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Success rate. (This is most relevant for people training their dogs to do search work, but it is also important to know for people who give advice but don’t use a search dog. It will help you to know if and when you should recommend a search dog to someone.)
From the Three Retrievers web site:
Should I hire a search dog to find my lost cat or dog? Will your search dog be able to find my pet? What is your success rate?
These three questions are the most commonly asked questions about Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue and the search dogs Komu and Fozzie. I have given an answer in the FAQ, and also in the free guides available from Three Retrievers, one for cats and one for dogs. People just want to know, however, without taking the time to read the whole thing, is the search dog the right way to go? Unfortunately, I can't give a simple answer to that question. Or if I did give a simple answer, it would be incomplete, and therefor probably wrong. If you are the owner of a lost cat or dog, trying to decide whether to invest the time and money into a trained search dog, you really need to take fifteen or twenty minutes to read this if you want to make the best decision for your lost pet. If you are considering hiring the search dog, I will give you a consultation, during which I will find out about your dog or cat, and the circumstances, and I can give you a more informed assessment of whether a search dog is right for you. Over the past 12 years, I have averaged about 700 requests for help each year. Only in about a third of those cases, roughly 230 cases a year, did I recommend the search dog as an effective tool. In the other cases, I recommended other methods that stood a better chance of succeeding. I will tell you about four recent searches, for Molly, Lucifer, Tessa, and Indy, two cats and two dogs, as examples of how a search dog can be effective, and why.
The first thing you need to understand is that Fozzie and Komu were specifically trained in different ways, to do different jobs. Fozzie follows scent trails of lost pets, usually dogs. Komu deliberately does not follow scent trails. Instead, he is trained to find a cat, any cat, within a predetermined area, using a grid search designed to maximize his chances of finding a hidden cat. You could train a dog to do both jobs, but in my experience, over the past 11 years of doing these searches, I prefer to have a dog who is sharply focused on one task without being distracted. When Komu is working, looking for a lost cat, he is not distracted if he comes across a scent trail of some other animal. He is not distracted when an off-leash dog wanders up to him. He just keeps looking for cats. When Fozzie is on the scent trail of a lost pet, he does not get distracted when he comes across the pool of scent of a cat in every third yard. The scent trailing dog is used for lost dogs, when not too much time has elapsed since the escape, or if there was a recent sighting. Fozzie also sometimes searches for a lost cat who was indoor only, and recently escaped. He follows a plume of scent, in the air and on the ground, retracing the path of the lost pet. Both dogs have a higher chance of success if the weather is cool and humid. Rain generally does not wash away the scent, but hot, dry weather can boil away the scent and make it very difficult for the search dog to work.
Starting with Fozzie, who usually searches for lost dogs, let's talk about when a search dog is likely or unlikely to help. Recently, Fozzie searched for Tessa, a 9 year old beagle. She had been missing two days when her owner first contacted me, and I couldn't get there until 72 hours after the initial escape. There had been no sightings. Tessa loved to chase rabbits, and this neighborhood had an extraordinary number of rabbits, both wild and escaped domestic rabbits. Tessa dug under a fence to go chasing bunnies. The weather was cool and humid, perfect for searching. I advised Tessa's people that 72 hours after the last sighting was not an ideal time to search for a dog, but we still had a chance of succeeding. On average, we usually search for a dog two days after the last sighting, and nine years of records show we track right up to the dog 20% of the time when starting at the 48 hour mark on average. If Fozzie started an hour after the escape, we would pinpoint the lost dog about 90% of the time. I usually don't recommend a search dog after just one hour, because many dogs are found by other means in that time frame, and a search dog would be unnecessary. I would prefer to always start on the scent trail about 24 hours after the escape, and we would have about a 50% success rate when starting on a scent trail that fresh. Because people want to try every method that stands a chance of succeeding, many of our searches start 3 or 4 days after the last sighting, even though the odds of success are lower. I rarely recommend a scent trailing dog after five days. The oldest scent trail ever successfully followed was 13 days old, and the lost people had stopped moving, because they had died, which allowed the scent trailing dog to find them. A search dog could be on the correct scent trail all day long and never catch up if the lost dog or person kept moving all that time. (If someone tells you that his search dog can follow the scent