Going by the standard of whether or not you find your lost pet, all of the other methods fail, too. Using large posters is a great way to find your pet, but in 11 years of records, it is successful about 25% of the time. Humane traps are definitely recommended in many cases, but only about 20% of lost pets are successfully caught in traps. Checking the shelters only gets your pet back about 15% of the time. Does that mean you shouldn’t check the shelters? Of course not. To find your lost cat or dog, you want to use as many tools as possible, to increase your odds of success. The search dog is at least as successful as any other recovery method you might use.
We could have a very high rate of success if I only accepted requests for help when we have a high probability of being successful. If we always started within a couple of hours of the dog or cat going missing, we would probably have a 90% success rate. I hardly ever recommend a search dog in the first couple of hours because the lost cat or dog is likely to be found pretty soon by other means, and a search dog probably isn’t necessary. A good time to use the search dog is after one, two, or three days, after you have tried many of the other tools for finding lost pets. When we start later, our success rate goes down. A dog can travel far enough that we can be on the correct scent trail all day long and never catch up. A cat can climb into the engine compartment of a car and be transported miles away. When the search dog has a much lower chance of success, after a week or two, depending on the circumstances I may tell the pet’s owner that the search dog is not recommended as a tool that has much chance of success. People have asked us to come out anyway, even if it is long odds. Fozzie found a dog that had been missing 10 days. Mu found a cat in three minutes after he had been missing a week. Tino found a lost dog after five days, when I told the owner we probably wouldn’t. Even if the odds are long, we might still succeed. But working those cases with long odds brings our overall success rate down.
At any rate, I never recommend the search dog as the only way to find a lost dog or cat. I provide, for free, extensive guides to all the other steps you can take. If anyone with a lost pet puts all of their hope in the search dog, and doesn’t put effort into the other search methods, they are greatly reducing their chances of getting their pet back.
Even though I provide all of this written support, with clear steps people can take, in an emergency it can be hard to force yourself to sit down and read an instruction manual. Many people want the search dog to be the answer to their prayers. Many people have even told me, “We want to use the search dog so we can say we did everything we could, before we give up.” Not only is that expecting too much from the search dog, but you would be shortchanging your lost pet if you put all of your hopes on the search dog and didn’t take advantage of the other avenues of discovery.
Some people, I don’t know what percentage, hire the search dog as a scape goat. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, then it’s the search dog’s fault they didn’t get their pet back. Perhaps that’s a wise strategy as a coping mechanism, and if it helps people deal with loss, then maybe I don’t mind so much if we unfairly take the blame.
Recently, people have been posting on Facebook that my search dogs actually reduce your chances of finding your lost pet. This is patently untrue and unfair. I can understand that people are upset if we aren’t successful every time. It is theoretically possible, on rare occasions, that Mu or Tino could locate the lost cat or dog and scare the pet farther away. It’s possible that Mu might fail to detect a hidden cat, or Tino could get on the wrong scent trail, because of contaminated scent article, and lead the search effort in the wrong direction. I don’t have any evidence that this has happened with these dogs, but it could theoretically happen. I do know of at least two occasions with Kelsy, during her eight year carrer, where it appears we followed a scent trail far in the wrong direction because the lost dog was found the other way. It is possible we could make a mistake. I take many precautions to avoid these types of errors. When searching for a lost cat, we try to work an area so that if we do dislodge the lost cat from a hiding place, the cat goes closer to home. When looking for a lost dog, if I have any doubts about the search dog’s performance, I will tell the dog’s owner to not put all of the search effort into the area we tracked to.
For people to say that Mu ever chased their cat away from home, resulting in the cat being lost forever, is untrue. Not only is it untrue, but it can take away a valuable resource from people who might be helped by the search dog. It is possible it could have happened, but there has never been an instance where it definitely did happen. I was there and I would have seen it.
