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Working a search dog on a scent trail.
Working a dog on a scent trail for a lost dog or cat.
We have already looked at several examples of a search dog working a scent trail to find a lost dog. What I would like to add here is an analysis of the strategy on how to handle the search. You might think, you start at the beginning and follow the scent, so no real strategy should be involved. That’s true to some extent, but there still are some things to consider.
1. Should a scent trailing dog even be used on this particular case?
2. Is the scent article viable? What do you do if it turns out not to be?
3. What conditions should you work in and when would you stop a search?
4. Can a search dog decrease the chances a dog would be found in some cases?
5. A search dog’s success rate is mostly a function of what cases you take on. Should you shoot for a certain percentage of successes?
For most of the cases where I am asked to search for a lost dog, I will tell them that they would be better off using other methods, not because the search dog is somehow inadequate but because the conditions would favor other methods. The reasoning below explains when you should or should not use a scent trialing dog.
Two of my dogs, Fozzie and Valentino, are trained to follow the scent trail of a missing dog. I would estimate there are fewer than one hundred dogs in the United States who are trained for this job. Perhaps thousands of dogs are trained to find missing people, but those dogs are specifically taught to ignore the scent of dogs, so they can focus on people. Trailing dogs that find dogs are specifically trained to ignore humans and only search for the missing dog.
A scent trailing dog can be somewhat expensive, in some people’s view, and the search dog is not guaranteed to be successful. (I am currently charging $350 to bring Tino out for a search lasting about three hours on average. This is less than the cost of a typical vet visit.) Kelsy, my first search dog, searched for more than 350 dogs in her 8-year career. She found about 20% of those dogs, in the sense that she followed the scent trail to the current location of the dog, or the dog’s remains. A search dog’s success rate is of course dependent on her ability to follow a scent, but a dog’s success rate over an entire career is much more dependent on the search conditions for each case and the amount of time that has elapsed since a sighting. The best search dog in the world would have a low percentage of finds if he mostly worked cases in which the scent trail was fairly old. Kelsy provided a direction of travel on over two-thirds of her searches. Also, in about half of her cases, the missing dog had been picked up by someone before she ever started searching, so there was no dog to be found at the end of the scent trail. Kelsy’s success rate was typical of dogs who search for humans, or perhaps a little better. The search dog is only one tool, and not always the best match for certain situations. When people hear of a dog that searches for lost dogs, many people think, “Great! Come out and find my dog!” It is rarely as simple or as easy as that.
Should you hire a search dog? Should you invest the time and money in a technique that is not guaranteed to be successful? I would if my dog were missing, and if the conditions were right. It covers an avenue of discovery that is not easily covered by other means. Also, just because one method has a relatively low chance of succeeding doesn’t mean you should not try it. For example, if there are one hundred houses in your neighborhood, then there is only a one percent chance your lost dog will be at a particular house. It is statistically unlikely that you will find your dog at any particular house you look at. Does that mean you shouldn’t look? Of course not. It means you need to look at all one hundred houses, if possible, to improve your odds of finding your dog. Likewise, the use of a search dog is statistically unlikely to lead you to the exact current location of your dog, in most cases, but it is a method you might want to try, to make sure you cover that possibility. According to records I’ve kept since 2008, dogs simply come home on their own about 25% of the time. Large posters, when created properly and posted in the right place, get your dog back around 20% of the time. They are found by the search dog in about 20%-25% of the searches we do (which is a relatively small percentage of all the lost dogs out there.). A dog is located by social media about 20% of the time. The lost dog is found at the shelter in about 15% of cases. Other ways of finding your dog include a thorough physical search, using a humane trap, using an automated calling service, and other techniques. Although the search dog pinpoints the lost dog in only 20% to 25% of search attempts, that doesn’t mean it is less successful than other search methods. If your dog is currently at the shelter, then he wouldn’t be found by posters or search dogs. If your dog is running along trails in a ravine, then checking the shelter isn’t going to be the answer. The point is to use as many means of recovering your dog as possible, in order to improve your chances of finding him.
When Kelsy found the dogs she found, it was highly unlikely they would have been found by other means. One dog, Charlie, was completely hidden in a patch of brambles, invisible from the street. The owner could have walked by him all day long and never have known he was there. When Kelsy found the remains of a dog named Cookie, the evidence was nearly invisible and easy to overlook. The owners had walked by that spot several times already and they had not noticed the evidence. That key evidence would likely have never been found, if not for Kelsy’s nose, and the owners would never have known what happened to Cookie. They could have checked the shelters, waved posters, and done everything else on the list, but they would not have discovered what happened to Cookie without taking the step of hiring the search dog. In one of Valentino’s first searches, he followed a scent trail and located an elderly, deaf dog, who was stuck in deep mud, unable to move, deep in the forest. This dog would not have been found by any other means, and the search dog saved this dog’s life. A search dog won’t be successful every time, but he can cover aspects of searching that the other search methods won’t address.