trail of a lost dog or cat that is more than three weeks old, he is either lying, or he has a search dog that can do something that no other search dog on earth has managed to do.) The odds of Fozzie finding a lost dog after 3 days is about 12%. I told Tessa's owners of the lower chance of success, and they agreed they still wanted to try it. Fozzie followed the scent trail for about three blocks before it went through a gap in a fence. On the other side was a thicket of brambles, which a beagle could get through but a human could not. Beyond that was a freeway. We had to drive about four or five miles around to get to the other side of the patch of blackberries. Once on the other side, on the shoulder of the freeway, Fozzie took the scent again, and he followed a trail directly 300 feet north, to the body of Tessa. She had been hit by a car on the freeway, where she likely died instantly, completely unaware of what was happening. Scavengers had dragged her remains into the weeds, where Fozzie found her. Tessa never would have been found if not for Fozzie. Her owners never would have located her body, even if they searched very carefully. Only a dog's nose would have discovered this evidence. Before we started the search, I advised Tessa's people that the search dog had a small but significant chance of succeeding, and that it was important that they not rely on the search dog alone. I told them they needed to use all the other tools available to them, including large posters, talking to neighbors, checking shelters, posting ads, posting on Facebook, handing out fliers, etc., because those other methods had a greater chance of success than the search dog. Using the search dog would only cover a circumstance that the other methods could not address. As it turned out, all of those other methods would definitely not have found Tessa. Only the search dog would have worked. I could not have known that before starting the search, though. It was just one little hole in the fence by the freeway, and what are the odds that Tessa would find that one little hole, three blocks from home?
Shortly after finding Tessa, Fozzie searched for Indy. He was recently rescued, in California, and was in Washington on vacation. He was skittish, and unlikely to come to anyone. Indy had been seen running along streets around a a ravine across the street from the point of escape. He kept going in loops, being seen on the same streets. I recommended humane traps, and Indy's owner set those up. She asked if a search dog might be useful in finding Indy. I told her that we could definitely follow the scent trail, because the most recent sighting was only 24 hours old. However, Indy was looping, and dogs who repeatedly retrace their own steps can be difficult to pinpoint. Imagine that a stray dog is emitting glitter instead of scent particles. Everywhere a dog would roam, he would leave shiny, sparkling glitter scattered on the ground and on shrubs nearby. If the lost dog walked a path just one time, and didn't travel too far, a person could follow that path of glitter to the current location of the dog. However, imagine that the lost dog looped around a woodsy ravine, going in and out several times at several points. At the overlaps and intersections, you would see lots of glitter, but it might be quite challenging to say which glitter was left most recently, or which direction a dog was headed. I tried to explain the limitations of the search dog in cases where the lost dog is looping and going in and out of a ravine, and Indy's owner decided she would like to try the search dog even with those complications. Fozzie had no trouble following the scent trail, but he did fall victim to a couple of distractions that are hard to train a search dog to work around. First, Fozzie followed the scent trail to one of the traps, and he got caught up in the smell of the roasted chicken in and around the trap. Fozzie is very much food motivated, which is one reason he makes a great search dog, and food is his reward during training and on actual searches. Perhaps a search dog could be trained to ignore food and keep working, but not Fozzie. We had to get away from the trap and start again. Following a convoluted trail through the woods, Fozzie followed the scent to another trap location, and he was again distracted by food scents. When I got him working again, an off-leash dog ran up to him suddenly, showing intense interest. Because Fozzie was attacked by a dog about six months earlier, and because he is only 14 pounds, he can't simply ignore a big dog charging around him. I picked up Fozzie to keep him safe, although the dog was friendly, if not obedient. From that vantage point on the north side of the ravine, I saw a shed on the other side, where it seemed likely that Indy would try to burrow under for shelter in the cold weather. We walked around to check it out, and as we were looking around the shed, Indy popped out of the ferns about 35 feet away from us, and started off. We couldn't go after him directly because all the noise of crashing through the ferns and brambles would scare him and make him run farther. Instead, I took Fozzie out of the ravine and had Indy's owner just hang out there, by the shed, with food, talking in a normal tone of voice. She saw him go by again, but then she received a call that Indy was out on the road, running