Pet detectives: meet the new network helping to find lost dogs

There has been an online revolution in how lost dogs are tracked, writes Patrick Freyne

 

Recently at my local bus stop there was a printed-out poster asking if anyone had seen a lost, forlorn-looking collie called Dionne. Dionne was a timid, recently rehomed rescue dog who had absconded, trailing her lead behind her, on November 18th.

I was curious. Online I found a Facebook page called Find Dionne (she had gone missing before) which brought me to a whole online world of lost pets. There’s Lor’s Lost Dogs page, lostandfoundpets.ie and several dedicated Facebook pages where people post sad, hopeful pictures of missing dogs – terriers, Labradors, shitzus – and others try to help with sightings and reports of dogs they’ve found.

Mark Beazley, executive director of Dog’s Trust, says there are at least 650,000 dogs in the country but that it is very hard to estimate how many go missing, because lost, stray and stolen dogs get muddled together in local authority statistics.

So what do people do to get their dogs back? One of the first things to do, Beazley says, is to contact the local authority dog pounds. Last year 14,559 dogs were impounded. If a dog is there, the owners have five days before the pound tries to rehome it.

In the Ashton dog pound, general manager Donal Moroney looks warily at a camera feed of a man approaching the counter. Sometimes, he says, people are thrilled to be reunited with a lost dog, but not thrilled to hear there are fines and charges. “The office window is Perspex. It’s been battered a few times.”

The man does not batter the window and Moroney relaxes. From his perspective, there are no lost dogs, just stray dogs. “You haven’t lost your dog, you’ve left your dog out to stray,” he says.

He cares deeply about animals. On the wall of his office there is a picture of two abandoned boxers he adopted and who wrecked his garden (“a small price to pay for happy dogs”). Both died last year and he misses them. “I’m not ready to replace them,” he says.

When he came here 11 years ago, the Ashton pound was taking 3,000 dogs off the streets of Dublin and Fingal annually and 55 per cent were put to sleep. He estimates they will have taken in about 650 this year.

They euthanise fewer than 15 per cent (the statistic varies from pound to pound) and only, he says, those too dangerous, sick or injured to be rehomed. They work closely with dog rescue groups, which he praises effusively. Eight dogs were collected by rescuers just before I arrived. The pound is not well resourced enough to chase every sighting of a dog (there are six wardens covering Dublin, Finglas and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown) but they do have a lost and found book. “We take details and try to match them up.”

He shows me a print out with a picture and description (“White bichon cross, only 11 months old, no sense of direction”) which he takes to his colleague Julie Cannon. “This one’s missing a while,” she says. “It’s been on all the lost dog sites. I suspect it’s been stolen.” Julie has just been talking with Martin McDonagh from Finglas who has called in to see if they have found Bella, a Yorkshire terrier-Chihuahua cross who has been missing since yesterday. He is driving a car full of sad children around the pounds. He never got Bella microchipped, he says. “I should have.”

We go to the viewing kennel and Moroney introduces me to kennel supervisor Mark Kelly. The dogs there include a very yappy dachshund cross discovered on the M50, a husky (“which are now like vermin of the dog world,” sighs Moroney, “due to being overbred”) and a larger crossbreed. “She is deaf, going blind and has a lump that needs removing,” says Mark. “I think she’s a pet who got sick and they let her go.”

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Only about 18 per cent of the dogs are reclaimed, says Moroney. Some of the others are strays. Many are lost pets no one is looking for (DSPCA education officer Gillian Bird also notes the discrepancy between the number of dogs they find and the smaller number reported lost).

Kelly cannot understand people treating animals so disposably. “Dogs like golden Labradors are generally reclaimed,” says Mark Kelly. “The ones that don’t get reclaimed as much are wire-haired terriers, little Jack Russells. ” A volunteer dog walker comes in with an underweight collie cross. “I don’t think anyone’s looking for her,” says Kelly sadly, “and she’s a dote.”

On the other hand, most weeks they see about a dozen people reclaiming lost dogs. “We’ve seen an increase in reclaims since Facebook and our website,” says Kelly. There’s nothing like seeing a loved pet reunited with its owner, says Moroney. “We had a German Shepherd in here once. She was microchipped and we rang the person and there was an absolute flood of tears. She’d been stolen three years before. It was fantastic to see. The dog was over the moon to see her. She went wild in the car park. That’s a brilliant day for us.”

