, not making eye contact, rustling food bags and strewing treats. Lots of treats. Preferably fried chicken, Swensen said.

“Dogs navigate by their sense of smell. If you’re a dog and you’re hungry and you smell fried chicken, you’re going to investigate,” said Swensen. (Just the meat, of course — chicken bones are dangerous for dogs.)

Swensen also employs fried chicken when he sets up a trap for a pet that won’t otherwise be captured. Earlier this month, Swensen, 59, hopped out of his navy blue minivan at the Owings Mills home of Becca and Larry Williams, who had seen a boxer mix roaming nearby. His hoodie and sweatpants were coated with a fine layer of fur and there were deep scratches on his hands and arms.

Becca Williams, a nanny, explained that the dog had been wandering around the wooded area for the past several days and it appeared to have injured its hind leg. The couples’ own beloved Tibetan terrier, Ebony, was working herself into a tizzy due to the other dog’s presence.

Larry Williams, who once handled a bomb-sniffing dog as part of his work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, began putting out food for the dog twice a day and called LARG for help. Swensen had already received calls from people who had spotted the dog on Stevenson University’s nearby campus.

Swensen, who runs a small IT business when not rescuing pets, set up a large metal trap that resembled a dog crate. Inside, he placed a soft towel, a bowl of water and dog treats. He hadn’t stopped for fried chicken, so he festooned the cage with Vienna sausages dangling from lengths of twine. He checked the two digital cameras affixed to the trap and spritzed the area with liquid smoke, a scent which he said attracts dogs.

Then the waiting began. It’s a nerve-wracking process. Sadly, there are times when pets never return home or they are found dead along roadways. The LARG team stresses the importance of prevention. Get pets microchipped and be sure they are wearing a collar with rabies tags and your contact information. Keep your eyes on your pets at all times. Don’t let a dog off-leash unless they’re contained by a sturdy fence. Don’t assume that an older animal won’t wander off; many geriatric pets gets confused or disoriented.

When there are no signs of the missing pet, Swensen and Brothers use their specially trained dogs to help them track down the animal. Brothers operates a side business doing this, which Swensen works for, and they charge a few hundred dollars for their services, plus travel costs and lodging. (LARG is supported by donations, and the team does not charge for their guidance or trapping services.)

Brothers, 43, who lives in Winchester, Virginia, tracks pets full time with the help of her working dogs: Magic, Trix and Rose. She has traveled to Hawaii, Maine and Florida, among other states, helping find more than 1,100 pets, including a Fennec fox, a turtle named Frank and a Capybara named Copernicus, she said.

The trackers start around the area the pet was last seen, especially if tipsters have recently spotted it. Lost dogs tend to head toward water sources and uninhabited areas, like the grassy swaths under massive power lines or scrubby woods at the edge of a highway, Brothers said.

Cats are a little trickier, Albrecht-Thiessen said. When indoor cats escape, they often hide near the home, freaked out by their newfound freedom. An outdoor cat that disappears might be injured or trapped. “When a cat is missing, you want to do an aggressive physical search,” Albrecht-Thiessen said. “Get permission from your neighbors to look on their property.”

Leaders in the Baltimore area’s pet rescue community say LARG’s techniques work. “They are extremely well-respected in the animal welfare community,” said Caroline Griffin, executive director of the Show Your Soft Side nonprofit.

“We think LARG is doing great work,” said Bailey Deacon, a spokeswoman for BARCS, the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter. “Bob and his volunteers are very passionate and connected.”

Facebook groups devoted to lost and found pets in the region (there are pages for Baltimore City and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard) are peppered with praise for the work of Harris, Swensen and Brothers.

Princess Joseph, a financial analyst, recently posted about how Swensen helped her reclaim Marshmallow, a boxer she had been dog sitting. Marshmallow wriggled off her leash earlier this month on a walk in a park near Joseph’s Essex home. Joseph posted in Facebook groups and tacked up fliers. Tipsters led them to a wooded stretch along busy state Route 702; Joseph quickly spotted the dog, who was pacing terrifyingly near traffic and would not answer to her name.