toward another park five blocks away. Fozzie and I got started on this fresh scent trail, to see if it would lead to a new hiding spot, but the scent trail went in a big loop and ended up back at the original ravine. Fozzie and I did not follow into the ravine because we didn't want to spook him again. Indy hung around the ravine for a day, and it seemed he would either come to his owner or go into a trap, but then something spooked him out of his safe place, and Indy was seen running all over in an area of about two square miles. I can't prove it, but I think he was chased out of his safe zone by the same off-leash dog that charged up to Fozzie and interrupted his search effort. In all, the search for Indy took 16 days. Five humane traps were set, and about five or six wildlife cameras were also placed. Probably 200 posters plastered the area, and about twenty volunteers invested upwards of 300 total hours to catch Indy. Indy's owner missed a week of work and suffered financial hardship while searching for him, not to mention the emotional and physical strain. He finally went into a trap on the 16th day, 30 blocks west of the point of escape. The search dog was not the answer in Indy's case, which is not to say that the search dog was not helpful, or that the search dog was somehow wrong. Fozzie was able to confirm that Indy was circling and going in and out of the ravine, even though Fozzie was not able to catch up to Indy. Even if we had been able to track right up to Indy's exact location, there's a good chance Indy would have dashed off again. It was worth a try to use Fozzie, even with the lower chance of success. Importantly, because I was out there with Fozzie, in the ravine and following the scent trail, I was able to get a better sense of Indy's movements and advise the search team on the best course of action. When you hire Fozzie or Komu, you also get someone who has had extensive training and certification in lost pet behavior, with 12 years of accumulated experience on over 8,000 cases of missing pets, who can tell you what has worked in the past and which techniques have only made matters worse. So, to say that Fozzie did not catch up to the lost dog in this case, that simple statement wouldn't accurately reflect our contribution to the eventual recovery of Indy. Would Indy have been found eventually if Fozzie never searched and I was not so deeply involved? Possibly.
Komu searched for Molly, a tiny cat lost in a neighborhood with new homes, old, derelict homes slated for demolition, and lots of woods. Mu, as I usually call him, started the search two weeks after the cat escaped. I explained to her owners that, even though Mu does not follow a specific scent trail, he still generally has a better chance of success in the first ten days. At 14 days, the chances of success are starting to drop off. I normally would not recommend using Mu after a cat had been missing for weeks, unless there was a confirmed sighting. Molly was 4 to 5 pounds, an exotic breed, and not normally adventurous. Her yard had a barrier on the top of the fence which would prevent a cat from getting out, but a worker had accidentally left a gate open, letting Molly out. Mu searched a large area, about six acres, some of it manicured yards and some of it wild woods. Mu found an unusual amount of coyote scat. We usually do find coyote poop on every search, but not very much. In this case, it was everywhere in a certain patch of woods, just south of Molly's yard. You can identify coyote scat because it contains the fur and bones of whatever the coyote was eating, normally rodents and rabbits. Sometimes garbage or fruit. Mu specifically pointed out one coyote scat in particular, and after examining it closely, I was able to extract a section of animal pelt that was definitely not from a wild animal, and could possibly have come from Molly. Not far from Molly's yard, Mu found Molly's collar. Her owners had been searching for two weeks, and had walked by that collar a dozen times, but it took a dog's nose to pinpoint it, even though it would have been visible if they happened to look directly at it. When you are searching for a lost cat, your eye doesn't always register small details like a collar on the ground or a little tuft of fur on a thorn. 25 feet from the collar, Mu pinpointed a tiny tuft of fur that may or may not have come from Molly. That fur tested positive for the presence of blood. One neighbor said that the coyotes were seen on his property on a daily basis, even though his Rottweiler would chase them off. Another neighbor, who had lived there thirty years, said that she had lost many cats and one small dog. She assumed coyotes were responsible even though she had no direct evidence of that. She did see coyotes in her yard all the time. So, Mu did not actually locate the lost cat in this case. Also, from the evidence Mu pointed out to me, I could not say with certainty that Molly had been killed by a predator. I could only say that the mostly likely explanation of the evidence found was that Molly was deceased. There was a tiny chance that Molly was attacked and survived, but that was very unlikely. A search with the trained dog was not able to definitively locate the lost cat, in this case, but we were able to give Molly's family an answer to what probably happened to her, with a greater than 90% measure of confidence.