You just have to look at the dedicated websites to see that there are plenty of people who miss their dogs terribly and lots of people who want to help.

Niamh Walsh operates the Bring Millie Home Facebook page. The page was established to help find her cocker spaniel Millie, but is now a key disseminator of information about other lost dogs. Walsh tells me about a network of people who voluntarily help find missing dogs. There’s Maria Murphy, for example, who lives out in Sutton and has been rescuing dogs and helping to find lost dogs for 30 years. “I don’t know how I got involved,” says Murphy. “It evolved. I’ve had empathy with animals all my life.” She puts up posters and walks the streets. She keeps an eye on social media and if a missing dog is sighted nearby, she jumps in her car to check it out. “I have a great faith in St Francis of Assisi,” she says and laughs. “I’m not very religious, but I talk to him and he helps me.”

You need to be persistent, she says. “It’s like the KitKat ad. You know the one where they’re looking to see the bears and the bear comes out and does a dance when they’re having their KitKat? It’s just the luck of God that you spot a tail going in a gateway.” She tells me how she and 15 searchers recently got lost themselves on the sand dunes tracking a dog in Portmarnock. She recalls bringing her humane food-baited dog trap (“I ordered it from America”) to help find an injured greyhound in Sandyford and she has also been scouring Marino looking for poor Dionne. Finding a lost dog, she says, “is like winning the Lotto. I’m in such a state of panic when I find them, I can’t even dial the number.”

Linda Martin knows what that’s like. And yes, I mean Linda Martin the Eurovision winner. Martin is at the core of a network of dedicated dog-searchers. If you’ve been paying attention to showbiz news, you’ll know she helped find Twink’s stolen dog Teddy Bear. Martin is also one of the people who helped when Niamh Walsh was searching for Millie near Ashbourne. Millie, “a quiet scared little dog”, was one of the dogs rescued by the ISPCA from a notorious puppy farm in Carlow earlier in the year. Walsh adopted her, but one day she ran away.

Walsh went all out to find her. She postered, put all the details on social media and started the Facebook page. She also contacted Martin. “We just got the posse together,” says Martin, “Lots of people came along and we searched and searched . . . Little dogs in particular, they get terrified and they run to ground. They hide and won’t come out even if the owners call them.”

They even hired thermal-imaging drones. “It’s an extraordinary situation looking at this monitor and [it’s finding] animals,” she says, “but unfortunately it wasn’t the dog, it was horses or cows.” Eventually, “starvation sent her into the kitchen of a house and the woman recognised her from the ad that Niamh had put up.”

Martin regularly looks for lost dogs and rescues and rehomes abused animals. She currently has 14 dogs. “It’s the love of my life,” she says. “[I say] to people who sneer at the Eurovision that it gave me the time and few bob in my pocket to pay for this. My vet bill should be in Nama. It’s like the national debt.”

She involves other celebrities such as PJ Gallagher, Louis Walsh and Brendan O’Connor. She calls Sharon Ní Bheoláin “the lab lady” because of her affinity with Labradors. The first thing to do when a dog goes missing, she says, is to “make it a ‘hot dog’.” “We put pictures on Facebook which are circulated . . . and then we gather a posse. We put something up on Facebook and say something like ‘dog lovers in this area could you come out?’ and we search ditches and all that.”

Like Maria Murphy, Martin also has a dog trap, which she says is invaluable when looking for a scared and hungry dog. The biggest revolution in finding lost animals, she says, has been the growth of social media. Indeed, while I was researching this article, the Garda tweeted a picture of a dapper bowtie-wearing shitzu that had just been found in the grounds of Tallaght hospital.

Within 20 minutes, says Garda Cian Stear, a dog groomer called Julie Smith tweeted to say she recognised him and Wuffles was reunited with owner Linda Malone. “He was accidentally left out at 6.30 that morning,” she says, “and he’s never out on his own.”

She was called to the station, where they “had made a little bed for him”. She laughs. “He was loving the attention.” Linda’s daughter Aoife (14), who really owned the dog, hadn’t even known he was missing. “I’m very relieved,” says Linda. “I was dreading having to tell her.”