To help you decide if the search dog is best for your circumstances, the list below tells you the conditions and situations where a search dog is most likely to be useful:
-- When you have a scent article that is uncontaminated. A search dog usually needs some article that has your dog’s scent, such as a collar or a bed that she slept on. It works best if the missing dog was the only pet who touched that item. I would not recommend a search dog, usually, if the only scent articles smell like another dog or cat in the house as well. Theoretically, a dog can be trained to smell a scent article with the scent of multiple animals, then smell all the animals who are not lost, and then search for the dog that is missing. In practice, it’s hard enough to follow a scent trail while using an uncontaminated scent article. Using a mixed scent makes the job much more difficult.
-- When your dog was last seen less than 48 hours ago. Ideally, the search dog would start on the scent trail within a few hours. That almost never happens, as it usually takes a while for the dog owner to learn that a search dog is even an option. The oldest scent trail that has been documented as being followed successfully was thirteen days old. In that case, the lost people had died, and the search dog was able to catch up because they were no longer moving. Practically speaking, if you are thirteen days behind the dog you are looking for, you could be on the right scent trail all day long and never get any closer. Scent is strongest when it is freshest, and the viability and practicality of a scent trail diminish rapidly over time. Generally, with all other conditions being favorable, if the search dog starts within 3 hours of a sighting, he would have a 90% chance of success; after 12 hours, 70%; after 24 hours, 50%; 48 hours, 25%; 3 days, 12%; 5 days, 8%; 7 days, 5%; 14 days, less than 1%. If the last sighting is over two days old, you are usually better off trying to generate a fresh sighting, and then starting the search dog on a fresher trail. The sooner a search dog can start, the higher his odds of success. However, I wouldn’t just automatically recommend that everyone hire a search dog within 3 hours of your dog going missing because most people are going to find their dogs by other search methods within the first 12 hours. So, the age of the scent trail is just one factor. Fozzie located a dog that had not been seen for 10 days, and I actually thought this dog was a good candidate for the search dog because it was very likely that he was circling the area of the cabin in the woods where he was last seen. The scent trail Fozzie followed to find this lost dog was probably about three days old. In one special case, Tino followed a scent trail 20 days old. That was an unusual case, and I wouldn’t recommend a search dog for a scent trail that old, in most cases.
-- When the missing dog is of a type and a personality that it is unlikely she would be picked up by anyone. Cute little friendly dogs are usually picked up by the first person they meet, so the scent trail would be very short. Bigger dogs who like adventure, or who are skittish of strangers, are more likely to keep running, leaving a scent trail that can be followed. If a small dog or puppy was picked up and carried or driven away, the search dog is usually not going to be effective.
-- When the weather is cool and moist. Hot, dry, windy conditions dissipate the scent, making it very difficult for the trailing dog. If your dog is missing in the hottest part of the summer, it would be better to do the search in the cool hours of the early morning, or not at all. Search dogs can also search in the snow, in many cases.
Hiring a search dog is not a substitute for the other ways of finding a lost dog, such as posters, fliers, social media, checking shelters, and simply getting out there to perform a quick grid search. In a certain percentage of cases, the search dog will turn out to be the one successful method, but this is statistically unlikely. If your dog is at the shelter, in someone’s home, or ten days and dozens of miles ahead of the search dog, then a search dog is probably not going to be that helpful. A search dog is best used in conjunction with all the other methods of finding your dog. I would be happy to discuss your dog’s situation and help you decide if a search dog could be helpful.
There are situations where the search dog could hurt the chances of catching the dog. If you know generally where your dog is, and there have been repeated sightings in one location, then you either need calming signals or a humane trap, not a search dog. In fact, on many cases where we were searching for a lost dog, when I saw that we were getting close and the dog might be chased out of the area, I stopped Tino and stayed out of the dog’s comfort zone. Tino was denied many “walk up finds” in his success ratio because we stopped the search in order to avoid making the lost dog feel like he was being chased. We either set a trap or had the owner do calming signals. Some people ask for the search dog when they really don’t need one, when a trap or the proper approach would be more effective.
About the scent article: in the case of Ella, the little white dog that ran into the ravine, I was told there was a good scent article. When we got there, it was clearly contaminated, as I could see more black fur than white. We did the best we could until Tino came upon some fur that Ella had left on a blackberry vine across a trail. Using this for the scent article, he was able to get a much better lock on the track, and followed the scent trail successfully for over a mile. In the recent case of George, we knew the scent article was contaminated before we started and I told the owners we probably wouldn’t be successful. They wanted us to try anyway, and we did. It was not a successful search in any sense. I have told people that we would not be able to do a search when they didn’t have a good scent article. Even if someone can’t make use of a search dog, that doesn’t mean they won’t find their dog. They can still use all of the other techniques.