The next search Mu did was for a cat named Lucifer, who had escaped when a door was accidentally left open. Neighbors thought they had heard him in the woods north of the apartment. Mu and I search woods all the time, so I asked Lucifer's owner if the woods were navigable, or if they had too many blackberries for a dog to get through. She said she wasn't positive, but it looked like the woods were ringed with blackberries, and possibly more walkable once you got inside. I agreed to do the search, and I thought Mu had a higher than usually chance of finding this cat. It turns out that woods were not searchable. The parts that weren't covered in blackberries were actually swamp land with brambles growing in the swamp. Mu and I tried our best, but we were only able to search about 30% of the four acres of woods. It's possible we could have missed a cat. While we were there, we also searched the surrounding properties, and Mu pinpointed two hiding places where a cat was either tucked deep inside, or had been there recently. It's possible Lucifer was in one of these hiding spots, and I gave his owner some ideas on how to proceed. I haven't heard back yet if Lucifer was found. In this case, had I known how difficult the woods were, I probably would have told Lucifer's owner that we could not do a thorough search, and the search dog would have a lower than usual chance of success. But she didn't know how difficult those woods were. Perhaps it was the recent heavy rains that made them especially impassible on this day. I try to advise the pet owner how likely it is that the search dog will directly pinpoint the lost pet or uncover other useful evidence. I often express this in a percentage, such as the overall statistic that the search dog, eiither Fozzie or Mu, pinpoints the lost pet 20% of the time on average. Was it worth her time and expense to hire Mu and me to search for Lucifer? We were able to search over half of the surrounding area, and we could report that we found no sign that Lucifer had come to any harm. However, we were not able to search as thoroughly as we usually do, so our findings were less definitive than usually. Whether or not hiring the search dog and handler were beneficial to Lucifer's owner would largely depend on her willingness to follow the advice I gave on the next steps she should take. However, as with many pet owners, it seemed as if her grief and distress was preventing her from taking in everything I was saying. I try to offer advice in the form and pace that it will best help an owner, and I don't always succeed in motivating them to take all the necessary steps besides the search dog. Some pet owners, like Indy's person, have the reserves to keep at a search when it seems hopeless and too demanding. Others are simply overwhelmed by the magnitude.
In the four examples above, the dogs and I located Tessa when no other method would have worked, we found fairly conclusive evidence about what happened with little Molly, we used deep knowledge of the terrain and the lost dog's habits to provide helpful advice in the recovery of Indy, and we may or may not have helped in the search for Lucifer. These are just four cases out of thousands, so we can't draw any conclusions, statistically speaking, but it gives you an idea of what you get when you hire Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue to search for your pet. I would like to help you find your lost pet because I know first hand how it feels to lose a pet, a member of your family. However, you should know that, even though you are the one paying for my services, it is not my main goal to work for you. I am, we are, working to give the lost pet the best chance of being found. The lost dog or the lost cat is really our client. My dogs are excellent at their jobs, with years of training and experience. When I search for a lost pet, I utilize my search dogs, my equipment and techniques, and my years of experience learning how lost pets are found. I cannot say, beforehand, if my search dog will find your lost pet. I can quote you a statistic from my records, that we pinpoint the lost pet 20% of the time, but that statistic doesn't really tell you what you need to know to decide if the search dog is right for you. If you request a consultation, I can give you a better estimate of whether the search dog is likely to be a useful tool in your search. I will never say that the search dog should be the only method you use. In two thirds of the lost pet cases I've been contacted about, a search was not recommended because of the amount of time that had passed, difficulties getting permission to search private properties, the history and behavior of the lost pet, the lack of a suitable scent sample for the search dog to use, or because another method was more likely to work. Another common problem is that I'm simply not available to do a search, having been booked on other searches for several days; although I get about two calls for help each day on average, it usually happens that I get no calls for several days and then ten calls on one day, which makes it difficult to help everyone. Many of the people who hired us were very grateful that they decided on the search dog. I think that many clients are ultimately disappointed, not because we didn't do a good job, but because they had their hopes up that they would fall into the 20% category, and they were just let down when the search didn't turn out with the best possible outcome.
