Canine Traveler , Phone Home !

This is an article about how to make it easy fot anyone who finds your lost dog to return him to you. Don't think that it is impossible for your dog to ever get separated from you and so become lost. Be prepared !


by Pam Green

(copyright 1994 ; updated version 1995)

When early on the morning of Jan 17, 1994, I became aware that a major earthquake had just hit Los Angeles, my very first thought was "I'm so glad I had Bingo tattooed before letting him go to his new home !" I had just placed this dog a few days before in a home in Glendale, virtually on top of the epicenter. So visions of a breached fence and a terrified loose dog, barely acquainted with his new home and his new people, sprang vividly into my head. How comforting to know that his collar bore a brass tag which I had hand engraved with his new phone number and that his right thigh bore his AKC ILP number!

Could your Canine Traveler phone home ?

Earthquakes are not the only way in which your dog can unexpectedly become a Canine Traveler. While I know you will use good sense and take care to prevent your dog from becoming strayed, lost, or stolen, nonetheless "freak" situations can occur. For example, a friend was crossing the street, with the light and in the crosswalk, with her dog at heel on leash, when some idiot ran the light and ran her over , putting her in the hospital in a coma for 3 days ; the dog bolted in fear (of course!) but was soon recovered because of the ID tags on his collar (and he was also tattooed). As another, very common, example : a door or gate opened or inadequately re-closed by visitor or family member. An out of control car or a falling tree can take out a section of your fence. I personally know of dogs lost in this manner who were never seen again.

The prudent person expects the unexpected and prepares for it. So how can you prepare your dog to become lost ? How can you enable any well-intentioned finder to phone home on his behalf ? How can you help the Pound contact you before they kill your dog ?

Here are the precautions I take with the Bouviers that I rescue and place and a discussion of how you might take similar measures.

COLLAR: essential to carry name tags, license tags, and rabies tags.

A collar immediately tells a finder that this dog probably has an owner who wants him back. Almost any finder will have the sense to look for a collar and tags and have ability to read the information thereon, but many will lack the knowledge to look for a tattoo and lack the knowledge and equipment to look for a microchip.

Some owners are reluctant to keep a collar on their dog constantly, either for fear of damaging his coat or for fear that the collar might somehow get caught on something and trap the dog or , worse yet, hang the dog. As for the former worry, I appeal to your sense of priorities : surely your dog's life is worth more than his coiffure! By all means use a "rolled" collar if you prefer, to minimize rubbing of the coat. As for the latter worry, especially if your circumstances (eg dog working in heavy brush; dog working horned livestock; dog tied up on chain or other tie out) make this an enhanced risk, you might want to link two or more cat collars (with elastic section or with breakaway section) together to embrace your dog's neck. Alternatively you may want to use a collar with a "roll ring", with the collar fastened just loosely enough that the dog could pull back out of it, but snug enough that it isn't likely to fall off. Or as described below, you could use a body harnes instead of a collar.

The one type of collar which it is essential to avoid is , of course, any type of slip collar, ie "choke collar" ; these are only for use during training sessions and must never never never be left on an unattended dog, as they can litterally choke him to death.

I prefer a collar with a reflector strip to make the dog more visible to drivers at night so he has a better chance to survive long enough for someone to find him and try to contact his owner. I immediately place a reflector collar (with my own tags) on the dog when I bail him out of the Pound, and I provide such a collar to the adoptive owner.

The collar can have your phone number written on it directly with a waterproof laundry-marking pen or you can order a collar with your phone number embroidered on it. This would be an added precaution against the tags falling off. I suggest attaching each tag with its own split ring or S-hook, so that if one ring or hook should break, the rest will remain.

If for some reason your dog is unable to wear a collar, either temporarily or permanently, you can instead use a well-fitted body harness and attach all tags to the center back ring. I've done this temporarily for dogs recovering from a skin infection or surgery or bite wound in the neck. One might have to do it permanently for a dog whose neck was extremely thick relative to the circumference of the widest part of his head, ie such that a collar would fall off. That would be rare in the Bouvier but in some other breeds it could be more of a problem.

