Lost and Found

What to do if you Find or Lose a dog (or cat)

Having recently been through yet another Found Dog experience , I thought I'd write up some strategies and comment on the need for better laws. I will go through the Found process first, as the Lost process and Loss Prevention process are logical corollaries to what a reasonable finder would do. Although this article speaks in terms of dogs, much of it applies to cats as well.

Lost and Found

What to do if you Find or Lose a dog

by Pam Green , © 2013

Having recently been through yet another Found Dog experience , I thought I'd write up some strategies and comment on the need for better laws. I will go through the Found process first, as the Lost process and Loss Prevention process are logical corollaries to what a reasonable finder would do.
Although this article speaks in terms of dogs, much of it applies to cats as well. However a "found" cat may be someone's outdoor pet which wanders and returns home or may be a feral cat that has no owner at all. Could also be a genuinely lost cat, ie a cat normally kept strictly indoors but somehow got out. It can be very hard to tell.

When you find a dog (or other pet)

When you find a pet , your first thought should be that this is a LOST pet whose human family wants to find it, NOT that it is an abandoned pet or feral animal. Even when the pet appears to be in poor shape or appears to be afraid of you, it's still quite possibly a lost pet. Exception : cats with one ear "tipped" , ie cut off, and shy of humans are more likely to be feral cats that have been through a TNR (trap, neuter, release) program.

steps to take

I've tried to arrange these steps in the most likely order in which you'd do them, but it can vary, except that the first two are really obviously the first things to do. Notifying the Animal Services is an essential step and must be done ASAP.

If someone contacts you saying they think it is their dog

When someone contacts you saying they think it is their dog , shout "Hallejullia !!!" and then ask them for some details that you have NOT given in your ads and posters. Ask them how they plan to demonstrate to you that they are indeed the owner ; a genuine owner will be glad that you are being careful about this. (Eg perhaps there is a marking or a scar. Perhaps the dog knows some unusual command.) Of course if the dog is not one of those who greets anything remotely humanoid as a long lost best friend, the dog's reaction to seeing owner may be all the evidence you need An ideal way is to arrange to meet them at their vet's office so the vet staff can confirm that it is their dog. Meeting at a vet's office (or at the Police station) is also a way to assure your own personal safety. You have to be the judge of whether such precautions are needed.

Be sure to preach to them the need for collars, tags, microchips if the dog lacked these. Do this in a nice way, but make sure to do it. The owner should be receptive to this lesson at this moment ; it should be the Queen of Teachable Moments.

Note : I have been the finder and refuge of a number of lost dogs and in all cases but one, I have been able to make contact with the owner within 2 days and the owners have been very grateful to get their dogs back safely. Only once did an owner not want their dog back and in that case we got them to surrender the dog for placement. So usually if you can hold a dog two or three days, you will be performing a wonderful thing for that dog and that owner.

Note : legally you are on absolutely safe grounds if you take the dog directly to the pound , aka Animal Services shelter, at its first open time after finding the dog. You will be safe, but the dog will be put in danger. Under California law as it currently stands you are supposed to take the dog directly to the pound, but in practice every AS is likely to be happy to have you report the dog to them and then keep the dog safe in your home, thus not adding to their load or over-load and giving the animals they do have a better chance to survive until adopted. I encourage you to at least keep the dog for a few days if you are able to do so without risk or harm to your own dogs or cats or other family members.. That can mean having someplace separate to put the found dog. The ideal place is a kennel run or an empty horse stall, but any separate area will do, even room in the house with door closed..On a chain to a tree in your front yard if that's the best you can do. Or if your own dogs are quite dog-friendly and the found one seems to be likewise, he can just join the pack in the house. Use your best judgement. And if you have a wire basket muzzle that fits the found dog, using one for introductions would not be a foolish precaution.

If no one responds, no owner appears

If no owner has appeared in response to these efforts in several days (assuming you are able to keep the dog safely for several days), now you have to decide whether to turn the dog over to Animal Services and if so are you willing to take the dog back or get it into a rescue once the "hold for owner re-claim" period has expired. Will the AS agree that you are to be notified if owner does not reclaim ? The expiration of this hold time means that the previous owner's rights are totally cut off and AS is free to do whatever it sees fit, ie to put dog up for adoption, to put dog on "rescue only" status, or to "put to sleep" (KILL) the dog. So a dog taken to the Animal Service is put at some very real risk. At some shelters this risk is low and at some it is huge, and you won't know how bad that risk is in most cases.