Another way of looking at the difficulty of giving a number as our success rate is that the chances of finding a particular cat or dog depend on unknown and unknowable details. It depends on what actually happened, not on what happens most of the time statistically. For your cat or dog, some specific thing happened, and I can’t know ahead of time what that was. If your cat was picked up by a person and taken home, it is very unlikely that the search dog would be helpful. If your cat is hiding in the crawlspace of a vacant house, then the cat detection dog might be the only way your cat could be found. If your dog is at the shelter, then the search dog wouldn’t be helpful. If your dog is running from one hiding place to the next, the search dog could be very helpful. So even though I can give you a percentage of cases where the search dogs searched and were successful, that doesn’t tell you what the odds of success would be in your case because that depends on what actually happened, which we don’t know yet.
When I have a hard time telling the owner of a lost pet if I think hiring the search dog would be in their best interests, I ask the question a different way: if I was the one with a lost pet, would I want a search dog and an experienced handler to come out and look for my lost pet. I don't have to speculate about that because when I lost my favorite cat, many years ago, before a search dog for a lost pet was even an option, I know I would have done anything to get him home if it had even the slightest chance of helping. If your pet is missing, I would be happy to discuss with you the best methods for searching, and help you decide if the search dog is right for your situation. I'm sorry that I can't just give you a yes or no answer instantly. I would be doing you and your lost pet a disservice if I were to oversimplify things and give you the wrong impression of how the search dog works.
If you are a search dog handler, how do you even calculate a success rate? Since the cases you choose to take will influence your success rate, what should you shoot for as a success rate? I can’t answer either of these questions very well. Here are some factors for you to consider as you try to answer this. Valentino has gone on 102 searches (at the time of this writing). He definitely found the dog 19 times. In several cases, he got close but I stopped him, to avoid spooking the dog. In several cases, he got close but we were forced to stop by private property. What is his success rate? I don’t know. It depends on what you are talking about when you define success rate. I don’t know of any case where it was definitely shown that Tino went the wrong way. In every case, he worked the scent trail like a demon, dragging me along as fast as I could go. In that respect, he has a 100% success rate. I don’t know of any cases where he was definitely wrong.
From Fozzie’s Facebook Page:
Today, Fozzie searched for two dogs, in different cities, and both dogs were found. Did Fozzie find them? Yes and no. The most common question about Fozzie as a search dog is, What is his success rate? People rightly want to know, is it going to be a good investment of their time and money to hire Fozzie to search for their lost dog? I wish I could give a good, quick answer to that question, but the short answer is incomplete. The full answer usually exceeds the attention span of someone who is stressed and sleep deprived. First, Fozzie could have a success rate of more than 90% if we got started right away after a dog went missing. Because it usually takes a day or two for people to even learn that a search dog exists for the purpose of finding lost dogs, our typical search is on a scent trail that is 2 or 3 days old. Under those circumstances, a search dog can be on the right scent trail all day long and maybe never catch up to the target. Often, people request the search dog even when I tell them the odds of success are lower, because of the passage of time, in hopes that Fozzie will get lucky with their dog. Also, I always tell people that they should not rely solely on the search dog to find their lost dog. They should also be doing all the other things, such as checking shelters, putting up posters, and posting on social media. The search dog covers an aspect of the search that can’t be addressed by the other methods, but the search dog can’t cover all eventualities.
To try to fully answer the question of how often Fozzie finds the lost dog, I want to tell you about seven lost dogs. Stella and Dakota were found today. The other five cases are Sire, Champ, Tessa, Cleo, and James.
Today, Fozzie searched for Stella in the morning. She was lost several days earlier, but there was a recent sighting. Fozzie found her scent, and started tracking. I asked the owner to stay at a high point in the park and watch for her because it seemed that she was close by, according to Fozzie’s behavior. As Fozzie and I were on the scent trail, the owner saw Stella, and when Stella saw him, she ran to him. Did Fozzie find Stella? Not exactly. It’s not like Fozzie tracked right up to Stella’s exact current location. Fozzie got on the scent trail, which told us she was close, and because I asked the owner to watch the field from a high point, he saw her before we could track up to her. So, what would you say? Did Fozzie find Stella? Yes and no. That’s hard to enter into a statistical database.
This evening, Fozzie searched for Dakota, a large male dog who had been missing for about 30 hours. As Fozzie followed the scent trail for several blocks, Dakota’s owner saw him directly ahead of us, about 500 feet away. The owner ran over there, and it was Dakota. Did Fozzie find Dakota? I don’t know. Yes and no. Fozzie pointed us right at him, but Fozzie didn’t actually track right up to Dakota’s current location.
A month ago, we searched for Champ, a little white dog that looked very similar to Fozzie. We followed the scent trail into a ravine behind the house. Fozzie tracked right up to white fur and blood. It was well known that coyotes lived down in the ravine. The pattern of the fur was consistent with other coyote attacks we have discovered. We had no concrete proof that this fur was Champ’s, without DNA testing, and we couldn’t say 100% that this proved that Champ was taken by a coyote. The circumstantial evidence certainly fit that conclusion. I told Champ’s owners that they should not stop looking for him, but if they never found him, then the most likely explanation was that he was killed by a coyote. Did Fozzie find Champ? I don’t know. The most likely conclusion is that Fozzie located solid evidence that answered the question of what happened to Champ, to a degree of probability greater than 80%. I can’t say for certain that Fozzie found what happened to Champ.
Fozzie was asked to search for a dog named Sire. This was an old dog, diabetic, needing daily medication to survive. Sire’s owner called us within the first 24 hours of his disappearance, and we went out right away, knowing that Sire’s survival depended on his being found quickly. Fozzie tried, but he just could not follow a scent trail. I thought Fozzie would be able to locate Sire because we were starting relatively soon, and Sire was physically incapable of traveling very far. The night Sire went missing, there were 40 MPH winds whipping down the street. It seems that those winds were enough to eradicate the scent trail. Although we tried, we were not able to locate Sire, and he was found the next day, deceased. In this case, Fozzie definitely did not find the lost dog, but it appears to be because of reasons totally out of our control.
Last year, Fozzie searched for Tessa, a beagle that had escaped the pet sitter. Fozzie found her body several blocks away, in the bushes near the freeway, where she had been hit by a car. Scavengers had dragged her remains into the bushes on the shoulder of the freeway, and no one would ever have found her without the nose of the search dog. So, definitely Fozzie did find Tessa, and she would not have been found by any other means.
Last week, Fozzie searched for Cleo. He followed her scent for five miles, but then Cleo seems to have walked into the tidal zone at the beach, and high tide washed away the scent trail, preventing us from continuing. Cleo’s owners put up signs near the end of the scent trail, which led to new sightings, and eventually to Cleo’s capture in a humane trap. Did Fozzie find Cleo? No, but his search work got people looking in the right area, five miles away from the previous sighting, and facilitated the recovery.
Several months ago, Fozzie searched for James, who was lost in the woods, in a remote area, miles from home. James had been missing for ten days. Fozzie started on the scent trail at the point James was last seen, and Fozzie caught a scent that seemed much fresher than ten days, probably only 3 days old. It seemed that James had returned to the point where he got away from his owners. Fozzie followed the scent trail for half a mile through the woods, the opposite direction of where James was last seen heading. Fozzie tracked within fifteen feet of James’s hiding place, but James had rolled in something stinky, and he smelled terrible. Fozzie stopped short of the final location of James, I don’t know why, probably because the smell was wrong. However, Fozzie did track for half a mile through the woods, and James was only found because of Fozzie’s work. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have found James in the hiding place without the search work of Fozzie. Fozzie did not actually find James, but he got me close, and I was able to check the hiding spot and find James.