NAME & PHONE TAG : the first line of defense.

I immediately put a tag with the words "Bouvier Rescue" and my phone number on the dog before leaving the Pound. Additionally I use laundry pen on the collar or on a piece of tubular nylon webbing (from the hiking store) slipped over the collar and secured with a few stitches. This ID collar & tag remains on the dog as long as he remains in my custody. On one occasion this habit saved me a set of impoundment fees: a newly rescued pair of dogs escaped during their first day in my home, wandered off a substantial distance, and were picked up by an Animal Control officer who read my tag and phoned me to come meet him and retrieve the wanderers. This same pair escaped on a second occasion and I got a call from a farmer a few miles away to come retrieve the wanderers.

Upon placement, I hand engrave (using a vibrating type of engraving tool) a temporary tag with the adopter's phone number on it to use until the adopter can obtain a permanent tag neatly stamped or engraved with dog's name, address, home phone #, plus perhaps owner's work phone number and perhaps vet's phone number and/or number of a good friend willing to respond in an emergency. Often I also use the laundry pen too. UPDATE note : I have since bought a set of numbered dies that can b e used to stamp the digits of a phone number into a brass tag. This works much better than the engraving tool. Even better, many pet stores (PetCo, PetsMart) and some other stores (WalMart) have engrave-while-you-wait tag machines that can engrave 3 or 4 lines of information on a metal tag. I advise stainless steel or brass as more enduring than anodized aluminum, which soon becomes illegibly scratched. I suggest you put home phone number, cell phone or work phone number, plus either yor vet's number or a friend's number, each number being properly identified of course as "home" "cell" "vet" "friend" "mom" or whatever. I usually ask my adopters to obtain such a tag before coming to meet a dog. Note that the dog's name is not needed. I also suggest that you make up at least one extra tag so you can immediately replace any that should get lost or pulled off.

If you don't like your phone number hanging out for all to see, simply cover the tag in duck tape. The finder of a lost dog with a taped tag need only peel off the tape. Likewise, if you dislike the jingle-jangle of multiple tags, use duck tape to wrap them together.

LOCAL LICENSE TAG : legally required and enables owner to be identified.

The license tag legally requires Animal Control to hold dog several days longer before selling it or killing it. This extra time can mean the difference between life and death for your dog ! Make sure your license fees for the current year are paid and make sure to inform local Animal Control of any changes in your address or phone number. The tag also enables a finder of your dog to contact you through the intermediary of Animal Control.

I don't get local licenses for the dogs I rescue,of course, as they are with me only a few weeks to few months; but I insist that adopters obtain their local license promptly.

RABIES TAG: shows your compliance with legal requirement for rabies vaccination and enables tracing of owner.

The tag usually has vet's phone number plus number which lets him identify the dog and the owner at time of vaccination (presumably you); the vet's office may be reached by phone at times when you might not be reached. Be sure that the vet who immunized your dog is informed of any changes of your phone number or address. You might also add your own phone number by hand engraving it on the other side of the tag.

Needless to say, you must keep your dog's Rabies immunizations up to date. This is essential to protect your dog from deadly infection through contact with skunks (almost all carry Rabies) and other common wildlife. Also if your dog is ever accused of biting anyone, proof of current immunization may be essential to save him from being destroyed (killed) so his brain may be removed and sent to a state lab for definitive testing.

When I rescue a dog, I get it immunized against rabies as soon as possible. Since this tag will serve for the next 2 or 3 years, during that time the tag would be traced to me rather than to the adopter, and I would then notify the adopter.

TATOO : the ultimate back-up, since unlike a collar it cannot break or slip off.

