Wayward Pooch? Call the Pet Detective

Vivi, the missing whippet from the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, remains at large, but a pet detective says she may just be scared of her new surroundings and hiding.

"Lost dogs, especially like this one with a skittish temperament, are likely not going to come up to people," said Kat Albrecht, a police detective turned pet detective who is founder and CEO of Pet Hunters International.

Albrecht applies the same forensic science and techniques employed in her former work finding missing people to search for lost pets. Since 1997, Pet Hunters has helped reunite about 1,800 pets with their owners. She launched Pet Hunters, a pet detective academy in Clovis, Calif., last year.

In Vivi's case, the dog was at John F. Kennedy International Airport to fly home to Southern California on Wednesday after winning an award of merit at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. She apparently escaped from her travel cage while it was on the tarmac and was last spotted bolting toward the marshlands surrounding the airport.

Jesse Winters, a spokeswoman with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said whippets in general were not likely to approach people.

"With this particular breed of dog, they don't tend to come up to just anybody," Winters said. "It's best if someone were to see the dog not to chase it. The whippet is a sight hound. They travel great distances and don't tend to come up to anybody."

The official search for Vivi has been called off, but Albrecht said there's a good likelihood she will be located. "In this case, with the news coverage, I think there's a really good chance of getting the dog back," she said. "It's just a matter of isolating where the dog is and [when she's] calmed down enough."

What to Do?

According to Animal Care and Control of New York City, last year 9,023 dogs came into shelters in New York alone. An estimated 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats are taken to shelters nationwide every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

For dogs like Vivi who are on the loose, several methods can be used to lure them home.

Albrecht said she would use a "magnet dog" and a "snappy snare" -- a long pole with a loop that can capture a dog quickly. Magnet dogs are "super-friendly, wiggly" dogs that are let near the missing dog on a 30-foot-long lead. The magnet dog signals to the missing dog that it wants to play, and that often draws it out enough to be snared.

"They're afraid of people, but they often will respond to another dog," she said, and the magnet dog attracts and distracts the lost one. "When they're paying more attention to sniffing the butt, we're able to get close enough to loop the snare around the dog and capture it quickly."

Another option is a humane trap, which can work if the general vicinity of the dog is known. Winters said the lost pet would often come out at night if it smelled food in the trap. A lever is released to close it in.

"It's not unusual for it to take several days," Winters said. "The dog has to get hungry enough that its search for food overcomes its fear of the new environment that it's in. It's typical for an animal to want to stay hidden for a while if that's its temperament."

Know Your Dog

Should your dog get lost, consider the animal's temperament. "If it's the kind of animal to come up to anybody or it's timid or shy of strangers," Winters said. "How does this animal act around people it doesn't know in general? Searching at night is also a good idea if you have a timid animal that wouldn't go up to a stranger. They feel a little more protected."

Albrecht said the dog's temperament also would influence how far it would go when lost. For instance, gregarious dogs are more inclined to go directly up to the first person who calls to them and generally can be found fairly close to home or will be picked up by someone close to the escape point.

But aloof dogs who are wary of strangers will initially avoid human contact until they overcome their fear and become hungry enough, she said. They can travel a great distance but can usually be enticed with food and patience. Rescue volunteers often mistake their wariness as a sign of abuse, and the fact that they are missing for longer can often give them that appearance.

And xenophobic or fearful dogs are more inclined to travel farther and are at a higher risk of being hit by cars. Due to their cowering, fearful behavior, people assume these dogs are abused and often will not contact the owner if the dog has identification tags, Albrecht said. These are the dogs most likely to need magnet dogs or baited dog traps to be found.

How to Help Create a Happy Ending

Winters and others who deal with lost pets stressed the importance of identification for dogs. They should be registered and wear their tags.

An even better option is a microchip, about the size of a grain of rice, that is implanted under the dog's skin by a veterinarian. It has a unique number that can be scanned at most shelters to reveal the animal's owners and their contacts.

"It's a great way of identifying your pet in the event your animal loses its collar or loses its tags," Winters said.

If an animal gets lost, the best thing to do is immediately contact local veterinary clinics and animal shelters in a several-mile radius and create a flyer with a recent photo and the animal's name, description and a contact number. Many public spaces, such as grocery stores, allow these signs to be posted, Winters said.

When traveling by airplane with a dog, owners should verify with their airline what size the kennel should be and tell handlers special feeding instructions in case there is a diversion or delay, said Kelly Connolly, a companion animal issues specialist with the Humane Society.

"There is a degree of risk," Connolly said. "They're put into cargo holds with not a great deal of ventilation. It's loud, scary. There's no human contact. It's dark. We recommend, if it's at all possible, to try to leave [the] animal at home with a responsible boarding center."

If you do travel by plane, see whether health certifications are required and have backup identification. Also, the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act, instituted last spring, requires the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division to report whether an animal has been lost, mistreated, or has died as a result of being in a cargo hold.

Should a dog escape, Albrecht and the pet detectives are always available. With her search-and-rescue background as a bloodhound handler and detective, she finds success by searching based on behavioral patterns.

Perhaps with a nod to Ace Ventura, she noted: "I'm not the first pet detective. I'm not the first person who had the idea. But I think I'm the first person who has approached the problem with the knowledge of science."