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Not everyone is so lucky. Johanna Mulligan’s new cavachon Bailey disappeared on November 14th, when her husband Barry and daughter Ruby brought him home for the first time. He ran out the door in Dartry down the street, never to be seen again.

She told Ruby that Bailey went back to his old owner, but she has spent her time since searching and following false leads. “It’s like a full-time job,” she says (if you see a cavachon around that area, contact Johanna at 086 -795 7211).

Some missing dogs have been stolen, although the DSPCA, Dogs Trust and the Ashton pound say the level of theft is exaggerated. “People say ‘our dog was stolen’,” says Moroney. “Then you find they forgot to close a gate.”

But it does happen. Gillian Bird warns people not to leave dogs tied up outside shops and the Ashton pound’s own website warns of dog owners being approached by fake dog wardens. “Two instances were reported,” says Donal Moroney. “Our dog wardens are uniformed and have photo ID. They do not jump out of vans to approach dog walkers.”

Both Maria Murphy and Linda Martin believe dog theft is a significant issue. When a dog is stolen, it is either to be sold on, cruelly used for dog baiting (“We’ve seen evidence of this,” says Donal Moroney sadly) or, more rarely, for breeding. “Having a pet stolen is a horrible thing,” says my friend Niall Kearney. His black Labrador Lucy vanished from his parent’s garden in Monasterevin. A neighbour’s dog disappeared the same evening. He put up posters, posted on Facebook and even went on local radio. “It consumed my life for a while.”

Two months later, after a couple of false sightings, he is resigning himself to the fact he may not find her. “It took a little out of me when I realised she wasn’t coming back,” he says. “It’s the grieving process. You have this pet in your life and then it’s gone.” (Niall can be contacted at 087-697 4276).

Anna Walczak was luckier. Her dog, a loveable rescue Dalmatian with ADHD, disappeared from her garden in October. Anna initially thought Python (their other dog is called Monty) might have run off following a local sheepdog, something that had happened before, but when he didn’t return, they notified the SPCA, the local pounds and shared the story on Facebook.

“Within a few hours 300 people had shared the message.”

Her children were heartbroken. “The whole school was looking for him.” They were losing hope when the Offaly SPCA rang to say they’d found him 127km away. His tag and collar had been removed, “there were scissor marks on his neck” and he had bite marks “from where he was probably in a cage with other dogs”. They were so happy to get him back they held a welcome home party.

“We believe [they] tried to sell him at Ballinasloe fair,” says Walzak, “but people [want] puppies and he was three years old and they couldn’t use him for breeding because he was neutered, so they dumped him in Offaly.”

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If you believe your dog is stolen, says Gillian Bird of the DSPCA, state on the posters that the dog has been neutered and microchipped, because thieves may release the dog on that basis.

Bird says you shouldn’t offer a reward because that can incentivise theft (though others I speak to disagree). Linda Martin advises people to search local fairs and markets. “If the dog’s been stolen,” she says, “that’s where they’re going to sell them.”

All of this may soon be less of a problem, says Bird. “Within five years there’ll no longer be stray dogs . . . animals will get lost, but if the system is working the owner will be found. Dog pound/rescue centres may have to hold animals for 24 hours, but [really] there’ll be no more dog pounds . . . and there’ll be no more illegal dumping of dogs.” That’s because from April 1st, it will be compulsory for all dogs to be microchipped, which means that the registered owners of lost, abandoned and stolen dogs will be traceable.

Until then, however, dogs will still go missing and owners will have to deal with the worry and sadness. Some will stay lost but, thanks to social media and kind volunteers like Martin and Murphy, many will be found.

Incidentally, Dionne was sighted near the Casino at Marino and caught by volunteers a few days before I finished this piece. She is safe and sound with Dog’s Aid. The Find Dionne Facebook page is still there. It’s now called Dionne’s Adventures.


IF YOUR DOG IS MISSING:
Get in touch with local dog wardens, vets, the Garda and the SPCA.

Send a picture to lost dog websites and Facebook pages. Get friends to post and tweet about it.

Poster, drop fliers in doorways, search the area and mention it to people you meet along the way.
 

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