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.

Trial by Fire


Lost: March 7, 2015

Retrieved: March 8, 2015

Outcome: Returned to owner

Case Manager: Devon Thomas Treadwell


The family’s home burned while their dogs were still inside. (Photo by David Brakke, St. Cloud Times. Used by permission.)

On March 7, 2015, a family in Big Lake, MN suffered a devastating fire. When the blaze broke out, the only adult at home was in the basement shower. When she got out, she heard her two dogs barking, also in the basement, and neighbors pounding on the windows. She and the dogs came upstairs, but Charlie and Bella were too scared by the flames to exit, and they bolted downstairs again.

Charlie and Tasha

Charlie and Tasha

The owner tried to get to them, but could no longer see through the smoke. Neighbors broke through the basement windows and attempted to save the dogs, but they couldn’t find them.

For two agonizing hours, the family watched their home burn with their dogs inside.

Once the fire was out, though, firefighters found the dogs huddled in the basement tub. They had suffered smoke inhalation but were alive and unburned. Unfortunately, when the dogs were brought outside, Charlie—a 10-month-old Golden Retriever mix—panicked and ran off.

It was a nightmare within a nightmare.

Firemen and neighbors tracked him through the snow to the nearby Mississippi River, but never actually saw him. Meanwhile, friends put Charlie on Lost Dogs – MN. That night and through the next day, about 40 people in the neighborhood were out looking for him.

With Labrador mix, Bella, Charlie's bonded companion.

With Labrador mix, Bella, Charlie’s bonded companion.

A family friend told the owner about the Retrievers, and we received a call at about 5 p.m. on Sunday. On hotline duty that day, I learned that Charlie was running up and down the wooded shoreline of the river and nobody could catch him. They would see him and call out or offer treats, but he ran from them every time.

I advised Tasha, the owner, to ask everyone to leave the area except for her. She should wait by the river with her other dog, Bella, and sit quietly until Charlie appeared. The wind was blowing along the river that afternoon, and I hoped that it would carry Tasha and Bella’s familiar scents to Charlie. I also hoped that clearing the woods of all strangers would help him be less anxious and stop running.

Charlie and Tasha, moments after being reunited.

Moments after being reunited.

Tasha waited about two hours. As it was getting dark, she received a call. Turns out Charlie had wandered out of the woods and over to a residential area. where he allowed a couple of teenagers and kids to put a leash on him. (He loves kids!) Minutes later, Tasha and Charlie were reunited.

Sometimes the only way the Retrievers can help on a lost dog case is through consultation, but often, that’s what an owner needs most—a single, experienced voice to guide them. “You made us stop what we were doing,” Tasha told me later. “It got everyone to calm down.”

Including Charlie, it would seem. Without all those strangers pursuing him in the woods, he was able to come out of his panicked state and stop reacting so reflexively.

Though the family lost their home, all four of their pets (Charlie, Bella and two cats) survived. I’m very grateful that the Retrievers were able to play a small part in that success.

Read the story in the St. Cloud Times

The Disappearing Magician


Lost: January 2, 2015

Retrieved: January 7, 2015

Outcome: Returned to Owner

Case Manager: Greg James


Little miss Hocus was adopted from a local rescue.  Her brother, Pocus, is still in foster at thetime of this writing.  So now you know the reason for the title of this write up… Shortly

Sweet Little peanut Hocus

Sweet Little peanut Hocus

after being adopted, Hocus took flight from her new family’s yard when her harness slipped off.  She did not dart away, but rather lingered around the yard and immediate area, but her family was not able to contain her again.  They left food out and some clothing and immediately  contacted the authorities once night fell and she was no longer seen.

Hocus’ family and her former foster mom began an intense round of awareness of Hocus and her flight.  Facebook was the number one tool used, along with flyers and intersection signs.  It was not long before many people knew Hocus’ story and that she was missing.  The day after leaving she did return to her yard, but again they were not able to get their hands on her or contain her.

With the awareness, many calls with sightings started coming in.  She was still remaining in the area and the hope was that she would return again to her yard.  This is when they contacted The Retrievers and we set out one of our traps.  Most of our traps were already out on different cases, but we were able to get one together that was a converted Xpen using our sensor and magnet set up.  Hocus took flight on a Friday afternoon and Sunday evening, the trap and our cellular trail camera were in place in her new back yard.

Hocus did not return.

Over the next few days, there were many more calls with sightings.  Some near.  Some upto a mile away near a busy intersection where she was seen crossing several times a day.  The awareness was increased and a local TV station even did a news story on Hocus because of all the awareness of her story (You can never have to much awareness).

It was now Wednesday afternoon and there had been no action at the trap, and no photos of Hocus from our camera.  By all accounts she had moved her safe area about a mile east where most of the sightings were coming from.  I spoke with the owners and moving the trap the next day was decided to be the plan, along with setting out a second trap.  Both traps would be near her new safe area.

