Revealed: Why A Lost Dog’s Behavior Impacts Why And Where He Roams

Kate Barrington
by Kate Barrington

Have you ever wondered why dogs wander? It can be more than just opportunity – in many cases, their temperament affects why they stray and just how far they go.

Nothing is more heartbreaking than knowing your dog is somewhere in the world, lost and away from your care. Losing a dog can be traumatic for both you and the dog, but understanding a few things about lost dog behavior might help you to get your dog back safe and sound.

Why Do Dogs Leave Home?

There are three main reasons why a dog is likely to leave home – wanderlust, opportunism, and panic. Intact male dogs are particularly prone to wanderlust, a desire to simply escape and to see what the world holds. This is particularly common when a female dog in heat is nearby. Male dogs can smell a female in heat from several miles away and they will do anything to get to her.

In other cases, your dog’s escape may simply be an act of opportunism – you accidentally leave the gate open and the dog just can’t resist the temptation to explore. Your dog may not actually intend to leave home but if he catches an interesting scent, he may follow it a long way from home before he even realizes that he is lost. If you have a dog that has a high prey drive, he may take off after a wild animal. At that moment, his attention isn’t on what direction he is going. Instead, he is fully focused on that animal and his determination to catch it. By the time he realizes that he is far from home, many dogs are turned around and unsure of how to get back.

The third reason dogs leave home is due to panic. Loud noises (like thunder or fireworks), a traumatic event, or a skittish temperament may trigger your dog’s fight or flight response and he might choose to flee. Dogs that leave home, for this reason, are the hardest to catch because their fear often causes them to avoid humans and they may travel far and fast to escape the thing causing their fear.

Related: The Facts About Microchipping Your Dog

Factors That Influence Distance

Some dogs who leave home will only wander a block or two away, but others travel miles from home before someone finds them. The main factors that influence how far your dog travels from home include temperament, weather, circumstances, terrain, appearance, and population density.

Some dogs are simply more skittish than others – dogs with an aloof or fearful temperament are likely to avoid human contact and may travel greater distances before someone catches them. If there are other people helping you search for your dog, their presence may drive your dog further away from your home. When putting up lost dog signs, make sure to warn people not to chase your dog if he is spotted.

The weather on the day your dog escapes also impacts how far he will travel. If it’s a nice day, he’s likely to go much farther than he would in a rain or snow storm. In extreme weather situations, your dog may search for a place to hunker down and stay safe. Most dogs will look for somewhere that offers shelter from the elements. Try searching local garages, sheds, or under porches.

The circumstances surrounding your dog’s escape play a role as well. If your dog bolts in panic he may run for several miles while a dog that is simply exploring a scent will likely only go a short distance.

The terrain in the area where you live could impact your dog’s travel. Mountainous regions and areas of heavy brush might slow your dog down whereas large, open areas might enable your dog to run for miles. The population density in the area where your dog escapes is important as well. Your dog won’t make it as far in a heavily populated area as he might out in the country. Even your dog’s appearance can impact how far he travels before someone picks him up. Breeds that have a reputation for being aggressive (like Pitbull Terriers) are more likely to be ignored than friendly-looking dogs like Golden Retrievers. And purebreds are also likely to be picked up faster than mutts.

Related: What To Do If Your Dog Gets Lost

Other Important Information

No matter your dog’s reason for leaving, your reaction can significantly impact your chances of finding him. Many dog owners follow a “wait and see” approach rather than actively looking for their dog or putting up fliers.

As soon as you know your dog is missing you should check with local animal shelters and perform a search of the surrounding area. Reach out to local veterinarians to let them know that your dog is missing. Provide a description and a contact number in case your dog is brought in. If someone locates your dog and he has been injured in any way while he was wandering, they may be seeking emergency care for him first. Dog owners that are familiar with the use of microchips are likely going to bring a dog without a physical ID in to be scanned for a microchip. This is commonly done at a shelter or veterinary clinic.  

People that have strong bonds with their dogs are more likely to go the extra mile to find them, even if it means spending hours contacting rescues, putting up flyers, and canvasing potential witnesses.

A common piece of advice floating around the internet is to leave food out, but this could also attract local predators creating a dangerous situation for your dog. Instead, try putting out a familiar object with your dog’s scent like a blanket, your dog’s bed, or a favorite toy. Another option could be to place unwashed clothing that had been worn by “his people” outside. A dog’s sense of smell is considerably stronger than ours. These familiar smells may be enough to guide your dog back home safely.

Don’t hesitate to leverage the power of social media and the internet. Post your lost dog notice on lost and found pet sites, alerting other pet lovers that he is missing, what he looks like, where he was last seen, and how to get ahold of you if he has been spotted. Take this same information and post it on social media with a clear picture or two of your dog. This can be shared with local Facebook groups as well as those dedicated to lost and found pets. The more people that share this information, the more likely it is going to end up in front of the right person at the right time.

A stronger knowledge of your dog’s behavior might make the difference in whether or not you find your pet. You know your dog best, so when you find out that he’s missing, get out and look for him. If your dog is a water-loving pup and you happen to live near a body of water, there is a good chance that he could have headed in that direction for a quick dip. On the other hand, if you know your dog has a high prey drive, you may want to focus your search on forested areas and local parks.

Your dog is more likely to be found if you can determine why he left and what his temperament will tell him to do.

Kate Barrington
Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington is the loving owner of two cats (Bagel and Munchkin) and a noisy herd of guinea pigs. Having grown up with golden retrievers, Kate has a great deal of experience with dogs but labels herself a lover of all pets. Having received a Bachelor's degree in English, Kate has combined her love for pets and her passion for writing to create her own freelance writing business, specializing in the pet niche.

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