Several factors influence the search dog’s chances of success.
1. How old the scent trail is.
2. What actually happened to the dog, which you can’t know ahead of time.
3. Temperature and humidity.
4. Private property.
5. Distractions such as many dogs in the area.
6. Difficult or dangerous terrain.
The ideal situation is to start search for the lost dog right after he went missing. I almost never recommend that because most dogs will be found by a simple search, or with fliers and posters. There can be circumstances where we would start with the search dog right away, such as, if the terrain or conditions are such that a visual search is unlikely to be successful, perhaps in a camping or hiking scenario. Also, if the dog has a health issue and needs to found right away, perhaps if he was hit by a car. The ideal weather would be 35 degrees, with light rain. The ideal neighborhood would be one where there are no fences and all the neighbors have agreed to allow the search dog. We almost never get to search in ideal circumstances. The question is, how many challenges are you willing to take on and still think your dog could have a reasonable chance of success? Another question that comes up is when to stop a search if the conditions turn bad. If it gets too hot, you have to stop. If your dog is panting too much, he won’t be able to follow the scent trail very well, or at all. That’s how you can spot a fake. There is someone in Washington state who regularly works his dogs during the warmest part of the day in the summer. There is zero chance those dogs are actually able to follow a scent trail under those conditions. Other conditions that can change would be if the scent trail leads you to dangerous roads or dangerous topography. In the search for Duke in Issaquah, Tino led me to the freeway, and of course we had to stop. We drove up and down the freeway until we spotted Duke’s remains.
I suppose people would prefer to hire a search dog with a high percentage of successes, but that would be based on a misunderstanding. If a dog had a high success rate, it would be because he almost always took easy cases. Most of the time when a search dog does not track right up to the location of the lost dog, it is not the fault of the search dog. We could be on the right scent trail all day, but if we started out three days behind, we could still be three days behind after many hours of searching. People want a high success rate because they don’t understand what it really means. What should it mean for you? Should you shoot for a certain percentage of successes by choosing cases in a particular range of difficulties? One thing you don’t want to do is burn out your dog by presenting him with too many challenges that he can’t solve. Searching is supposed to be a fun game. If he never gets to win, he won’t think that’s fun. Tino and I went on one search that turned out to be much more challenging than anticipated, and we couldn’t even navigate the terrain to get started on the scent trail. That was more frustrating for me, I suppose, than him. I will often tell people that I don’t recommend the search dog when our odds of success drop below ten percent, based on the conditions. Sometimes they can be very insistent that we come out and try anyway. Sometimes I say yes, but I won’t always say yes. I want Tino to have a reasonable chance of success on any given case so that he can continue to view these searches as a fun game. I don’t want him going too long without at least the chance of a walk-up find.
When you are working a search dog on a scent trail, the safety of the search dog has to be the highest priority. If someone were to ask you to work your search dog in difficult or dangerous conditions, you should say no. Hazards a search dog could face include bears, mountain lions, off-leash dogs, yellow jackets, fast rivers, cliffs, deep mud, poisonous plants, toxic chemicals on lawns, angry property owners with guns, cars and traffic, overheating, dehydration, and water toxicity. In 14 years of working search dogs, none of my dogs has had a serious injury. Tino hurt his tail one time, and it took months to heal and return to normal. Kelsy aggravated a knee that was already having problems, and needed surgery for her knee. Mu has been on at least 1400 searches with no injuries, other than yellow jacket stings, which he didn’t like, but didn’t seriously hurt him. Be sure to have a first aid kit for your dog. If you are going to work a search dog, I highly recommend you take a first aid course.
During your 18 months of training with your scent-trailing dog, you learned to read his body language, such as the way his tail waves in a certain pattern, or if he turns his ears like little radar dishes in different directions. You will have learned to notice when he holds his nose level and when he puts it right down to the ground. Over time, you will probably be able to tell when he is working the scent trail of the lost dog, and when he has been distracted by the scent of coyotes. You will know how well he is following the scent by the tension on the leash. When you are working a scent-trailing dog, it’s like you become one animal. You tune into his behavior and you notice what he pays attention to. When you start taking actual cases, and start searching for lost dogs, don’t be surprised or alarmed if you don’t find the dog in the first few cases. In fact, you might work 10 missing dog cases without finding any of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing anything wrong or that you and your dog are incapable. Tino had his first “walk up find” on his third official search. When you don’t find the dog, you will be disappointed, of course, but you still need to be happy and playful for the sake of your dog. Most likely, it wasn’t the fault of you or your dog. Sometimes the circumstances just won’t allow you to find the lost dog. Just keep in mind that your first walk up find is going to be a wonderful experience, especially because it’s not guaranteed. You should always be proud of your dog, but the two of you will be exceptionally happy when you locate the missing dog, perhaps saving his life.
Here are articles describing searches for lost dogs: