Finding missing dogs

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Finding missing dogs

All too often, missing dogs and cats are never found again. But this organization uses a unique approach to help bring happy endings to lost animal cases.

Bloodhounds are expert at finding things, but what do you do when the bloodhound is the one who goes missing? “I had a trained bloodhound named A. J. that I used on missing persons cases,” former policewoman Kat Albrecht explains. “One day he escaped into the woods. Police dogs are only authorized to look for missing persons, so I was on my own even though I was part of the department. I called my friend Jeannie, who had trained her golden retriever to track people. She understood how to follow scents, so instead of sniffing a pillow and tracking a human, we had her smell a stinky dog blanket. She found my bloodhound within 20 minutes.”

This happy ending ignited a spark of inspiration in Kat’s mind. “Dogs can detect all sorts of things like mold and termites, so why not train one as an animal detector? Why wasn’t anyone training dogs to find lost pets?”

Persistence pays off

Kat posted her idea on an internet forum for trackers. To her surprise, the normally chatty group responded with a resounding silence. Finally one person commented: “Why would we waste our time training a dog for that?” Kat let it drop but says the idea continued to haunt her.

Eventually, she decided to take action on her own. She set about the task of training a retired corpse detection dog named Rachel to track companion animals. Rachel, a Weimaraner, quickly caught on. She found two lost cats and a dog in her first four searches. “At that point I realized I was on to something,” says Kat. “It was a major paradigm shift in my life. I knew the idea was bigger than me, and I had to find a way to make it happen.”

Her first attempt was in 1997. “I saw an Oprah episode on volunteerism and decided I needed a non-profit organization. I wanted to help as many people as possible, and teaching people to train dogs seemed to be the way to do it.” This initial effort lasted two years, but the group was unable to get non-profit status due to Kat’s inexperience. Next, she tried it as a business, but that faltered too.

Despite all this, Kat remained committed to the idea and refused to give up. “There is a real need for this service,” she says. “Animal groups like the American Humane Association have disaster teams that respond to major events, but what about the everyday disaster of losing a beloved cat or dog? So many pets end up euthanized in shelters or living in feral colonies because their people never find them. So many lives could be saved if a Missing Animal Response team could get there right after a cat or dog escapes. There is funding and grants for things like spay/neuter, but we couldn’t find anything to finance this kind of service.”

missing dogsIn 2005, Kat launched a nationwide effort to train animal detectives to track missing dogs and cats. “We had seminars across the country and trained 150 people,” she said. “Some were good, but others did things in questionable ways. It takes 18 months to properly train a dog, but some were rushing the process and charging hefty fees. That prompted me to take a hard look at how we were doing things.”

Finding lost friends

Three years later, Kat renewed her original plan of creating a non-profit organization dedicated to the recovery of lost companion animals, and the Missing Pet Partnership (missingpetpartnership.org) was finally born. The organization offers tracking services and advice on finding lost animals. “We changed our goal to training volunteer teams,” she says. The organization is based in Seattle, Washington. “We need to make this work in one city so it can be a blueprint for other locations, from Los Angeles to New York.”

The Missing Pet Partnership currently has a core of 30 volunteers, with 12 people who actively take dogs out on cases. Three dogs are certified to track cats, three to find other dogs, and two more canines are close to certification. “It takes a very flexible schedule to be able to do searches, and the volunteers all have full-time jobs, so the searches are limited right now,” Kat says. But the group also helps in many other ways, including a robust website filled with animal recovery information and a telephone helpline.

As of this past summer, the Missing Pet Partnership has assisted nearly 300 people, with 71 calls coming in on the Fourth of July alone (many animals bolt in fear at the sound of fireworks).

The group is very persistent when needed. They recently recovered a dog that had been on the run for four months.

The crafty canine was too smart for baited traps, but was eventually lured with a “magnet” dog and captured. Kat says it took nine volunteers and a dose of tranquilizer slipped in food to finally accomplish the task. She gets creative when the situation requires it, even constructing a drop net for certain rescues.

Kat emphasizes that it’s critical to understand how lost cats and dogs respond when they’re frightened by fireworks or have simply got out of the house. “Dogs run when they’re panicked, and cats hide,” she explains. “You shouldn’t call a panicked dog, even though that’s the natural reaction. When you call and pat your legs, the dog sees that as a dominant, threatening gesture. We instruct people how to calm the dog down so they can catch him. Dogs are usually eventually picked up by people, so we recommend a ‘marketing campaign’ with neon posters.

“Escaped cats look for the first place they can hide,” Kat adds. “Often they’re under a neighbor’s deck or somewhere else in the area, so you can catch them with a humane trap.” Although the group’s main focus is felines and canines, two percent of their calls involve other animals such as turtles and ferrets. Two dogs are being trained to follow specific scents so they can track these particular species.

The Missing Pet Partnership is funded entirely by donations, fund raisers and search fees. A search costs $250, although phone advice and website access is free. Professional animal detectives often charge $800 or more. Kat says she hopes to eventually get grants and corporate sponsorships because she wants to make search services available and affordable everywhere in the country.

The organization always needs more funds and volunteers. Though it’s still in its early stages, Kat’s eventual dream is to be funded, staffed and training Missing Animal Response teams across the United States. “You can find every other service out there under the sun for animals, like vet care, pet sitting and even massage, but when they get lost, you’re on your own,” she says. “That’s exactly what we want to change.”