Pet detectives: Not just in the movies anymore

Everyone has heard of Ace Ventura. But real pet detectives do exist, although there are only a handful operating in the United States. Well-trained pet detectives and their four-legged partners can literally sniff out a lost pet, sometimes in a matter of hours.

At the annual conference of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in Seattle last week, two pet detectives gave a series of presentations on what they do and how they do it.

Annalisa Berns and Landa Coldiron are certified Missing Animal Response (MAR) Technicians. The two women own their own companies, Pet Search and Rescue and Lost Pet Detection respectively. Berns and Coldiron use a variety of methods to track and search for lost pets, but their most important tools are their dogs.

Like dogs that are trained for search and rescue of humans, the pet search dogs are trained to sniff out their quarry and “alert,” or give some kind of signal when they find it. But Berns says that finding pets with search dogs takes special skills, and is different from tracking humans.

“The bottom line is that you’re training them to find what you want,” Berns said. “Missing people don’t get stuck in a bed frame, but a lost cat does. It’s definitely different when you have to take that into account.”

Berns and Coldiron’s dogs were trained at the nonprofit Missing Pet Partnership (MPP), founded by former police detective and K-9 trainer Kat Albrecht. According to the organization, there are less than three dozen MAR-certified pet detectives operating in the United States right now. In addition to training the technicians, the MPP trains three types of search dogs: cat detection dogs, trailing dogs, and dual purpose dogs.

Cat detection dogs are trained to find any cat within the search area. If they find the wrong cat, they are told “good dog, find another!” and the search continues. Trailing dogs are trained to lock on to the scent of a specific dog and track it. These dogs are key in determining the direction of travel of a lost pet, which can help an owner place posters in the right area and can initiate a search in the right direction. However, Albrecht notes, unless a dog is called out within hours, it is unlikely that the search dog will catch up to the lost dog. Dual purpose dogs are trained in both areas.

Does your clinic have a plan?

Berns said that although the majority of her clients are individuals who have lost pets, she also gets work from boarding kennels, groomers, pet sitters and veterinary clinics.

If you lose a pet from your clinic:

Contact the owner immediately (within 15 minutes)
For dogs: Perform a hasty search of the building
For cats: Perform a thorough search of the building if you did not see them leave

Run after the pet
Confine the search to one side of a busy street
Postpone the search
Rely on 8.5x11” fliers (use large neon colored signs with big pictures)

“Each pet service provider can expect to lose at least one pet during the life of their business,” Coldiron said during the AVMA workshop “Pet Loss Prevention for Veterinary Clinics.” “Most veterinary practices are not adequately prepared for the loss of a pet.”

Coldiron and Berns described several cases they had worked on in for veterinary clinics. One catwas found hiding in a drop-down ceiling, and they talked about multiple cases where pets escaped from clinics after tripping motion-sensing doors. In one remarkable case, a cat that had been missing for six days was located – by a pet sniffing dog – in a hole in the wall of the clinic break room two hours after Berns was called in. (Fluffy was still alive but scared.)

Berns said that in her experience, pet owners realize that accidents can happen, but how the clinic reacts is important.

“They want the response to be timely, proactive, compassionate and effective,” she said. “Not, ‘how much is my financial responsibility when the pet is missing?’”

Clinics should have a search plan in place, she said, and designate one person as a search manager. Involving the client in the search can also be effective, though it might be uncomfortable at first. The pair stressed that if a clinic handles a search well, it can bolster existing client loyalty and may even lead to new clients. But if a search is handled poorly, the results can include negative media coverage, online bashing and possibly lawsuits.

She said there are many resources and tactics to use when trying to search for a lost pet, and using a pet detective and search dogs is one of those. One very effective method in tracking down pets is to place a hospital-style TabBand or EJay band on the pet as soon as the collar is removed for grooming or for any other reason, Berns said. Pets that escape from clinics often have no identification and the simple bands printed with the clinic name can let someone know where to bring a found pet.

High interest

Attendees who took part in the class seemed mostly intrigued by the concept of pet detectives and using dogs to search for lost pets.

“In an effort to broaden my knowledge of everything, [I wanted to find out:] could this be an option also in disaster relief?” said Cmdr. Meta Timmons, DVM, who works for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System. “To know that it’s out there is important. It’s another resource that we could direct local and state agencies to.”

Retired veterinarian Keith Wiggers, DVM, of Burlington, Wash., said he was fascinated with the behavioral aspect of the profession.

“This is utilizing natural behavior, it’s training the dog and the human,” Wiggers said. “You have to learn how to read the dog.”

List of certified pet detectives

Berns said the cost of hiring a pet detective varies based on how much travel is involved, but the minimum is usually a couple hundred dollars. Some insurance companies will cover at least some of the cost, but others require an additional rider, she said.

The detectives are passionate about what they do, and they are also effective. Berns said they find between 70 and 80 percent of the pets they search for, though she admits that number includes both live and deceased pets.

“The standard I apply to everything related to this business is ‘what would I do for my pet?’” Berns said. “If this was my pet, what would I be doing to find this pet? I would step in front of a bus for my dog. I’m extreme, that’s why I’m good at what I do.”