Survival Mode

Why wouldn’t your lost dog come to you?

We hear this question so often: “Why wouldn’t your dog come to you if it’s lost?

This is so often said with disbelief, and the owners of the lost dog will often feel/hear a sense of disdain in the question from the askers. It often comes off as – “My dog always listens. Why didn’t you train yours better?” Or “Wow. Your dog must not be happy with you if he/she won’t come to you. My dog would.” (tip – this is one of the WORST questions you can ask an owner who is going through the torment of trying to capture their lost pet. They are often bewildered, hurt and coming to grasp with the fact that their beloved pet doesn’t see them as a safe place right now. It is perfectly normal and expected, but still heart wrenching to experience).

The first and most critical part of searching for any missing pet is to understand that you are NOT LOOKING FOR “YOUR” LOST DOG. You are looking for a dog that is lost. Depending on your dog’s history, there is a 50-75-90-99% chance that your dog, being lost, is not exhibiting the same behaviours you would normally expect. Understanding the potential behavior patterns of a missing pet is a critical aspect of getting started in any pet search, and Survival Mode is by far one of the most common issues you will encounter.

Survival mode is a regression to a dogs primal instincts. It can be severe or partial, but is almost always temporary; once a dog in survival mode is captured, they will generally return to their earlier personalities with very little noticeable change.

A dog that has entered Survival Mode prioritizes things in the following order: Survival, Food, Water, Shelter. When a dog has entered survival mode, very often EVERY human is viewed as a predator – even the one that has fed, loved, walked, bathed and pampered them for the last 2-4-12 years.

When a dog regresses to their primal instincts, it means that in their mind, they are on their own. All humans are predators who want to capture and harm them. People yelling (calling a pets name), shaking a food container (loud noises), cars, other dogs barking and pursuing, squeeking toys, a door slamming – these will all invite a fight or flight response. In most (95%+) this will result in a flight response rather than fight. With survival (safety) being the first concern, oftentimes, when a dog in survival mode sees, hears or smells something familiar to them, they will do the exact opposite of what you would expect. They will leave the area and avoid it in the future, as there will now be a negative connotation to that particular spot.

Our belief is that there is a struggle between the “nature” vs. “nurture” portion of the dogs brain. They have regressed to primal instincts – to survive – yet, there is still a yearning for the comfort of that sight/smell/sound….the conflict must be immense, especially in a dog that is strongly bonded with their owners. The conflict causes discomfort and unease, leading the dog to avoid the area in the future. We believe they do experience emotions and feelings – but also know that at a certain point, their instincts overtake their conditioning.

The point in time where a dog enters Survival Mode is different for every dog. For some – it is instantaneous. For others – it can take days or a week or more to kick in. There is very little correlation with previous behavior/life history to regression into this mode, though certain breeds and personality profiles are more prone to an immediate transition when they get lost. We can’t answer why the “switch flips” for some dogs sooner than others, all we know is that it is something to be aware of whether your dog has been missing for 30 minutes or 6 weeks.

For most lost dogs, it’s a single event that starts the transition and from there, it can progress quickly – a well adjusted, well trained, well loved dog can turn “skittish” in a heartbeat. It IS NOT the owners fault. It IS NOT the dogs fault. It simply is a fact when you are dealing with dogs – that some will enter survival mode almost immediately upon going missing, and others manage for days and maybe even weeks before dropping over the cliff into survival mode.

However it happens, it is a real concern and is definitely something every owner of a lost dog should be educated about. The search process and methods used to catch a dog in survival mode needs to be handled delicately in order to avoid scaring them out of a specific area.