Many wandering dogs have a good chance of meandering back home fairly soon after leaving, but runaway dogs, especially those running in a panic, have a poor chance of returning on their own.

The house was quiet. The yard was empty. He couldn't have run away. Rocket, a seven-year-old terrier mix, had everything a dog could want. A doting family, good food, the run of the house, and a doggy door leading to a big fenced yard. When his family returned home after attending a 4th of July celebration, however, they were understandably stunned to find Rocket missing. Surely he had been stolen. Why would he have run away? But when they found the hole under the fence and heard the last of their neighbor's fireworks explode, they realized that Rocket must have become panicked and dug his way out of the yard in an attempt to flee the loud noises. Rocket was gone.

The 4th of July is a common day for dogs to run off in a panic. Some dogs develop noise phobias – nobody knows quite why, but they become more common in older dogs – which can cause them to hide or try to escape when they hear fireworks, gunshots, or thunder. Of course, dogs run off for other reasons, too. A hole in the fence. A door accidentally left ajar. An irresistible scent. They may innocently wander away from home, just cruising around the neighborhood, or perhaps hunting for cats, squirrels, mates, garbage, or entertainment. There are, regrettably, too many ways to lose a dog. Prissy dogs and tough dogs, fancy dogs and shelter dogs, it doesn't matter. Any dog can become a runaway.

Many wandering dogs have a good chance of meandering back home fairly soon after leaving, but runaway dogs, especially those running in a panic, have a poor chance of returning on their own. The panicked dog's first instinct is to simply run as fast and as far as he can. By the time he slows down, he may have no idea where he is or how he got there. Strangers who call to him may be perceived as a threat, and even if you catch up to him, he may still be so afraid that he doesn't recognize you. When he tires of running he may go into hiding, failing to come to you even if he hears you calling.

What Happens to the Runaway?

Even if the circumstances under which your dog was lost were not panic-driven, the longer a lost dog stays lost the more likely he is to hide and flee from searchers. Don't wait to see if your dog will come back by himself. Perfectly loving family companions that become lost can go on the run for months, remaining elusive despite numerous sightings and near-captures.

Sadly, some lost dogs are never found. Some are hit by cars, killed by wild animals, poisoned, starved, or lost to the elements. Some are stolen, perhaps with the intent to resell them, use them for breeding, or simply to keep them as pets. This is a sad reality, but it doesn't have to be your dog's reality. Many runaway dogs are found. If he's wearing identification tags and the tag information is up to date, someone may find your dog and call you or your veterinarian. If he wasn't wearing tags when he was lost, however, or the collar slipped off during his travels, he's on his own. If he's lucky, he may find somebody that feeds him or brings him into the house. Some people that find dogs read lost and found ads or see lost-dog posters and arrange for a happy reunion. Getting the word out about your lost dog is a major key to finding him.

Someone might take him to an animal shelter where he can be scanned for a microchip, enabling a fast reunion if you've registered your chip and kept your information up-to-date. Other people may take him to a veterinarian, possibly because they want to keep him, and he may be checked for a microchip there as well. Permanent identification, like the microchip, is another key to a happy reunion.

But what about Rocket? After rocketing his way a good two miles from home, he hid under somebody's porch. The next day, the homeowners coaxed him out and called the animal shelter. Not only did his description match the one Rocket's frantic owners had given the shelter, but his microchip made a positive identification. Now Rocket's owners keep the doggy door closed when they're not at home, and Rocket is being treated for noise phobias.

Caroline Coile, Ph.D., is an award-winning author of 26 books about dogs. Her own dogs have been top ranked in show, obedience, agility, and coursing competitions, but she most enjoys the time she shares with them at home.