Ask the Expert: What Do Pet Detectives Do?

Rita Brhel
by Rita Brhel
Ace Ventura made being a pet detective look hilarious, but this occupation is all about bringing home lost or stolen pets. We’ve got the goods from a couple of real pet detectives.

I saw a flyer in our neighborhood the other day that was offering $3000 to anyone who has seen a lost dog. The dog has now been missing for a month.

It’s a chilling reminder for all of us to keep a watchful eye on our pets whenever they are outside, even if in a fenced backyard. No matter how often our pets may venture outside on their own, there’s always a risk that they may become lost, stolen, or worse.

On this National Pet Theft Awareness Day, I spoke to a couple of pet detectives — Deborah Cooke from Missing Pet Detectives in Phoenix, Arizona; and France Lajeunesse, who works with Christine Waddell and Helena Brown, for Aid 4 Paws Search Rescue team in Ontario — on their work and on what pet owners can do to keep their pet safe.

Q: What is a pet detective?

Deborah Cooke from Missing Pet Detectives.

DEBORAH: Pet detectives are people whose mission is to assist in reuniting lost pets with their people. Some in the business offer consultations only, some specialize in the use of technology to recover animals, and others use tracking dogs. Many of us use a combination of these approaches. There is rarely one thing that will work in any given situation. Generally a multi-pronged effort is required to recover a lost pet.

FRANCE: A pet detective investigates all aspects of a pet’s disappearance, including but not limited to:

  • Knowing the the missing pet thoroughly,
  • Networking the animal,
  • Interviewing witnesses,
  • Studying the geographical area in depth,
  • Physical tracking and paw prints identification,
  • Following up on all possible leads,
  • Deciphering travel patterns,
  • Partnering with other professionals as necessary, such as police, wildlife experts, forensic labs, local businesses, etc., and
  • Strategizing on best capture or reunion methods.

Pet detectives also provide owners with support throughout the process, this is very important as the experience can be very emotional and stressful for them.

Q: Why did you become a pet detective?

DEBORAH: When I first heard about the field, I thought that I would love this work, and I do! It is wonderful to have my own team of dogs as coworkers.

FRANCE: I was personally inspired to get involved in this field when a cat went missing at a busy airport, and I became very invested in locating him. he was found a month later.

Q: How do you become a pet detective?

DEBORAH: You do need training. I recommend Missing Pet Partnership. There are many factors to consider when a pet goes missing, and various approaches to their recovery. Training should cover typical lost animal behaviors, effective methods for searching, and even how human perceptions and biases can affect outcomes.

FRANCE: Training is extremely beneficial and necessary. Not all training offered out there is created equal, so anyone interested should research this well.

Related: What To Do If Your Dog Gets Lost

Q: What kind of pet cases do you handle? How many cases do you take each year?

DEBORAH: In the 10 years I have been doing this work, my team has handled primarily dog and cat cases. Sometimes, we search for other species, including ferrets, tortoises, and even a monkey!

As with any type of self-employment, sometimes we are swamped with work, and other times, we focus more on training exercises. Because of the sometimes exhausting nature of physical searches, the dogs require a day or two of rest after difficult cases. It is not uncommon for a lost dog to cover 10 to 20 miles. I have a team of dogs to help split the canine workload. An average of 1 or 2 on-site searches a week seems optimal in my desert climate.

Christine Waddell, France Lajeunesse, and Helena Brown from Aid 4 Paws Search Rescue team in Ontario.

FRANCE: Our team’s main focus is on dogs and occasionally cats. Because we all work full-time, we are limited to how many cases we can take on yearly. Also, some complex cases take longer to solve, while a handful of cases go on for years. Somewhere between 40 and 60 cases would be a rough estimate, but it varies. Many of the cases we take on are in rural areas, and those take longer than in cities given less population and other factors.

This is all volunteer work, and we put in approximately 20-30 hours weekly. We do it as a community service.

Q: Let’s say I called you about my housecat slipping out the door one morning and now I haven’t seen her for a few days. What steps would you take to find my pet?

DEBORAH: When I am contacted regarding a lost pet, I spend some time talking to the owner. As I learn the animal’s species, breed, age, personality, physical abilities, history, and the circumstances of the moment of escape, I can begin to build a profile of the missing pet. Only then can I formulate a recovery plan, which may or may not include the use of search dogs. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to lost animal recovery. Sometimes I can instruct the pet owner in ways to enhance the effectiveness of their efforts and that may be sufficient to recover the lost pet. Other times — animals lost during auto accidents come to mind — only a canine search is likely to be helpful. Very often, we use search dogs as one of the tools needed to help narrow the search area, where others methods may be employed.