Under the Hayden Act , all California shelters are supposed to hold dogs and cats 7 days for owner reclaim. However that requirement is currently under suspension, and most shelters are using a much shorter period, sometimes only 2 or 3 business days.

If you are willing to continue holding the dog, you must now find out what the legal requirements are in your jurisdiction for you to keep the dog listed as a Found dog or to keep making efforts to find the owner before you will be considered to have legal ownership. In California there is currently no statewide law on this, only that you must make "reasonable efforts" to find the owner, a standard clear as the skies of Los Angeles.
Some cities and counties may have local ordinances that specify a time period. The AS may tell you 30 days, but ask them to cite the actual law, ie what is the code section , so you can look it up. (There is no state law that specifies 30 days or that gives you undisputable ownership after 30 days, though it seems to me that 30 days of the kind of efforts I have described would be more than "reasonable effort". ) If they want you to keep the dog 30 days, then you have to decide if you are willing to carry that burden or if you would rather take the dog to the AS shelter, possibly with commitment to accept dog back from them (a) as one of their "foster home volunteers" or (b) as a rescuer or adopter after owner hold expires. If you take the dog as an adopter, in California under the Hayden Act the shelter must spay/neuter the dog before giving posession to you as adopter and you will be expected to pay the usual adoption fee, though you could ask them to waive this..

It's also time to start contacting Rescue groups that could be appropriate for this type of dog and see if they can accept the dog into their program. They may be more willing to do so if you are willing to foster the dog for them. In any case most will be willing to refer potential adopters to you, though they may (legally they should) require evidence that the dog is spayed/neutered first.

We need better statewide law for lost and found pets.

The law in most states favors turning found animals over to the shelter, but that can be a huge risk for the animal. We need laws that enable finders to foster dogs themselves while making good efforts to locate the owner, rather than turn them in to an over-loaded Animal Services system that cannot ensure the animal's survival or redemption by owner. We need a system that is fair to finders and fair to losers but that most of all gives the innocent and unfortunate dog the best chance to survive and either get back home or have a new and better home.

Last year, in the 2011-2012 session , there was a bill, AB 2536 , before the California state legislature that would have provided for a 14 day holding period for pet finders. If the finder presented the pet to their local AS (to be examined and scanned and probably photographed and entered into the Found database), then after 14 days the pet would be legally theirs. This was an excellent and reasonable proposal. Unfortunately it did not get enacted. I'd like to see this re-introduced, perhaps with the change that the scanning and photographing could also be done at a licensed vets and then reported to the AS for posting into their web site's Lost and Found. Given that 7 days is considered sufficient for a shelter to hold a pet for owner re-claim, certainly twice that is more than enough time for a private citizen to carry that burden. Alternatively perhaps the 14 day hold-to-own priviledge should be given only to Rescues that have 501c3 status and to those who work under the umbrella of such an organization. The bill provided that the finder becoming owner must get the dog spayed/neutered and licensed within 14 days after claiming ownership.. That's reasonable, as state law already demands that all animals adopted out of shelter and rescues MUST be S/N.

(AB 2536 also provided that if the owner showed up later within 6 months could pettition to regain ownership. I would eliminate that or at least specify very strict criteria for regaining ownership. It's not fair to ask the finder-shelterer-owner to give the dog back to an ex-owner. And the ex-owner would have been totally cut off after 7 days (or less) if the finder had dropped the dog off at the AS shelter, so it's perfectly fair that 14 days in finder-sheltering should cut off the ex-owner.)

In California, information on bills presented in current or past sessions of the state legislature can be found at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html You can follow the entire history and revisions as they occur.

In a book , "Everything Dogs Expect You to Know", published in the UK in 2008, the UK law for finders of stray dogs is described.. The first two methods are essentially the same as we use here. It's this third metthod or some equivalent that I advocate we adopt here on a statewide basis. With the growth of the Internet since 2008, this process could be updated and improved by adding a requirement for finder to submit photographs either hardcopy or digital over internet to the local authorities. I'd also add a requirement for scanning for microchip either by a vet who reports to authorities or by the Dog Welfare Officer. .

If you have lost a dog

steps to take

Again, I am giving what seems to be a reasonable sequence, which might vary according to circumstances. But step 1, contacting all shelters and visiting each on that very first day is a step you must take immediately, and re-visiting the shelter at least every alternate day is essential if you are to save your dog's life. Widely distributed flyers with a fairly large specified amount REWARD are your best hope of regaining your dog.

