For many of us – myself included – dogs are family. I take them everywhere with me, including hiking and camping.
The thought of one of my dogs getting lost in the woods scares me.
Also, I always wonder what I would do if I found a lost dog in the woods (I even carry an extra leash in my backpack just in case).
Learning what to do in the event of an emergency may make the difference between bringing your dog home safely or not seeing him or her again.
If you’ve been hiking in the wilderness, miles away from the nearest town or city, and you can’t find your dog, you may feel overwhelmed.
Losing a dog in the woods is not like losing one in an urban area.
The good news is that the search isn’t hopeless.
While there is no guarantee, there are steps that you can take to help bring your dog back home where they belong.
In this article, I share important information I learned about how to search for a lost dog in the woods, as well as tips for preventing your dog from getting lost in the first place.
If a Dog Runs Away, Will They Come Back On Their Own?
You were out hiking on your local trail and your dog caught the scent of something that they found interesting, taking off to follow it and search for the source.
You tried calling your dog’s name, but he or she was too focused on the task at hand to come back.
There is always a chance that a dog can return in their own time.
However, there are a lot of things that are out of your dog’s control that could stop them from being able to.
Whether your dog was following a scent trail or chasing the local wildlife, there is the possibility that they got turned around in the woods and now have no idea how to get back.
If you call for your dog and he or she doesn’t return to you, don’t wait for them to return.
You have the best chance of finding your dog within the first 24 hours of them running away.
Just like with missing people, the best chance of finding your dog is within the first 24 hours.
If you wait to start looking, you’re allowing this important time to pass.
Starting your search right away will give you the best chance of finding your dog before they can wander away too far.
If your dog does come to you while you are searching, even better.
How To Find a Lost Dog in the Woods
Finding a lost dog in the woods is a different experience than trying to find a lost dog that has run away in a suburban or urban area.
If your dog gets lost in the woods, you will need to approach the search for your dog in a slightly different way.
Here are some ways that you can increase your chances of finding your lost dog as quickly as possible.
Leave a blanket or article of used clothing in the place that your dog went missing
A dog’s sense of smell is significantly stronger than our own.
This means that you can use a familiar scent to help bring your dog home.
Place an unwashed article of your clothing , or your dog’s unwashed blanket, on the side of the trail in the area where they went missing.
Check back on that space regularly to see if your dog returns to the familar smell.
It’s recommended to leave out a piece of your clothing over food.
This is a better option than leaving out food, as is often recommended.
The smell of food will be enticing for more than just your dog including, potentially, local predators creating an unsafe situation for your dog.
Create posters to put up at the trailhead
Unlike in a suburban setting where you would plaster the neighborhood with brightly colored posters, you likely won’t have as many options for placing signs in the area that you are searching when your dog is lost in the woods.
But you can still use posters to let others in the area know to keep their eyes open.
Place lost dog fliers on trailhead bulletin boards and campground kiosks.
Any hikers entering the trail, or checking in at the campground, will see your poster so make sure that it has all the information that they will need.
- A description of your dog, including any unique markings or features
- Your cell phone number
- Your vehicle make, model, and information or campsite details to allow them to find you if there is no cell service in the area
- A picture (if possible)
Ask that anyone who spots your dog, even if they can’t secure him or her, contacts you to let you know.
This will help you to track your dog’s movement in larger wilderness areas.
Inform the local rangers
If you are hiking in an area that is patrolled by rangers, try to find one and provide them with all the information about your dog.
This includes the description, last known location, and how to reach you if your dog is found.
The rangers are often the first point of contact for people if they find an unknown dog wandering in a park area.
Not only can the ranger keep their eyes open for your dog while out working the area, they can also direct people to you if your dog is spotted or found.
A land management agency may be able to help you if your dog is lost in an open space without trails.
If your dog is lost in a wooded area with no formal trail system or campground, try contacting the land management entity for the space (like the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Local County Parks).
They sometimes have staff or game wardens that patrol the area and can keep an eye out for your dog.
Contact nearby shelters, rescue organizations, and veterinarians
Contact shelters and veterinary clinics in any neighboring towns or cities and let them know that your dog is lost.
If someone finds your dog in the woods, there is a chance that they will bring them to one of these places, especially if your dog is injured.
Make sure to leave information about how to reach you when you contact these places.
Post the details of your missing dog on social media
We often view hiking and camping as being an unplugged or technology-free experience.
But don’t forget about social media and missing pet websites if your dog goes missing.
The hiking community is quite large and there are many online groups that connect us with one another.
Create a public post and share it with any hiking or camping groups/communities that you belong to, asking them to help you spread the word.
Make sure to include all important information about where your dog was last seen, how to contact you, and a recent picture of your dog.
In this day and age, sharing about your lost dog on social media can greatly help.
Social media is a numbers game.
For each person who shares your post, many new people will see it and find out about your dog.
In turn, if those people share it, the chances that you will reach the right person at the right time is even greater.
There are also some people in these hiking groups that like to use their wilderness skills to help people out, which can include searching for your missing dog.
Get others to help search the area
If you know anyone local to the area where you were hiking, reach out and ask for their assistance in your search.
