Stray dogs are a sad fact of rural life. When I was a kid in Indiana, the gravel road we lived on was a prime spot for city folks to drop unwanted animals. Sometimes dumped dogs adopted farm families and lived happily ever after. But others formed packs that didn’t look or act like pets. Think Mad Max with wilder hairstyles.
Where I live now in rural northern Wisconsin, I don’t think strays survive long enough to form packs. But we see lone lost dogs from time to time. And they’re not all dumped. Some wander away from homes, cabins, or campgrounds. Hounds get away from bear hunters. Volunteer firefighters in rural areas have lots of stories about searching for or managing dogs on accident scenes. One time, EMTs couldn’t treat a patient until we coaxed a very protective Golden Retriever out of its car and into mine. I drove the dog home thinking how much I hope someone would do that for me in a similar situation.
Over the years, we’ve had some scary searches for our own dogs. One decided to whelp her pups in a burrow she dug under a concrete slab. We’ve had dogs who were old or sick or both take refuge in hidey holes under steps and under the lilacs. Those were close to home but we’ve also had some heartstopping moments while hunting. We’ve found our dogs skunked and quilled. Scout once had her eyelashes sanded off while hunting in dry goldenrod (another Mad Max moment, with blood streaming from her eyelids and a big grin on her face). One time in Iowa, Tina and Robin chased a crippled pheasant in thick cover so far on a warm day that both dogs were near to heat stroke when they finally found us. That’s the closest we ever came to losing a dog. Until this fall.
Bill was grouse hunting with our 9-year-old English cocker spaniel, Blue. It was a fine Friday afternoon and he only planned to hunt from our house to the river and back while I visited with a friend on our porch. It’s familiar ground and less than 3 miles altogether. So when my phone rang, I wasn’t expecting to hear he lost our dog.
Blue got on a scent while Bill was bushwhacking from one trail to another. He couldn’t call her back. Or hear the bell on her collar. Or spot the blaze orange bandana tied around her neck. He waited. She didn’t come. He called some more. She didn’t come.
Finally, he took off the sweaty hunting vest that holds his scent and left it on the trail, hoping she would come looking for him and stay with that item. Then he went looking for her, and called me.
The huffing and puffing on his end of the call had me concerned for the dog and husband alike. I left my company on the porch in case Blue found her way home and took the truck to meet Bill. On the way, I called a neighbor to tell him what was going on.
There’s another piece of property back there owned by another person I’d never met. Per the very specific instructions given by my breathless husband over the phone, I drove through their gate and on toward the public land where I was supposed to meet Bill. I could have reached that spot via two other routes. Bill told me later he didn’t want me walking the rough ground of those alternatives in a hurry so close to dark. We’re practically characters in an O. Henry story, he and I.
I was creeping along watching for movement and listening for Blue’s bell. I imagined her caught in a leg trap or with another stick impaled in her throat (that was an expensive vet bill). I pictured my husband busting through the brush while clutching his chest. Then my phone rang. Bill had spotted Blue. He said at first, she wouldn’t come when he called. But he finally coaxed her in and they were heading to where we planned to meet. The two of them walked up together shortly after I arrived. No injuries. No heart attack. Blue hopped into the truck to wait with me while Bill went to retrieve the vest he had left as a scent marker. Soon, the three of us were driving back out the way I had come.
We were met by the owner of the property I had crossed, coming down the trail on his ATV. And I couldn’t blame him at all for looking upset. I assume he had been bowhunting for the buck I jumped on the way in. I appreciate that he listened to my babbling apologies, saw the red-faced husband and the panting dog, and chose to behave like the kind of neighbor who also bird hunts and understands how scary it is to lose a dog. I sure hope he got that buck another day. I suspect he has trail cameras out there and would have known if we made a habit of trespassing on his land. Which we don’t.
After that scare with Blue, Bill and I talked about what happened. We were both astonished that when he finally spotted Blue and called to her, she not only wouldn’t come but she ran away from him. Come is one of the first commands we teach a pup. It’s our responsibility to train our dogs to obey commands we use to protect them from hazards we may recognize before they do. We never reprimand a dog for coming when called, although we might ask what took so long. We don’t mistreat or neglect our dogs. Why would she not come to him? Why would she run away from him?
Surprisingly, a helpful clue came via Facebook. For the past few years we’ve noticed that lost dog posters and Facebook notices include specific wording like, “Do not chase, call or whistle.” I assumed it was because those dogs were particularly skittish. The only pet we’ve ever had who fit that description was a plecostomus that outgrew the hiding places in our 55-gallon aquarium. But after reading about lost pet behavior on the Missing Animal Response Network website, I think that assumption was wrong.
In both humans and animals, the response to panic at being lost is likely fight or flight. A pack of dogs might choose to fight a perceived predator, if the odds seem in their favor. A lone dog that feels cornered might fight, which is why I wouldn’t try to get a leash on a neighbor’s dog that got into our shop building despite her assurance that “he would never bite anyone.” But for a lone dog, the best option is usually flight. So they now recommended this: If your dog runs away from you, let it. By not chasing and avoiding actions that might be perceived as predatory, you can buy some time for the animal to calm down enough to recognize your voice or smell and come to you on its own.
We’ve done that with other strays but never thought the dog that sleeps at the foot of our bed would mistake us for predators. Now we know. If it ever happens again we’ll use calming signals and other tips from this video to lure instead of catch. The rustle of a potato chip bag can wake Blue from a sound sleep, so that sound might well reach through panic, too.
Treats may not be central to every human-canine relationship but our dogs have certainly trained us to know what they like. And we’re not alone. Friends of ours had a lab/hound mix – a stray named Ted that adopted them. Ted had a treat preference so unusual the neighbors all heard about it. Occasionally that dog took a notion to visit other farms in the area and Alan would get a call to come pick up his dog – only to find Ted lapping up a Pepsi while waiting for a ride home.
Back in the mid-1990s we found a stray once while we were canoeing. This was far enough from any homes, cabins, or known campsites to assume the dog was lost. It followed us along the bank far enough to convince everyone in our party to change our plan for the day. We didn’t even need treats to lure it in. By the time we were all off the river, I was ready to give that sweet boy a home. But first we did what responsible folks do in rural areas: We went to the community’s nerve center (the local gas station) to see if the owners knew of anyone looking for a lost dog. Sure enough, there was a poster in the window and we had to give him back to his family.
Nowadays, in addition to posters at the gas station, at intersections, and other likely locations, people post lost or found pet information on social media. That’s the first thing I did last summer when I spotted a handsome hound circling our house. It paused long enough to sniff something so I snapped a picture with my cell phone and posted it on Facebook. I wish I could report we helped that dog get home safely, too, but by the time its photo finished uploading (darn slow rural internet connection) the dog was gone.
Maybe I should have offered it a Pepsi.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.