If someone calls saying they have found your dog.

Shout "Hallejullia !!!!!!!" and then proceed to exchange information that verifies that it is your dog. You might ask which of his feet has a missing toe, a question just as useful if none of his feet have a missing toe. Or a white patch. Whatever. If your dog is tattooed or microchipped be sure to ask finder to search for same, as most non-dog people don't know these things exist. The dog's collar might have gone missing so don't assume its absence means this is not your dog. I suppose it's also possible that someone else has added a collar and then the dog got away from them.

Do be aware that there are other dogs out there who to the average person may look a lot like your dog. So some good hearted person might really think the dog they found is yours, but alas it is not. Thank them lavishly and sincerely and advise them on how to find that dog's owner. Likewise if someone reports seeing your dog at a particular location but by the time you arrive there is no dog there or it's the wrong dog. Thank them lavishly for trying to help you, then search that area intensively. Sometimes you might get repeated sightings.

Also be aware that there are some scam artists out there. Do NOT send money to that person (usually a trucker) who says they found your dog and are now some long distance away and wants you to send money so they can ship your dog to you. If you think they might be legitimate, arrange for them to meet a trusted rescue buddy or any other friend or club member or take the dog to the police station or a boarding kennel where a friend of yours can pick the dog up and pay the reward.

An excellent strategy is to arrange to meet at your vet's office. That will take care of verifying identification for both of you. And will assure safety of both of you. Alternatively the dog park is a great meeting place if you and your dog are well known there. A groomer's shop might also be appropriate. A police station is also appropriate

How to Prevent Losing your Dog or best ensure getting your dog back.

The answer to this should by now be obvious. Make it hard for the dog to become lost and make it brain-dead simple for any finder to immediately contact you.

Collars, tags, microchips do not protect your dog from being hit by a car or other dreadful mishaps. So you want to make it as difficult as possible for your dog to get separated from you and become lost. But even if you think it's impossible for your dog to ever get separated from you because you are joined at the hip and the dog would have to be peeled off by a scalpel, you do have to keep tags on the dog because truely bizzare things can happen. Years ago a friend of mine had her dog on leash and they were crossing the street in the crosswalk and with the light, but a drunk drove through the red light and hit her, knocking her unconsious (thus she let go of the leash) and spooking the dog who then ran off. Another friend had her fence crashed down by a falling tree. Another was in a car accident and her dog was flung out and ran off. Stuff happens. But you can minimize the forseeable risks.

Always keep a collar on your dog that has your current phone number(s) attached (also your license tag and Rabies tag, each on its own S-hook or split ring, so if one gets lost, the rest will still be attached). If your dog can't wear a collar or a collar could slip off (dogs whose necks are larger than their heads), instead have the dog wear a body harness and attach the tags to the top ring. Reflective collar or harmess is an added nighttime safety measure that might enable a driver to avoid hitting your dog.

Get your dog microchipped and keep the registered information current. However this is NOT a substitute for a collar. Anyone can perceive a collar and tag and can use the phone number to contact you. (A blind person would need help to read the number, but fingers would find the tag.) Most non-dog people do not know about the existence of microchips nor that any vet will gladly do the scan. So a microchip is only a back-up. All shelters should have working scanners, so that is where the chip really pays off. Collars can be removed, but removing a chip would require a minor surgery.

Periodically inspect your own yard fencing and gates, including gate latches. The gate is often the escape area, especially if latch doesn't always close. Keep gates locked. If visiting a friend's home, do a fence inspection before letting your dog out in their yard. If there's the slightest doubt, keep the dog on leash or inside the house.

Whenever there are workpersons (gardeners, repairpersons, etc) in your home or yard, confine your dog (eg in crate or closed bedroom) so that these workpersons cannot accidentally let the dog out. Likewise when there are visiting children. Likewise if you are having a party where alcohol or other mind-altering substances might be involved. Or just any party where a lot of people are going in and out the door. Anticipate ways your dog might be let out into the big dangerous world. "Who Let the Dogs Out ?" should only be apopular song, not your lament..

When outside your own home and yard or other safely fenced place, keep your dog on leash. Very few people are able to put in the work and skill needed to make a dog bet-his-life reliable about coming when called and many dogs can NOT be trained to that level by God Herself.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/20/2013 revised 10/12/2014
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