You can also try asking other hikers or campers that you encounter while there or even put a request for help in online communities.
The more people you have helping you search, the larger the area that you will be able to cover in your search.
Pay careful attention to areas that you know could entice your dog
No one knows your dog better than you do, so you use that to your advantage!
Take a moment to consider your surroundings and what areas may tempt your dog.
For example, if your dog loves water and there is a large pond not far from where he went missing, that is a good area to focus your search early on.
This isn’t guaranteed to find your dog though.
There is a chance that your dog is going to be stressed from being separated from his or her family, distracting them from things that he normally would have found exciting.
But it’s a good starting point for your search.
Consider searching at different times of day
You may be looking around the search area and asking yourself – where do lost dogs go at night?
The truth is that dogs are usually more active in the cover of darkness.
During the day, it can be hot so your dog is more likely to find a cool place to hang out and rest.
Searching for your dog in the late evening or early morning hours may increase your chances of spotting him because they may be up and moving around.
On the flip side, trying to search for a moving target can be challenging.
One of the primary recommendations if a person is lost in the woods is to stay in one place and wait for rescue.
A search party can methodically eliminate areas until they zero in on the one place you have remained the entire time.
So, you can see why searching at different times of the day can be beneficial.
It’s a good idea to search for your dog at different times of the day.
If possible, organize those in your search party so that you have different shifts, covering both daytime and nighttime hours.
Try using a friendly dog to lure your dog out
Does your dog love other dogs? Do they usually come running to make new friends and share in some playtime?
If so, bringing one of your dog’s friend, or another member of your dog’s household, may be a great way to help locate your dog.
Walk along the hiking trail around the area where your dog went missing with this dog friend.
Whether it’s you or a another dog owner with a dog, be vocal, talking to their dog and making it clear that their dog is with them.
If this is a dog your dog knows, it’s even better if the dog lets out a bark or two.
Either way, your dog might recognize the familiar “voice” and come to check it out.
Set a live trap in the area
If there have been sightings of your dog in the area but no one can get close enough to secure them, you may need a little help.
Setting a live trap around where your dog was most recently seen may be the secret to securing your dog, even if he or she is nervous or scared.
Try contacting local rescue organizations for assistance both in locating a live trap and in setting it up properly for success.
When to Stop Looking for a Lost Dog
It’s a sad fact, but there may be a time that you decide to stop looking for your lost dog in the woods.
There are many reasons why you may choose to stop searching including:
- A significant time with no sightings
- A great distance between the location where your dog was lost
- Home and job responsibilities
There is no one right timeframe to stop looking for a lost dog in the woods.
It’s up to you and is a very individual decision.
In November 2020, a St. Louis family was reunited with their lost retriever Walter after nearly a year of being lost in the woods of Missouri.
The family searched the area for weeks before needing to return home.
Even at a distance, they continued their efforts with a “Where’s Walter?” Facebook page to try to raise awareness.
Lost Paws Trapping of Belleville, Ill. was able to finally capture the lost dog just 13 days shy of a full year from the date that he went missing.
The first thing to consider when deciding whether to keep looking is the chance of survival.
Can dogs survive in the woods?
A healthy, adult dog can survive up to 3 days without water and 7 days without food.
Dogs can survive in the woods for a bit if they find water and food.
Their chances of survival are even higher if they find a source of food and water to provide for their basic needs.
Is it time for you to stop looking? At the end of the day, only you can make that decision.
Tips to Prevent Your Dog From Getting Lost In the Woods
To keep your dog safe, the best thing you can do is to take steps to reduce the risk of your dog being lost in the first place.
These are things you can do in preparation for your next hiking or camping trip.
Train your dog to have a solid recall
Does your dog come when they’re called reliably?
If not, this is a part of their training that you may want to focus on leading up to your hiking or camping trip.
It’s imperative you teach your dog this command before visiting any off-leash hiking trails or exercise areas.
You need to be sure that your dog will listen to you above all else, including tempting distractions like local wildlife or other dogs.
Even if you will be hiking in an on-leash area, there is always the chance that a collar could break or a leash slip out of your hands.
A solid recall can quickly resolve a situation by making it easy for you to secure your dog once again.
Recall training takes time, patience, and ongoing training but it’s one of the most important commands that you can teach your dog before spending time outdoors.
Teach your dog the “leave it” command
Other important obedience commands are “leave it” or “look at me” .
These two commands can achieve the same purpuse of telling your dog to ignore whatever is around him or her, returning their attention to you instead.
If your dog catches sight of the local wildlife, this simple command could be the difference between them taking off to try to catch it or remaining safely by your side.
Make sure your dog has an accurate and up-to-date ID
Of course, accidents happen. That’s why they are called accidents!
You can do everything right and still have your dog take off when you least expect it.
You have a better chance of someone turning your dog in and contacting you if they have an accurate ID on them.
If this happens, you want to make sure that your dog has an accurate and up-to-date ID so it is easy for anyone who finds them to reach you.
Before any trip, make sure to double check your dog’s ID both to confirm the information is current as well as to make sure that the tag(s) aren’t damaged and unreadable.