It was about an hour after talking to the owner on the phone, and a photo of Hocus came through from our camera.  She was back in her yard!  Her owner was home and was watching her and hoping she would enter the trap.  She cautiously looked into the trap, then circled it and ate all the food around it.  She did not go in, but this was a great sign that she was back in the area and she knew there was a big pile of fresh rotisserie chicken in the trap…

Our First Pic of Hocus Back at Her Yard

Our First Pic of Hocus Back at Her Yard

Darkness fell and it was about 90 minutes after she first reappeared at the trap.  Our camera once again sent some photos of her approaching the trap.  I was on the phone with her foster mom, who was inside the owner’s home with them watching out the window (they had all their lights turned off).  It was at that moment , at 6:15pm on Wednesday, that Hocus went into the trap and was captured.

Approaching the Trap

Approaching the Trap

First Photo of Her in the Trap

First Photo of Her in the Trap

Saying Hi to Her Foster Mom

Saying Hi to Her Foster Mom

They quickly got out to the trap and Hocus was scared at first, but she was not panicking or putting up a fight.  She was shivering and once she recognized her foster, she wanted out to greet her.  They safely removed Hocus from the trap and got her inside to warm up and get some more food and to decompress a bit.  Considering she had been gone for 5 days and in very cold conditions, she was in good shape and had only lost a few pounds.

This story is a great one to write and read.  They key to capturing Hocus was all of the awareness out there.  So many people came together and were calling in the sightings and doing the right thing (not chasing her).  It was truly a team effort and that effort paid off in the end.  The interesting fact is that Hocus was captured in the trap literally minutes after her story was played on the local TV station news….  Happy ending for Hocus and her new family.  She is doing well and is all rested up again.

Signs of Sierra


Lost: November 3, 2014

Retrieved: November 9, 2014

Outcome: Reunited with family

Case Manager: Devon Thomas Treadwell



Sierra, a friendly 13-year-old Golden Retriever, went missing from her home in Long Lake, Minnesota. The family reported that she had been acting oddly after supper, running at the front door and hiding under the table. When let out for a potty break, she bolted from the yard—this from a dog who never wanted to be away from her people and could barely finish a walk around the block.

Normally, the Retrievers don’t put “boots on the ground” until a lost dog’s whereabouts are known and trapping is required. But this case had me worried.

Did Sierra experience some kind of adverse food-related event? Gastric torsion? Obstruction? A toxin? Did she have a behavioral seizure?

By the time we learned about her on the Lost Dogs – MN Facebook page, Sierra had been gone for more than a day. Was she dying under some shrub? Was she already dead?

Like many of my teammates, I own a Golden Retriever and have a soft spot for the breed. I couldn’t not respond to the news of a missing white-faced senior.

When I asked if any teammates wanted to help me with a ground search, Retrievers Karie Daudt and Niki Taylor volunteered. We met up with Sierra’s owner, Maggie, who told us she had flyered the block, talked with the neighbors and searched the family’s acreage. The four of us searched again, looking under every low-hanging tree, between fallen logs, in the neighbors’ outbuildings and any place we could imagine a dog might wander off to die.

After finding no sign of Sierra, we had to call it quits. Sierra wasn’t in the immediate area, so perhaps she wasn’t sick at all. Perhaps she was just further away, in which case the most pressing need was awareness. Karie happened to have four “Lost Golden Retriever” signs in her car from a previous search. They displayed the Retrievers’ phone number, so we figured why not use them?

As Karie was placing one of the signs, a car stopped and a man told her he’d seen Sierra the morning before. She was moseying around his front lawn, as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

What a relief!

Home sweet home!

Home sweet home!

Now that we knew Sierra was alive and well, the strategy shifted from ground searching to awareness-building. We advised the family to put out more intersection signs—bright green ones to match the four that we had already placed. Soon came more sighting reports. Apparently a lot of people had seen Sierra—sometimes ambling down the middle of a street.

On the sixth day after Sierra went missing, she was easily caught by Good Samaritans about a mile south of her home.

Here’s Sierra, happy to be back at home with her family. It’s now believed that her odd behavior the night she bolted was due to dementia. She was the canine equivalent of an Alzheimers walkaway.

Ironically, the Good Samaritans who captured Sierra had spotted her the day before. But they didn’t know she was a lost dog until they saw one of the bright “Missing Golden Retriever” signs.

As an organization, we’re a big believer in intersection signs. They are the fastest way to raise awareness. And the beauty of these signs is that they don’t have to be anything special. All you need is brightly colored poster board from the Dollar Store, some stakes, a stapler and a broad-tipped waterproof marker. (Next election season, ask people to donate their campaign signs so you can use the wire stands.)

Use the same color for all your signs, and place them at major intersections in your search area. As you get confirmed sightings, you can move them closer to the dog’s location. Mark the sign locations on a map so you can remove them after the search.

If you volunteer for a breed rescue, we highly recommend you purchase 15-20 custom yard signs to have on hand in case one of your dogs goes missing. No photo necessary—just a simple description:  “Lost Great Dane” and your phone number. There are many online vendors competing with low-cost Coroplast yard signs. Get the biggest size you can afford.

If you foster many different breeds of dogs, then just have poster board, stakes and markers ready. Use the simplest words possible to describe the dog, for example: “Lost Small Black Dog.” The fewer words, the better. Make sure the text is big enough for someone to read as they’re driving by. And save the used signs for next time.