Joseph called Swensen, who told her Marshmallow was in survival mode. He set up a trap near the stream where Marshmallow had been drinking, loading it with fried chicken and other treats. The dog hesitated to go inside and Swensen, fearful of the heavy traffic, eventually managed to grab hold of her. After a trip to the vet and medicine for a minor skin irritation, Marshmallow was fine. “We couldn’t have done it without Bob,” Joseph said.

Like most dogs in survival mode, Marshmallow snapped out of it when back in familiar surroundings with food, water and loving people. Swensen said most dogs switch back into a normal way of being within minutes or hours of returning home.

As for the boxer mix who appeared behind the Williams’ house in Owings Mills, she never gave in to the allure of Vienna sausages and stayed out of the trap. However, people at Stevenson University were able to use calming signals to capture her and take her to a shelter, Swensen said.

An injured and scared stray dog freezes at the sound of people talking.

And then there’s Bolt.

Bolt fled his potential foster family in October 2020, underweight and having recently been neutered. He ran several miles through Ellicott City to a portion of Clark’s Elioak Farm, the home of the old fairy tale figures from the former Enchanted Forest park. There he romped along the woods near the Three Bears’ House, said Alex Levine, a project manager and a volunteer with Bolt’s rescue group, K-9 Lifesavers. Later, he appeared to befriend the dog of a nearby family and was spotted several times near their home.

Levine called LARG, and Swensen and Harris set up a trap. But Bolt managed to snap up the fried chicken without setting off the trap. Several times. Then he even carried away the video cameras.

Finally, in January 2021, three months after Bolt’s escape, Swensen and Harris set up a drop net, an item not often seen outside of Saturday morning cartoons. They lured Bolt to the spot with — what else — fried chicken. Then, poof! At long last, Bolt had been caught.

A photo of a tan dog wearing a harness, laying on a blue and white blanket.

“We wrapped him up like Hannibal Lecter,” said Levine, describing the multiple harnesses, collars and leashes she and other volunteers used to secure the dog. She decided to bring Bolt to her Canton home to prevent future escape acts. “But once I got him home, he was oddly perfect.”

Indeed, Bolt got along wonderfully with Levine’s dog and was a perfect gentleman, despite three months of rough living. The vet said he had an easily treatable illness from a tick bite and, remarkably, had gained 10 pounds during his odyssey. “Honestly, I think it was all that fried chicken,” said Levine.

Even better, in a couple months, the K-9 Lifesavers matched Bolt with an “amazing” family, she said.

“They are smitten with him and he is smitten with them,” Levine said.

The dog’s new owners, perhaps fearing the implications of the old name, have given him a new one: Wally.

Keeping Pets Safe:

BARCS and LARG offer the following tips to pet owners to prevent losing a pet:

  • Keep rabies and license tags on your pet at all times. Ensure tags have your current address and phone number. Write your name and phone number directly on the pet’s collar in case tags fall off.
  • Have your pet microchipped. This is an identification device that is inserted under the skin on the back of the animal’s neck. You can purchase a microchip at BARCS low-cost, public clinics or from your veterinarian. Be sure to register your microchip on the chips registry and with Michelson Found Animals (free lifetime registration and updates).
  • Keep your pet properly restrained with a leash and collar or harness. Consider a GPS collar for dogs with a tendency to wander. Do not allow pets to run off-leash anywhere except for a fenced yard.
  • Do not leave your pet outside unsupervised.

Finding a Lost Pet:

  • Stay calm. Don’t scream at or chase a lost pet.
  • Remain in the spot where you last saw your dog. Create a comfort station in a nearby protected location with food, water and soft items that smell like loved ones.
  • Put up simple posters with the pet’s image and your phone number. Post in local lost pet groups on Facebook. Call area shelters.
  • When you spot your dog, use calming signals to lure it to safety. Get down low, don’t make eye contact, rustle food bags and scatter treats.