Lizard Brain – Why Lost Dogs Run




When the Retrievers take a new case, we always counsel owners not to expect that their dog will come when they call. Many find this perplexing. “But she loves me!” “Oh, he’ll come–I know he’ll come!”

I hope he does. Sometimes lost dogs will come when called. But often, they run from everyone, including their own owner. Why?

He’s Not in his Right Mind

So far, I know of no scientific research to confirm what a lost dog is thinking, but those of us deeply involved in lost dog searches have our own theories. Here’s mine:

A lost dog is out of his comfort zone. He has lost the security of familiar surroundings and a sense of control. Instead, he’s dealing with a barrage of new sights and scents and sounds. He’s overstimulated and anxious, unsure of what to do with all this new information.

It’s overwhelming and stressful, especially for dogs that are timid by nature.

A dog in this mental state is using what is informally known as the “lizard brain,” the parts of the brain governing the most primitive reactions of flight, flight, freeze, feed and other behaviors needed just to survive. In the parlance of lost dog searches, this is known as “survival mode.” When confronted with a threat, our mild-mannered domesticated companion animals will usually choose to flee.

Switching Off the Lizard Brain

What a lost dog needs most is security–knowing where to find shelter, food, water and safety. When these needs are met, the dog can begin to calm down and be driven less by his lizard brain and more by his normal thought processes.

We have heard accounts of lost dogs initially running from their owners, but when the owner behaved in a nonthreatening way (sitting or lying quietly, not calling out or making eye contact), the dog calmed down from a distance and stopped reacting reflexively. Lowering the stress level gave the dog a chance to use his “thinking” part of the brain, to remember the owner’s scent, appearance and sound of his voice. Owners describe it as if “a light bulb went off,” and suddenly the dog was in their lap.

Gimme Shelter

Lost dogs in survival mode often stay on the move. The first step in switching off his lizard brain is to slow him down by providing food, water and shelter in a quiet place where he can feel safe. Even if he never feels secure enough to come to his owner or anyone else, he’ll be habituated to a specific location where he can be caught in a humane trap.


©2015 The Retrievers Inc. May be freely shared with attribution to

Photo ©2012 Devon Thomas Treadwell. All rights reserved.

Start Your Search Right

You’ve Just Lost Your Dog

Take a deep breath. What you do next can have a significant impact on your success in bringing your dog home. Here’s how to get your search off on the right foot.

Get Organized with our Action Plan

First, download our action plan. As you’ll see, we’ve prioritized the recommended steps in a timeline to help you stay focused and on plan. Use this as your blueprint for your managing your search.

Consider an Alternate Phone Number

Before you make any flyers or signs, consider the benefits of using a Google Voice number instead of your own. Google Voice is a free service that gives you a phone number that you can forward to up to six alternate phones. You can set it up so that your caller ID will show your Google Voice number when someone calls, letting you know it’s someone calling about your lost dog. It will ring all your alternate phones simultaneously. If you’re not available to answer the phone, one of your helpers can.

Plus, if you miss a call, you can go on your Google Voice account and see the number in the call history, so you can call it back.

It’s an unfortunate reality that prank and scam calls are common with lost dog searches. With Google Voice, you can block their number or send anonymous calls directly to voicemail, so at least you don’t have to talk to them.

Put a Sign in Your Yard

The first sign you deploy should go in your front yard (or at the point where your dog went missing). Because if someone caught your dog right away, they may be walking around looking for his owner. Use anything—a cardboard box, piece of plywood, even an old sheet—and write or paint in big letters, “DID YOU FIND MY DOG?” and your phone number.

Make a Facebook Group

Facebook is a great help in lost dog cases, as it allows you to not only spread the word about your missing dog, but also to build a network of supportive friends and strangers. Many people will volunteer to help with flyering and other awareness efforts, so be sure to take advantage of this free resource.

Generally, we recommend creating a Facebook Group (not a Page or Event) as a “home base” for public communications. You’ll want to introduce yourself as the owner of the lost dog and invite people to share the Group with their friends. Do not share exact sighting locations. And never publicly reveal the location of a trap or feeding station.


What Not to Do

Waiting: Don’t wait for your dog to return on his own. If you have lost sight of your dog, don’t spend much time driving around looking for him. Instead, get going on the steps in our Action Plan.

Chasing: Lost dogs should never be chased. For shy and skittish dogs, the act of chasing him places him in the role of prey, with you as the predator. The experience will cause him to be even more fearful of humans, making him that much more difficult to catch. Even if the dog is friendly and playful, chasing him becomes a game—one that you can’t win because dogs are so much faster than humans. And whatever you do, don’t even think about chasing down a lost dog with an ATV.

Trapping: We don’t recommend commercially available traps, especially if you have never used one. If your dog has a bad experience in a trap, it makes trapping him much more difficult in the future. If your dog is returning to a specific place, that’s a great situation for trapping, but call us first. If you’re in our service area, we can bring one of our traps. If not, we have instructions for how to build an effective one of your own or we can suggest other ways you can contain your dog.

Grabbing: If you see your dog, it may be tempting to grab him if he’s within reach, but if he is anxious or scared, chances are high that he will bite. And you’ve just scared the crap out of him. You’ve confirmed his perception of all humans (even his owner!) as dangerous and to be avoided. If you do manage to catch him, he will be traumatized by the experience and may now have a bite history. Don’t grab. Rather, earn his trust slowly and patiently by offering food. Eldad Hagar of Hope For Paws is a master at hand-catching dogs. Watch his many videos to learn his technique.

Netting: We don’t recommend throwing a net or blanket over a dog. You could miss, traumatizing the dog, or he could get injured trying to escape the net. Net guns (which propel the net at the dog at high speeds) should be avoided altogether.