For those cases where Fozzie definitely did or did not find the lost dog, the percentage of walk-up finds is about 25%. In those cases where Fozzie did not actually, directly pinpoint the lost dog, his search work usually provided a direction of travel that helped in the search. I know of no instance where Fozzie followed a scent trail for blocks or for miles, and it later turned out he went the complete wrong direction, where the lost dog definitely did not go. I cannot say with 100% certainty that Fozzie has never been wrong. I have plenty of proof of the instances where he has been right, and I have no evidence suggesting that he was every just flat out wrong. It could have happened, but I have no evidence of that.
Should you hire Fozzie to search for your lost dog? I can’t really answer that without getting more information first. I can tell you what his history is, what his limitations are, and how a scent trailing dog works. I certainly can’t guarantee that he will find the lost dog every time. If my dog was missing, and there was a 25% chance that Fozzie could find my lost dog, then I would be willing to invest the time and money in a search by Fozzie, just in case it might work. I can also say that Fozzie has definitely found some dogs that would not have been found by other search methods. I will try to give you as much information as you need so that you can make an informed decision whether to employ Fozzie, but I can’t make any guarantees, and I can’t make the decision for you. Even if you don’t hire Fozzie, I am happy to offer advice to give you your best chance of finding your lost dog.
One thing I can tell you for certain: Fozzie is a hard-working, talented, intelligent partner, and I am exceeding lucky to have him. And he is ridiculously cute.
A search dog handler can influence the career success rate of a dog by choosing which cases to accept. Should you shoot for a certain percentage? In theory, I would like to keep my dogs up around the 33% range, by taking more easy cases. However, it’s hard for me to say No to some people. I try to get people to not hire us by telling them the low odds of success, in certain cases, but they are desperate and they want to try anything. In many cases, I end up taking a case even after I tried to talk them out of using the search dog. This brings my dogs’ numbers down.
For the cat detection dog, this is not so critical because a cat detection dog will find some cats on most searches, even if they aren’t the particular cat we were looking for. For the scent trailing dog, he can get burned out if he is repeatedly asked to search for dogs that he has no chance of finding. Fozzie did great as a search dog for a couple of years. Eventually, he started to learn that when we were going to search for an actual lost dog, as opposed to a training exercise, we probably weren’t going to find the dog. Fozzie started to become rather casual about his searches, spending more time just sniffing around like he was going for a walk. In the beginning, he would hop around at the end of the leash, pulling me as hard as he could. Anyone could tell he was on the scent of something and working hard. When he became discouraged, or perhaps when he learned that most searches aren’t going to find the dog anyway, he lost his work ethic. He still found some dogs, even at that leisurely pace, but he was a not the same dog, in regards to searching. This is a known problem with search dogs. They way they deal with it for search dogs that search for humans is that they have a volunteer on standby that the search dog can find if the search for the missing person fails, for whatever reason. When a human is missing, there are always volunteers ready to pitch in for this much needed service. When we are searching for a lost dog, quite often there are not extra people on hand to help out, and arranging a scent trail with a dog is not so easy. There are really quite a few ways to mess up while laying a scent trail with a dog, and you can’t just ask anyone to do it for you. It takes a bit of arranging and planning. While a scent trailing dog is working in his career, it is a good idea to keep going to training sessions to keep the dog’s morale up. Also, you need to set up some of the training exercises so that they are indistinguishable from a real search, so that the search dog doesn’t become trained to expect that practice searches are always fun and real searches are usually frustrating.
I said earlier that a cat detection dog is rewarded on most searches because he almost always finds a cat on every search, even if it’s not the right cat. Still, after 8 years of searching very successfully, Mu has developed anxiety about searching, and he may need to retire. There must be something about doing the searches that was getting to him, although I don’t know exactly what. One possibility is that we found so many cats who had been killed by predators in May and June. It could be that we were dealing with an unusual number of grieving pet owners, and this eventually got to him. Another possibility is that all of these deaths were getting to me, even though I wasn’t aware of any change in my mood. Maybe Mu was responding to some change in me, or my attitude towards the searches. It’s certainly possible I was thinking, “This is going to be another case of a predator attack, and we are going to find remains again.” I feel like I was only ever positive toward Mu, but maybe he could sense something, the way a dog can sense a seizure before it happens, or low blood sugar. Certainly, I prefer to find cats alive rather than deceased. I do feel that Mu and I have become rather too good at finding remains. So, maybe I should have been shooting for a higher percentage of successes, and choosing cases that had better odds. If I had known that what I was doing was going to cause Mu anxiety, I certainly wouldn’t have done it, whatever it was.