Mu and I searched for a lost cat in Snoqualmie. Mu located the cat under a bucket, six houses from home. I asked the cat’s owner to check under the bucket very carefully and slowly, and I pulled Mu out of the area so that he wouldn’t spook the cat. I wasn’t there to witness it, but when the owner checked under the bucket, the cat ran off. Whether or not she peeked under there sufficiently slowly and carefully, I couldn’t say. At any rate, we knew where the cat had been, and I started a visual search to locate her again. I did locate her, in the engine compartment of an old truck. When I found her, I was slow to react. I should have shut the hood right away, and prepared a method to secure her. It was just a fraction of a second that I hesitated, and she jumped out of the truck before I could react. My fault. Not to say I did something wrong, but I could have done better. I located her again under the edge of a wood pile. I instructed the cat’s owner on calming signals, and I had her sit with the cat for twenty minutes to see if the cat would come to her. When she didn’t come, I set up a plan to get her into a humane trap. We covered the wood pile with a tarp, and set up a humane trap at an opening. We got everything lined up, and eased her toward the trap. She went halfway in, panicked, and squeezed out through a tiny gap between the tarp and the trap. In hindsight, I should have had a secondary containment set up. I could have put a net over myself and the tarp and the trap and the woodpile, so that she would be contained if she didn’t go in the trap. Again, this isn’t to say that my approach was wrong, or I made a mistake, but I could have done better. As far as I know, this cat still hasn’t been found. It is very frustrating to me that Mu and I did so much good work for this cat and still didn’t catch her.
Would it be fair to say that using the search dog ruined the chances of recovering this cat? That would definitely not be fair or accurate. If the search dog had not been used, they never would have known where to set a trap, six houses away from home. Also, they could have encountered similar problems with trapping even if they never used the search dog. The case of the Snoqualmie cat is one I have many regrets about, but it would not be accurate to say that using the search dog to find the cat resulted in her never being found. There are no other searches that we have done, out of over a thousand searches with Mu, where I would say the use of a search dog definitely ruined the chances of finding the lost cat. Mu has found over 300 lost cats in seven years. In at least half of those cases, I can safely say the lost cat would not have been found by other means. Out of all of those times we found the cat, there have been case where the cat may have been found later, if the search dog was never used, it’s hard to say. In about 25% of the searches we do, the lost cat is found in the next 12 to 24 hours after the search, apparently because the cat was dislodged from a hiding place and was then seen later. It is possible that Mu could have dislodged some lost cats, and we didn’t see it, and that displacement was a key factor in the cat being found. It is also possible, in rare instances, that Mu displaced the cat and we didn’t see it, and that was ultimately why the lost cat wasn’t found. But, if we didn’t see it, then the cat’s owner didn’t see it either, and there is no way anyone could claim with certainty that the search dog was the reason the cat was never found. It is a slight possibility, but if it ever happened at all, it was a rare occurrence.
When people make false criticisms of our work, it is unfair to Mu. He has done so much good for so many people and pets. Putting that aside, it is harmful to the cause of finding lost cats. If some people falsely say that using a search dog will reduce your chances of finding a cat, they will discourage some people from using the search dog, possibly ruining one of their best chances. I understand that people may be dissatisfied if they were hoping the search dog would be successful and they still don’t find their cat. Certainly I wish Mu and I would find the cat every time. We work just as hard, or harder, when we don’t find the cat. As long as we are working that hard, I would definitely rather find the cat. It doesn’t help anyone for a few people to spread false stories that Mu and I ruined their chances of finding their cat. Every year, I get over 250 requests from people asking me to bring a search dog to find their lost cat. In over half of those cases, I tell them that the search dog is not appropriate for their situation, and they would be better off using other means. I spend hundreds of hours every year consulting with cat owners, often at no charge, to help them set up the best plan to find their cat. If someone with a single experience with the search dog falsely claims that Mu was the reason their cat was never found, not only is it untrue and unfair, but it will probably take away a valuable resource from someone who might otherwise have been helped.