Professional thieves avoid tattooed dogs; research labs won't buy them (and ethical labs which inadvertently buy one, will seek out the owner to return the dog). Vets, trainers, and groomers usually will tell a finder to check ears and thighs in search of a tattoo. Pounds are supposed to look for tattoos, but many, possibly most, do not do so. The process is not painful, though some dogs find it uncomfortable. Usual cost : $10 to 20. The tattoo should be on the inner thigh, rather than the ear, as the ear might be chopped off by a thief intending resale to a research lab. If your dog has hairy thighs, you will need to shave the tattooed area frequently to maximize visibility. I've been told that green ink is more visible than black or red; but most tattooers use black. Ask at vets and groomers to learn who does tattooing in your area. Some clubs, vets, or groomers hold lower cost "tattoo clinics". UPDATE note : it may be harder these days to locate anyone who tatoos, as microchipping has taken over the occult identification market. A few breeders tatoo their puppies prior to sale to ensure individual identification. And in Canada, to be registered a dog must either be tatooed or have his noseprint on record (at least that's how it used to be; I wouldn;'t know if that has changed.)

Use the dog's AKC registration or AKC ILP number or your state Driver's License number (or both). If you use your Social Security number, you will need to register it with National Dog Registry (Box 116, Woodstock, NY 12498 ; $25 lifetime), as otherwise it can't be used to trace you. NDR and AKC have Hotlines for contacting owners of tattooed dogs. (I don't know how well AKC's Hotline works; NDR has an excellent reputation.) There are some other dog tattoo registries, such as ID Pet and Tattoo-a-Pet, that keep Hotlines. Incidentally in France, the Central Canine Society keeps a national database of all tattooed dogs (which need not be registered dogs nor purebreds) in the nation. We need a similar all inclusive national database.

The limitation on usefulness of a tatoo is that most people who find a dog are totally unaware that a tatoo might be there and so they don't look for it. Even if they are aware (or their vet or trainer or someone else suggests looking) , not everyone is comfortable asking a big dog to lie down and roll over and not every dog will do this for a stranger.

I don't tattoo the dogs I rescue, as I am not going to be their permanent owner, so placing my ID permanently on them is not appropriate. I encourage their adopters to tattoo the dog once they are absolutely certain that the adoption is permanent.

MICROCHIP : the latest high-tech, a final line of defense.

The problem with the microchip as a practical means of identifying a lost dog is that the finder is unlikely to suspect the dog might be carrying a chip nor know where to go to get the dog scanned to detect and read the chip. Collar and tags, in contrast, are immediately evident and require only ordinary eyesight to be read. A tattoo, while less obvious, requires only ordinary eyesight to be read. However an ever increasing number of Pounds and Shelters should routinely scan impounded dogs -- and some states require by law that they do so. (I must add however that some pounds don't bother to keep their scanner in working order or don't bother to use it.) An ever increasing number of vets have a scanner and will happily check out any dog a finder brings in. The scanner merely needs to be moved around over the dogs's shoulder area, so it is less likely to provoke a bad raction from the dog than is rolling the dog onto its back to check for a tatoo. So it is probably worthwhile to get your dog chipped (don't forget to register the chip and keep the registry informed of any address, phone, etc changes), but please do so in addition to rather than in place of the more obvious defenses of tags and tattoo.

One other unfortunate limitation : occasionally the chips migrate from their original position and rarely they quit working altogether. So it's not a 100% reliable identification.

I don't microchip the dogs I rescue. It's still fairly expensive, and I'm not sure I could raise my adoption fee to cover it. I do encourage the adopters to consider chipping.

Some breeders microchip every puppy to ensure positive identification. It's a good idea, and may enable the breeder to receive notification if the dog is ever lost or dumped into a Pound.

in conclusion

In my many years doing Bouvier Rescue, at every visit to the Pound I have seen dogs who were taken in as strays, ie lost dogs, who lacked the protection of collar & tags, tattoo, or microchip. Some of these dogs may have had owners who wanted them back but too often these owners didn't come to the right Pound or didn't get there soon enough. The Pounds all say that the single biggest factor determining whether a dog gets back to its owner or not, and the single biggest factor in whether a dog gets out of the pound alive, is whether or not the dog came in wearing its phone number. I know stories that would break your heart : wonderful dogs who died for want of a collar & tag.

Please don't wait for an earthquake to decide to protect your dog !!!


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 4/12/03 revised 4/21/03
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