For animal lovers the country over, the thought of losing a beloved pet does not bear thinking about. When a pet does go missing, people are often unsure of how they can find them. This is exactly why Anne Wills founded Dogs Finding Dogs based in Baltimore to help people through the process.
"It all first started with the purchase of my canine, Heidi, as a puppy," says Wills. "She was very high drive, out of control, needed training. My boyfriend at the time was a police officer. He said 'I'll tell you where to go train, let's go where they do auxiliary training.'"
After training Heidi to an extremely high standard and entering her into contests, Wills discovered that Heidi was an excellent scent tracking dog.
She knew that the police frequently received calls about lost pets, asking if the canine teams could help track the missing animals. As Wills knew, however, the police "do not let their dogs track anything other than human scent."
This meant that Heidi was "the next best choice" and after being called out many times over a period of a few months, Wills says she thought, "okay, this is fun, my dog's got training, we're helping people, let's do it for real."
After gathering some friends who also owned trained dogs and advertising a little, Wills found herself so swamped by calls for help from pet owners that "within 6 months, I had to quit my full-time job and form this as a non-profit."
Wills describes Dogs Finding Dogs as "a nonprofit that does canine search and rescue for missing pets. We find anything and everything that walks on the ground using highly trained canines."
Though it is quite a jump to go from doing the work part-time to creating a fully fledged donation-based nonprofit. Wills explains that the motivation came from the people she was helping.
"When you get into a situation of losing a lost pet, you're so frantic that you can't think. You don't know all of the alerts that can be done, the way you need to spread the word, even to how to begin to look for your pet. So seeing how well we were helping folks and how appreciative they were, that was what made us decide to get serious and really form a huge organization that could do this all the time."
Since forming as an organization in 2008, they have rescued over 4000 pets, which having been called to find more than just missing dogs after they'd expanded, have included cats, horses, tortoises, and even people.
Each case is different, says Wills. It can range "from somebody left the door open and the gate blows open, the dog or cat runs out and gets missing, to somebody has physically come in and stolen your pet. We've had home invasions, we've had people stealing them right out of fenced yards."
Dogs Finding Dogs works together with the pet owner to put together a plan of action as soon as they hear about the missing pet.
"We will immediately sit there for as long as it takes with someone on the phone to analyze the situation and give them an immediate action plan to do. And it's hand-tailored to whatever their unique situation is. We do tell them that we can take their case on and how we work with the canines and give them the option as to whether they'd like us to come out or not."
Wills explains that the volunteer canine teams are not always sent out immediately because each case requires a different approach. When the dogs are needed, "The first thing that I do, is I match up the right dog for the right job," says Wills.
"There are some dogs that do terrific on concrete, there are some that do terrific after it's been raining for a while, there's some that are better for cats than for dogs. If they're not raised with a cat, they don't go out for a cat because we want to make sure that there's a happy ending."
Once they've arrived at the animal's last know location, they get the dog to pick up the pet's scent using an object. "It could be a bed, could be a toy, could be a food bowl, little bit of fur, it doesn't take much, and we will scent a canine up at the last known spot that the pet went missing from."
"From there," explains Wills, "they follow the footsteps out and we look and see where this goes."
The end of the scent trail will not always result in finding the animal immediately. "We as human beings hope that where [the dog] says it ends that the pet is there but that's not always the case. It could be that it ends in a weird area where it looks like [it] was picked up off the ground."
The animal could also have started looping around the area while finding somewhere to sleep, "so we know that the dog or the animal is probably in that area."
"And now let's develop an action plan of what we're going to do to stop this animal from moving and usually it involves a lot of food and a lot of familiar smells of the folks that they know."
Catching the animal becomes a waiting game that sometimes involves trapping the pet in a large kennel run. Most importantly, the members of Dogs Finding Dogs do all they can to make sure their clients remain as calm as possible. "We develop an entire action plan and we stay with our clients from beginning to end."
Using their knowledge of their well-trained dogs as well as an understanding of the patterns and habits of lost animals, the Dogs Finding Dogs teams have an excellent track record, though the time it takes to find the pet varies from case to case.
"Some cases we get them solved in five minutes. Some it's a week. Some could be five weeks. We just solved one this week and got a pet home after 2 years of chasing a dog around the countryside so we stick with them to the bitter end and we run about a 92-94% success rate."
The difficulties that come with tracking a lost animal are many, says Wills. Elements like time, weather, and terrain can all play a different role in the retrieval of the missing pet, as well as the type of animal concerned.
"The challenges that we face on a daily basis is number one how quickly have somebody called us and what type of animal is it. Sometimes, it's not a bad thing that we're called two weeks later because it gives the animal time to settle down and stay in an area but then sometimes it works against us."
Knowing the behavior of the animal that is missing is very important in helping to find it. "The difference between a cat gone missing versus a dog versus a tortoise, for example, or even a horse, is how much ground can they cover and what are the characteristics known to that type of animal."
Wills explains that, "A dog for example is going to travel much more distance than a cat. A cat is a more territorial animal and they usually stay within their territory and if they wander out, they get lost. The tortoise, who knows? The tortoise just hits the ground and toodles off. However, it can make some good distance. We had one that went as far as an indoor cat would go."
While most cases are of a dog having run away or escaped through an open gate, Wills says that "45% of all of our dog cases do wind up stolen," something that has surprised her greatly.
"If it was them that lost their personal pet, they wouldn't like it and that to me is what is so extremely surprising. uJst day after day, every week, we're getting 3 in 4 cases a week that are stolen pets."
When the team finds out that the pet was stolen, "That's an entirely different game that we have to play," says Wills. "It's not so much a tracking effort as it is a manipulation effort to try to get these people to tip their hands. We become more police detectives and we work with the police and pull them in on these cases with us."
No matter what the circumstances that surround each case, rediscovering the pet means the world to the owners, especially for the people for whom to "lose their pets, it's like losing a child, they are that crushed and they need help."
One such pet owner, Pat Brooks, explains that, "They gave me hope that I would find him and when they gave me instructions about how dogs usually run away, what they do, and each time [Wills] listed things that would happen, it happened. Where she'd said he'd go, when would reappear, all the things she knew about the dogs proved to be true and that gave me hope."
Over the years, the way Dogs Finding Dogs works has evolved to include finding more pets but it has also grown to include the use of horses as part of the search teams.
"We have the luxury of having two horseback teams," Wills explains, "and these horses are a tremendous, tremendous blessing to us because we get into environments like the State Parks, farmland that a person on the back of a leash with a dog cannot necessarily catch up with an animal that has no obstructions to slow it down."
With the help of the horses, they can cover far more ground and thus help to find even more missing pets.
For Wills, she is constantly astonished by the tracking dogs' ability to pick up scents, even in seemingly impossible scenarios.
"We have situations where there's a lot of water involved, for example. What's surprised me is to see a dog track two inches on top of a creek, following the scent because the animal walked up the creek. That to me is astonishing that these animals can pick that up, can pick the scent up floating on the water."
All the work that Wills puts into the nonprofit, an idea she loved enough to leave her job for, is for the owners and the reunion that she and her teams make possible.
"The reunion is priceless, it'll make you cry ... To see the relief of handing that pet back to the person who has been through so much trauma ... and to see the pet, the pet will show the happiness too, 'oh my gosh, I'm back'."
"There's nothing better. It's absolutely priceless. And to know that your dog that you have trained so hard with, that you love just as much as they do, was instrumental in this reunion, is such a big feeling of pride. It's a great feeling and people are so appreciative and every client we had is a friend now."