Gusty winds, loud noises, or simply that door or gate left open by people coming and going put you pets at risk of getting lost.
It can happen to the most responsible owners, even professional animal people, like Tara de Nicolas and Michelle Otis, both employees of the Washington Humane Society who each lost dogs when other people accidentally set them free.
A friend of Otis' was taking out the trash and left her gate open while the door was ajar, she says. "The dogs all took off."
So pet owners need to be prepared. All dogs should have two pieces of ID, says Monsma: a collar tag, and a microchip, which is inserted quickly with a needle, and contains a code number that allows a central registry to locate your contact information. With a good clear collar tag - check that the information isn't worn away or out of date - a neighbor may return your dog before you even realize he's gone.
But if you're not that lucky, time is of the essence - get going right away:
• Call in a lost report to the local shelter.
Also ask if they've received any found reports, and be careful how you interpret them, people may not describe your dog the way you do. And be sure to call shelters in neighboring districts as well. Otis' two dogs ended up in the next county.
• Get out and talk to people.
"Ask everyone you come across, but in particular, ask the kids and the mailman," says Monsma. You may think people don't notice, but Otis got information that allowed her to narrow her search to a four-block radius, and let her know that her pug and French bulldog weren't seen together.
• Make large, eye-catching posters, and smaller fliers to hand out.
Include a picture, contact information, and where the dog was last seen. And make sure to offer a reward. Otis only received a call about her French bulldog once she added a reward to her poster. This is particularly important for small breeds, which people are more likely to keep.
• Use the Internet including neighborhood listservs, your own e-mail contacts, any way you can think of to get local publicity. You can also use the Web to see if there's a pet detective for hire in your local area, but remember that the first few hours are crucial, so don't waste that time talking to people long-distance when you should be out pounding the pavement.
• Be persistent. "The people who keep looking and don't give up are the ones who get their dogs back," says Monsma. De Nicolas, friends, and even strangers who read about her lost Jack Russell terrier, Tinsley, on the Internet searched for six straight hours, eventually finding her hiding in an alleyway. And that would have sounded easy to Otis, who only got her French bulldog back after several days, and her pug after several weeks.
"You hear those stories, pets going missing and turning up months later," Otis says she reminded herself when she started to give up hope. In fact, people may even keep an animal for a period and then turn it into the shelter as theirs, which is exactly what happened to her pug.
"The woman had no idea I was looking for her," says Otis. But the shelter had the lost report, and checked the microchip, which allowed the dog to be positively identified. It was a lesson in making sure you have proper ID on your pets and then not giving up hope.
If you find a lost dog, remember that someone is counting on you. If there are no tags, call the shelter. Ask about lost reports, and submit a found report. And go to the shelter or a vet to see if there's a microchip that can be read.
Be careful what conclusions you draw from a lost dog's behavior. There's no reason for a naturally timid dog to be friendly to you - he can't know that you're trying to help.
De Nicolas's Tinsley, like many dogs, is afraid of strangers. "The pads on her feet had been worn off, she'd been running to get away from people," she said. So never assume that a dog that seems frightened or injured was abused and the owner doesn't deserve it back.