When Dogs go Missing in the Wilderness

When Dogs go Missing in the Wilderness

I think we can all agree that having your pup go missing is one of the worst possible things to go through. But with Facebook, Nextdoor, microchips and cell phones, these days we usually see positive outcomes and owners and dogs are reunited within a few hours.

But what about when your dog is lost in the wilderness? Without people around, and more environmental dangers, things can seem bleak.

Enter Wendy, of Tahoe PAWS and TLC 4 Furry Friends. Wendy has been doing animal search and rescue for lost dogs around the Tahoe Basin for over 30 years. Wendy works 24/7 with missing dogs' families to help bring these pups home, and always has multiple rescues going on at once. They use scent-training, tracking, equipment, experience, and rely on cooperation with the family for the best possible outcome.

When a dog is lost, our human instincts most often have us yelling the dog's name, chasing, calling out, organizing a search party, and spreading scents everywhere. Wendy says that this is all wrong - these mistakes can lead to disastrous results. "Lost dogs are in fear, flight or fight mode. They don't know their owner and don't know their own name."

Scent is the most important tool dogs have, and humans need to understand how to use it in an appropriate manner. "You want to stay put," Wendy explains. "Keep your scent in one location. Spreading your scent out on the trails is the worst thing to do. The dog will come back unless they are pushed further out into the wilderness by predators or humans."

I asked if the same rules apply if your dog is not a 'runner'. Shouldn't I be out calling my dog's name, trying everything to get his attention so he knows where I am? Wendy says absolutely not, a lost dog in the wilderness won't act like you expect them to, especially when they're spooked by gunshots, avalanche cannons, fireworks, etc.

She was called to a rescue last year for a missing police dog. The working dog was staying at his grandparent's house when he heard the loud bang of the trash truck. It spooked him enough to bolt from the backyard, through the house, and into the woods. They were able to lure him out days later, but Wendy emphasized that this is a working dog, trained to be around gunshots. "Dogs will be dogs", Wendy says. "They get scared and can easily slip back into their wild nature."

One of the wildest rescue stories I had heard, here in the Tahoe basin, was of a missing black lab named Russ found alive after surviving four months in the Tahoe mountains, through the Caldor Fire and multiple feet of snow last year.

In mid-December 2021, a couple of backcountry skiers discovered the pup deep in the snow, unable to move and growling when they tried to get near. The skiers notified Wendy because Animal Services could not access the dog due to five foot snow drifts, and technical terrain. Wendy and her team of volunteers snowshoed in with dog rescue equipment and a sled. The dog was tracked and located under a tree, but not moving. Then, they saw him lift his head! The relief and excitement was huge. The team gently placed him on top of a volunteer in the sled to help keep him warm and calm for the long trek down the mountain in the dark.

Once Russ the dog was able to get to Animal Services, they scanned his microchip and located his owner, all the way down in Southern California. His owner was elated, not to mention shocked! The pair was in Tahoe way back in August, right before the Caldor fire, when Russ had gotten scared and ran off from his owner’s vehicle. Russ' owner reported him missing to Animal Services, and searched and searched for him. But then when the evacuation orders came, he had to go, along with the rest of the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Russ' owner came to the heartbreaking conclusion that his dog was gone for good, so he could not believe his ears hearing that Russ was alive and safe!

Wendy says that she doesn't have a measured success rate, but she "wouldn’t be doing this 24/7 with all my life savings if I wasn’t successful, because it's devastating and heartbreaking when we don't get a dog back." Most often, it's because humans don't follow through on her guidance. Wendy understands they just want their dogs home. But she says "We don't give dogs enough credit; There is a switch in their brains that flips when they need to be in survival mode"

"Most of the time, a dog who runs off can go into survival mode fairly quickly, especially if they were scared off by something. Sometimes it can be immediate, and sometimes they'll go into survival mode 48 hours after going missing. A lot depends on what triggered the dog, and if they are in unknown territory. When a dog goes into survival mode - fear, fight or flight - they often do not recognize their owners or know their own name. So I always try to educate people to not call out, approach, follow or chase, so they don't scare the dog or push them further away. Observe from a distance & take a photo if you can. Drop a pin of the location if in the backcountry or in a rural area. Dogs do know how to find safe places to hunker down, but usually their adrenaline is going strong, so they are running or moving. It helps keep them safe & warm when there are cold temperatures."

Wendy's services have always been completely free, and her team of volunteers work tirelessly around the clock. Wendy says "it's not about who can afford the help, it's about helping the animals". Tahoe PAWS relies on donations to keep going

Wendy and her team would be thrilled with your support. You can help Tahoe PAWS and TLC 4 Furry Friends out here -

Venmo & PayPal donations @tahoepaws

Checks mailed to:

Tahoe PAWS
PO BOX 8292
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96158