Is It A Missing Pet Or A Wandering Stray? Understanding Lost Dog Behaviour

If you are a pet parent or even an avid animal lover, the thought of a pet going missing and being separated from their family can be very disheartening. In actuality, this unfortunate situation occurs more often than you think. Many pets flee their homes, either because they are wanderers, looking for a mate or because of a terribly frightening situation. They end up on the streets, under vehicles, in lonely lanes or close to garbage dumps, butcher shops, restaurants and food carts. The sad reality is, a majority of them don’t find their way back home. But those that do, usually have good Samaritans (animal-loving pedestrians) like you to thank.

While you might consider collars and ID tags the biggest giveaway of a missing pet, that is not always the case. Many pet parents prefer to take off their pet’s collar when they are home. So if you happen to spot a dog you’ve never seen before wandering in your vicinity or hiding in a dark corner, how do you determine if they are lost? Let’s find out…

Primary behavioural categories

Lost dog behaviour varies according to a dog’s temperament, which is generally classified into three categories…


These dogs exhibit friendly behaviour because they are accustomed to strangers. They will approach anyone who calls them or even turn up at a stranger’s doorstep. These dogs are most likely to be mistaken for wanderers and may even be picked up by a well-meaning animal lover.

How to help:

Check if they are listed as a missing pet via social media or on animal welfare groups.


These dogs are aloof and avoid strangers as well as other animals. While they will initially avoid all human contact, they can eventually be enticed with food once they have overcome their fear. Such dogs are most likely to travel long distances and are often found in the streets.

How to help:

Do not call out to the dog. Make your presence known, be patient and use food as a bait.


These dogs exhibit fearful behaviour, to the point that they might be mistaken for an abused animal. They cower and are extremely panic-stricken. Sometimes they even run away from their pet parents. Such dogs tend to travel the furthest distances due to fright.

How to help:

Involve professional rescuers who use humane traps.

Telltale signs of stress

Despite differences in temperament, the most common emotion that lost dogs experience is stress. Dogs have three common responses to stress…


They will freeze, cower or stop dead in their tracks. Their ears will appear flat and they may walk away hesitantly.


They will run away from you or anybody around them, as fast as they can.


They will exhibit aggression by growling or barking. Their teeth will be exposed and the fur on the back of the necks will be raised.

Survival mode

Dogs go into survival mode as a result of stress and short-term memory loss. Survival mode or ‘feral’ mode is when dogs revert to their primal instincts to depend only on themselves for their survival, with no need for human connection. Their only focus is to fulfil basic needs like food, water, shelter and safety. While some dogs slip into survival mode immediately after separating from their pet parent, others take a week or even longer. Even dogs that are well-trained will not obey commands in this state. However, this behaviour can be reversed gradually once the dog is captured and cared for.

While you may want to do your best to help a missing dog, it is important to know when and how to approach them. Two big no-nos are calling out to them and chasing them. You can either get the dog to trust you, or call in experts who can do the same.

If you are convinced the dog in your custody is someone’s missing pet and need help with tracking down the owner, you can log on to the FORPAWS app and upload a picture of the pet. Our ‘Lost And Found’ service comprises of an AI-driven identifier tool that uses facial recognition technology with a 90% match accuracy. We also collaborate with like-minded animal welfare communities who believe in this cause.

To download the FORPAWS app, click here.


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  • S
    Smriti Prakash

    I lost my dog shitzu 6 and half years old

  • H

    She was very she don't bark to anyone

  • U
    Ubaid nurani

    Assam tuktuki

  • U
    Ubaid nurani

    Assam tuktuki

  • A
    Ankit dhakar