Below are some pet ID options to consider.
If your dog is found and brought to a veterinarian or shelter in the area, one of the first things that they will do is scan for a microchip.
A microchip is a great way to make sure that your information is available even if your dog loses their collar or tag during an “adventure”.
Getting a microchip implanted is a quick, easy, and generally painless process.
The chip itself is about the size of a grain of rice and can be injected under the skin by your veterinarian.
Because it is under the skin, it can’t get caught on something and fall off.
Don’t forget to update your information in the database if you move or change your phone number!
Standard dog ID tags
Regular ID tags can be purchased online or in most pet stores at a low cost and be customized with simple contact information.
This is the first thing most dog lovers will look for after finding an unknown dog.
You are limited on how much information you can share based on the size of the tag.
Most tags will include only your dog’s name and a phone number or two.
Replace your dog’s tag on a regular basis.
ID tags will wear over time, so check occasionally to see if your dog’s tag needs to be replaced so that it can be read easily.
You will also need to replace the tag if you change your phone number.
Waterproof ID pods
ID Pods are small waterproof capsules that you place on your dog’s collar.
Inside the pod is a rolled-up piece of paper with your dog’s contact information contained inside.
I use this style of ID for Summit and Gretel so I can change the contact information easily whenever I want.
It also allows me to provide more information than a regular tag.
When writing out the information to place in your dog’s ID pod, consider the best possible way to connect with you while you are outdoors.
In addition to a contact name and phone number, consider other methods if you are stuck without cellphone service or the battery dies.
I include my email and vehicle make, model, and license plate number.
Providing my vehicle information means the person could put a note on my car, or wait for me at my car, if they find my dog lost in the woods.
If I’m camping, I can include our campsite number and the dates of our stay so that the person that finds my dog can come to our site to find me.
Digital pet ID Tags
Technology is constantly growing, providing us with many new opportunities.
This includes new ways to keep our pets safe and bring them home as quickly as possible in an emergency.
One great example is the Get Me Home Club from PetHub.
While this looks like a normal tag, there are many benefits you can’t see.
On the back of the tag is a QR code.
QR codes are easy ways to store very detailed inforamtion about your dog “on a tag”.
If someone finds your dog, a quick scan of this QR code with their cell phone will provide them with all of your dog’s public information from the company’s database.
You can not only provide information of how to contact you but you can include your dog’s veterinarian, any medical conditions, and special needs.
With the information being kept digitally, it’s easy to change and update without needing to purchase a new tag like you would with a regular ID tag.
The PetHub tag also has a phone number for a 24-hour lost dog hotline (remember, the most crucial period to find your dog is within the first 24 hours).
A finder can call this number to access important information about your dog and hotline staff can personally help reunite you and your pup.
In addition to online access to your contact and emergency information, PetHub can also help you kickstart the search for your dog.
With one click reporting your dog missing, they will alert all shelters within a 50-mile radius saving you the time needed to contact each individually.
They also automate an instant personalized lost pet poster template to print out and post at the trail head so that you can get it printed off and posted as quickly as possible (obviously, you would probably need to leave to print this poster and then return to post it).
PetHub has helped reunite dogs that got lost in the woods with their owner’s before like Kayla, Polka, and Arya.
Kayla says, “One day… Polka took off into the woods [and Arya] decided to track along on the adventure.
After 4 hours of exhaustive searching through miles of woods and tobacco fields with the sun gone, I went into the house to make ‘Lost Puppy’ signs, and I happened to remember that I had recently registered her PetHub QR tag, and thankfully she had it on.
In a stroke of genius, I checked my e-mail and found out someone had checked the URL/scanned the code a few miles from my house.
After hours, I went by Mike Dominguez photography and there Arya was in their living room, safe and sound, playing with his 3 children.”
What to Do if You Find a Lost Dog
If you find a lost dog in the woods while out hiking or camping, you will want to know what to do.
Some things that seem intuitive aren’t actually the best strategies.
If the dog is friendly and approachable, secure them on a leash.
If you find the dog in a trailhead parking lot, you may be able to open your car door and invite them to jump in.
But don’t try to chase the dog as it will just spook them.
Check the dog’s collar for identification so that you can reach out to the owners to let them know their dog has been found and is safe.
If you don’t see any external identification, you can bring them to a local veterinarian or shelter to scan for a microchip.
There may be a time where no contact information is available.
If this is the case, create “found dog” posters and put them up at the trailhead or campground to alert the owners and anyone searching for him.
You should also contact local shelters, rescues, and veterinarians to let them know.
That way they can direct the owner to you if they call looking for their dog.
Take a picture of the dog and share it on social media and websites dedicated to lost and found dogs.
Even if you can’t secure the dog, you can help.
Try to take a picture that is as clear as possible showing the dog and share it on social media with the dog’s description, the location that he was seen, and the time and date of the sighting.
You can also pass this information on to the owners if you spot a missing dog sign or come across someone searching.
No dog owner wants to go through the stress of a lost dog. But by staying calm and carrying out these steps, you will increase your chances of bringing your dog home safely.