As you start a career with a search dog, there are important reasons why you should try to keep your percentages up, and decline some of those tough cases. When someone is missing a cat or a dog, quite often they won’t take into consideration whether doing the search is going to lead to your search dog becoming anxious or discouraged. They would do anything to find their pet, even at the search dog’s expense. Your primary obligation is to your dog’s wellbeing, and in hindsight, over a career of thousands of searches, I should have said No more often than I did. People think of the search dog as heroic, and often they seem to think the dog has superpowers. Once people know you have a trained search dog, they will often ask and expect great things from you and your dog. Certainly, your search dog will do some amazing things over his career, but the search dog is just a dog, subject to the same sorts of feelings as anyone else's pet. You should try to resist when people pressure you to ask too much from your dog.
All of the above was written two years ago. I was going to edit it but I find that it addresses the question nicely just as it is. One point I would like to emphasize about the question of success rate is that there have been many instances where the search dog was absolutely the only way a particular cat or dog would have been found. Tessa the beagle would never have been found if not for Fozzie. Puppy in McCleary would have died slowly and horribly, stuck in the mud, if Tino hadn’t found him. Cary, who had been hit by a car and was hiding in a carport for two weeks, would certainly have died if not found by Mu. Cary absolutely would not have been found by any other means. Boots, the cat that appears to have been killed by a coyote in the Mount Baker neighborhood, the evidence of what happened to him never would have been found without Mu’s nose. Although there are some cases where I think the lost cat or dog we found would likely have been found by other means, I can think of dozens of cases where the search dog was absolutely the only way that pet would have been found.
When people ask, what is your success rate, I can certainly understand why they ask. I wish I could give them a more certain answer, such as, when you buy new tires, you expect them to last for 45,000 miles on average if you buy a particular model, and if you spend more on another model it will last 75,000 miles on average. If you are offering the services of a search dog and you can’t give a one-sentence answer and a concrete percentage about the effectiveness of your search dog, people might feel like you are being deliberately obtuse. There is someone in Washington state who offers the services of search dogs, and his web page says he has a 99% success rate with his dogs. In the fine print, he goes on to say that he does not find the lost cat or dog 99% of the time, but that he is 99% sure his dogs are accurate when they walk down the sidewalk four or five blocks and stop and say that the cat or dog was picked up by a person or a predator at that spot. He has maintained that 99% claim in spite of years of evidence that his claims were wrong. He almost never finds the missing pet, based on what people have told me.
In all cases the success rate would be higher if people have a better understanding of how dogs and cats get found. Part of that is understanding what the question really means when someone asks, “What is your success rate?” Another way the success rate question could be asked is, “Would it be a good investment of my time and money if I hired a search dog?” Well, to answer that, I need to do a consultation and learn more about the lost pet. If I just spit out a number, it might not be relevant to your situation. On the one hand, it is a good thing that the search dog comes with a fee, and is not free. If the search dog was free, everyone would say, “Yes, send the search dog right away,” and frequently we would waste a valuable resource in a situation where we would be unlikely to be useful. The other way of evaluating whether spending $350 on a search dog might be a good investment is that the average search for a lost pet is going to take 100 hours of effort from the pet owner and maybe another hundred hours of volunteer work from friends and family. Although no money changes hands, that’s 200 hours times maybe $20 an hour of what the average person’s time would be worth and could be spent on other things. Depending on who is helping you, their average hourly wage might be $30 to $40. The average search for a lost cat or dog is going to use up roughly $4000 to $8000 of the volunteer labor of the pet owner and friends. Even though no cash will change hands for all of that volunteer work, it still has a value because other things could’ve been done with that time. In that light, spending $35 for a one-hour consultation is definitely going to be a good investment. Spending $350 on a search dog might save someone thousands of dollars of volunteer effort, if you were looking at it in a strictly economic sense. More importantly, there is a chance—and I can’t assign an exact number to that chance—but there is a chance that hiring a search dog could save the life of your cat or dog. In which case, you would be very glad you hired the search dog.