Pet Detectives: Not Just In The Movies Anymore

Annalisa Berns and Landa Coldiron are certified missing-animal response (MAR) technicians. The two women are owners of California-based companies, Pet Search and Rescue (Berns) and Lost Pet Detection (Coldiron). Berns and Coldiron use a variety of methods to track and search for lost pets, but their most important tools are their dogs.  Just like dogs that are trained for the search and rescue of humans, the pet search dogs are trained to sniff out their quarry and “alert,” or give some kind of signal when they find it. But Berns says that finding pets with search dogs takes special skills and is different from tracking humans.

If you lose a pet from your home:

DO: For dogs: Perform a hasty search of your home. For cats: Perform a thorough search of your home if you did not see the cat leave. Contact local shelters.

DON’T: Run after the pet.  Confine the search to one side of a busy street. Instead, search both sides.  Postpone the search. You should begin the search immediately.  Rely on 8.5” x 11” fliers. Large, neo colored signs with big pictures are much more effective.  “The bottom line is that you’re training them to find what you want,” Berns explains. “Missing people don’t get stuck in a bed frame, but a lost cat does. It’s definitely different when you have to take that into account.”

Berns’ and Coldiron’s dogs were trained at the nonprofit Missing Pet Partnership (MPP), founded by former police detective and K-9 trainer Kat Albrecht. According to the organization, less than three dozen MAR-certified pet detectives operate in the United States right now. In addition to training the technicians, the MPP trains three types of search dogs: cat-detection dogs, trailing dogs, and dual-purpose dogs.  Cat-detection dogs are trained to find any cat within the search area. If they find the wrong cat, they are told “good dog, find another!” and the search continues. Trailing dogs are trained to lock on to the scent of a specific dog and track it. These dogs are key in determining the direction of travel of a lost pet, which can help an owner place posters in the right area and can initiate a search in the right direction. However, unless a dog is called out within hours, it is unlikely that the search dog will catch up to the lost dog. Dual-purpose dogs are trained in both areas.  Cats are particularly good at hiding, even inside. Coldiron and Berns once found a cat that was hiding in the drop-down ceiling of a building. In one remarkable case, a cat that had been missing for six days was located – by a pet sniffing dog – in a hole in a wall, two hours after Berns was called in. (Fluffy was still alive but scared.)  Berns says that there are many resources and tactics to use when trying to search for a lost pet, and using a pet detective and search dogs is one of those. One of the most important things a pet owner can do is make sure that the pet has the proper identification tags and a microchip. Pets that escape often have no identification, and a simple ID tag can let someone know where to bring a found pet. Found pets that are dropped off at shelters can also be scanned for microchips. Make sure to keep the information on your pet’s chip accurate and up to date. The detectives also recommend placing large, fluorescent-colored posters on street corners with “lost dog/cat” in big letters.

More Information:

List of certified pet detectives

The detectives are passionate about what they do, and they are also effective. Berns says that they find between 70 and 80 percent of the pets they search for, although she admits that this number includes both live and deceased pets. The cost of hiring a pet detective varies, usually based on how much travel is involved. But the minimum is usually a couple hundred dollars, according to Berns.

“The standard I apply to everything related to this business is, ‘What would I do for my pet?’” Berns remarks. “If this was my pet, what would I be doing to find this pet? I would step in front of a bus for my dog. I’m extreme; that’s why I’m good at what I do.”

Ben Williams is a reporter and associate editor for AAHA in Lakewood, Colo.  PetsMatter is provided by the American Animal Hospital Association for educational purposes only. The information should not be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. PetsMatter is not intended as a recommendation or endorsement of specific tests, products, procedures, or opinions. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian.

AAHA is an association of veterinary teams that are committed to excellence in companion animal care. It is the only organization that accredits animal hospitals throughout the United States and Canada.

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