FRANCE: In the example you mention, I would want to know what happened and how, whether your cat is strictly indoor (never been outside) or has access outdoors — there is a big difference between the two in terms of search strategy. If you stated your cat is indoor, we would begin by doing a very thorough search within your home and throughout your property with a strong flashlight or snake light if needed, as typically, indoor cats rarely stray far from home. Many have been found right inside the home!

As needed, we would expand the search to neighboring properties and green spaces nearby, and distribute flyers locally. Indoor cats are often found hiding in the tightest spots. They often hide in silence for a few days. Wet food would be put out for the cat in a strategic location, and trail cameras installed for surveillance when you’re not home or sleeping. This would let us know if your cat is around and coming to eat the food. If so, then we would discuss capture strategies, including humane trapping if necessary. If not, local shelters would have to be called,in case someone might have found your cat and taken it there.

Q: What precautions do pet owners need to take to ensure their pet comes home, if their pet should go outside?

DEBORAH: GPS collars are a sure way to recover an animal that is allowed unrestricted outdoor access. But even then, all technology can fail. The only way to keep your pets is to keep them contained. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear, “I let her out but she always comes back,” in some form or another. Many animals can regularly navigate back to their homes, but I hear about the ones that don’t. At the very least, an inexpensive ID tag can be highly instrumental in getting your animal back.

This is a very rewarding, but sometimes heartbreaking, career. Some of the animals that we find did not survive attack by predators. Most of my clients tell me — with the benefit of hindsight — that prevention would have been a whole lot easier on them in the first place. Enjoy your pets, keep them with you, and keep them safe.

FRANCE: Prevention is always best. Pets should be supervised or watched at all times when outside. If a pet is lost, act immediately.

Related: The Facts About Microchipping Your Dog

Q: What first steps can owners of a missing pet take to search for their pet?

DEBORAH: Initially, a quick pass through the neighborhood is in order. If that speedy scan doesn’t locate your animal, then you will have to slow down and start talking to people in the immediate vicinity. If you can get an eyewitness account of your little traveler, you then have something on which to build your search. Proper signage is crucial, and –particularly in the case of lost dogs — you may have to cover a widening area if the animal is not recovered promptly.

FRANCE: Don’t wait! Start right away! Enlist family and friends to help put posters up and distribute flyers. Call your local shelter to report your pet missing. If your pet is microchipped, advise the company immediately. Spread the word, talk to everyone. Post your missing pet online on local community pages. Do not offer a reward as this picks the interest from the wrong type of people who may end up trying to scam you.

Q: What can a pet owner do if he believes her pet was stolen?

FRANCE: Pet theft is on the rise, and it’s extremely important for pet owners to take measures to minimize the chances of this happening.

These are the toughest cases to solve. Here are steps to take:

  1. Never, ever leave your pet unattended, especially in public places, and even in your vehicle;
  2. Tying your dog to a pole outside a store is an open invitation for a thief to take your dog;
  3. When your dog is outside in the yard, ensure there are no escape routes, such as dug-out holes along the fence and that your gate is properly closed and locked;
  4. Supervise them when they’re outside;
  5. Don’t ever post your address publicly online.
  6. Always be aware of human activity in your area.
  7. Take note of license plates of vehicles if you see anything suspicious, and report to the police immediately.

Thieves watch online, too, so be very careful of anything you post about your dog that might tempt a thief. Fighting dogs rings do exist, especially targeting wandering dogs in rural areas, “free to a good home” ads online, dogs in yards where gates aren’t locked and you can see through the fence, pure breeds, and unsuspecting folks out walking their dogs alone in less populated areas. Always be aware of human activity in your area.

Take note of license plates of vehicles if you see anything suspicious and report to the police immediately.

If you find a pet, please ensure to report it immediately to local shelters and have it scanned for a microchip, no matter what condition the animal is in. There’s always the possibility that an animal in rough shape may have been lost a long time and has an owner frantically searching for them. There is no better feeling than to be reuniting a lost pet with their family.

Rita Brhel
Rita Brhel

Rita Brhel is a freelance writer with a huge heart for animals that she's passed on to her 3 children. Rita herself has a cat named Tippy (in photo) and 4 finches. Her 3 kids and husband share an additional 3 cats, 3 small parrots, 3 rabbits, 5 pigeons, 8 chickens, and 2 ducks on their acreage near Hastings, Nebraska, USA. She has experience with a lot of different species of pets of her own, has worked a 1-year stint in a vet clinic as part of a hands-on journalism project, and has been a foster pet parent for an animal shelter. Each of her children dream of careers working with animals, and Rita wholeheartedly supports them!

More by Rita Brhel