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Qiniliq's collar with yellow microchip alert
tag and data capsule photo: Hamilton
Lost and Found: Recovering Dogs Gone Astray
by Sue Hamilton
In the thirty-something years of running dogs, we've never lost a team or had a dog manage to get detached from a picket drop and take off…until last year. We still don't know how Sunny did it. One moment we were preparing the sled for a run with all the dogs secure and anxiously looking on, and in a split second a furry red blur doing a double suspension gallop like a cheetah, was flying down the middle of the road running after a state snow plow. I guess not all Inuit dogs prefer to stick around with their teammates. Fortunately, this frightening event had a quick and happy ending, with Sunny, grinning from ear to ear, returned to his drop chain and then onto the gang line. But the outcome could have been ugly, very ugly.
Because we use nylon web semi-choke collars that are also adjustable, each one is sized to a specific dog. On the inside of each collar we print the dog's name in indelible felt tip pen. We've never bothered to include additional (recovery) information because we figure it is not particularly likely that someone would remove a collar or try to flip one inside out on a strange dog with a thick hairy neck to possibly identify it. Also we've come to expect that our cell phone number may be changed. We did keep rabies tags on each dog because the number can eventually be traced and it immediately indicates that the dog, should it bite a person or another dog, is not rabid and therefore not in immediate need of having its head disconnected and sent to the state laboratory for testing.
However, after watching Sunny's butt become smaller and smaller as he chased after that plow, we not only switched to Swedish snaps for our drop chains, we also decided it was prudent to find better ways to identify our dogs…just in case.
Of course, any means of identification will not guarantee a dog's safe – or otherwise – return. You have to hope that your lost dog has not been booted out of sight down a steep embankment by a car, or shot because it was running wildlife or farm animals, or because it was just a moving target to practice on, or picked up by someone who thought the dog would make a nice pet or test round for other dogs being conditioned for dog fighting. Let's keep a positive thought about the altruistic side of our own species, at least for the purpose of this article.
Our knee-jerk reaction to the Sunny incident was: "We'd better get these dogs microchipped!" This was something we'd long wanted to do, but were slow to achieve in part because of all the controversy regarding the varying radio frequencies emitted by different manufacturers' chips, the reported lack of and reliability of universal chip readers and the threatened involvement in all this by our federal government. Spurred into action, we heeded the advice of going with the brand that is most prevalent in our area (and hence the most likely compatible chip readers), and selected one manufacturer, bought some of their sterile individual chip implanting units on eBay and, after a demo lesson courtesy of our vet, successfully implanted the rice-sized microchips under the skin over the dogs' shoulder blades.
The concept of microchipping dogs has become well enough known that I think its use is implanted (pun intended) into the public consciousness to the point that when lost dog is found, the notion of checking for a microchip is a pretty logical thing to do, noteworthy especially if the plastic alert tag intended for the dog's collar that comes with the implant kit is not used. Thanks to the internet, information on lost dogs can be quickly disseminated by the company with whom the chip is registered and once the dog is found and identified by its microchip, the company can be contacted and they in turn will contact the owner. Depending on when and where a dog is found by a Good Samaritan, and when/whether the scanner is readily available and is a truly universal chip reader or cannot "see" the chip and therefore thinks the dog has none, will in part determine the successful reuniting of dog and owner and how long an agonizing wait that will be.
Some of you may remember the days of tattoo clinics when dogs' thighs were shaved and social security numbers were permanently inked on a less than cooperative dog. That major dog tattoo registry still operates, tattoo pens are still available, but how many Good Samaritans would think to consider putting a sled dog on its back and groping down through its hairy inner thigh to look for a multi-digit number?
We've come a long way from the days when owners relied only on rabies tags or kennel license tags jingling from collars to identify lost dogs. While that works, too, the ability to contact the repository where those numbers are maintained and attached to an owner's name and address is not as easily identified and is more of a Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. time frame. You can also buy metal tags engraved with a name and phone number or, if you use a web collar, you can write in waterproof magic marker as much information as the limited space will allow. Actually these may be OK solutions, as long as the information doesn't change and you don't care to say a lot.
These days there are some really high tech methods to help retrieve lost dogs. One company sells a flash drive in a waterproof case. It dangles from the dog’s collar. You can stuff all kinds of information on a flash drive, but the owner better hope the Good Samaritan who finds the dog knows what a flash drive is and has the compatible hardware and operating system to read it. And at nearly US$45 each, identifying a kennel-full of sled dogs is a considerable financial outlay.
Remember those nature documentaries where terrestrial wildlife is zonked with tranquilizer darts and then fitted with tracking collars? In the "old days" those collars used to operate on radio frequencies, sort of like a super powerful externally worn microchip that could be followed with a directional antenna. Now biologists are using collars with GPS tracking capabilities. Well, guess what? Today there are mini GPS locating devices made specifically to be attached to a dog collar. They are about 1.75 x 3 in (4.5 x 7.6 cm) and weigh 2.5 oz (85 gm). You can read more about these at the Zoombak website if you can get past the US$200 purchase price plus monthly service plan! Another GPS unit, Trackstick, isn't specifically designed for dog collars, but does come in a waterproof case, is an inch (2.5 cm) longer and about 1 oz (25 gm) lighter and there are no monthly fees, still rather expensive (can be found in he internet and eBay for about US$150) and requires a Windows XP compatible computer.
Okay, let’s get back to basics. Obviously not every circumstance is best suited to the same solution for rehoming lost dogs. For those folks like me who keep dogs in pens and, for safety reasons, will not have a penned dog wearing any sort of collar, microchipping may be the most practical solution to find an escapee. But when we take dogs out on the road for any reason, be it to the vet or to the trail head, we have come up with an inexpensive yet, what we feel is a practical version of on the spot identification and contact information.
Pill vials! These have been around for years, originally intended, I think, to afford people with heart conditions ready access to those tiny nitroglycerine tablets. Now, not only do they come in all sizes to accommodate larger pills, these vials have become popular for those who enjoy "geocaching" (According to Wikipedia, it is "an outdoor treasure-hunting game in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers (called "geocaches" or "caches") anywhere in the world".) This means the vials are both plentiful and relatively cheap, aside from being waterproof! They come in several sizes and are made of either stainless steel or in various pretty colors of anodized aluminum. There are ones specifically designated for containing pills and others that are not, the difference being that the vials intended for pills contain a plastic inner vial with a screw cap, which we consider a handy feature.
We chose to use the smallest size stainless steel pill vial, about 1¾ in (4.5 cm) long by about ½ in (1.3 cm) in diameter. The inner vial is about as big as an antibiotic capsule, 1-1/16 in (2.7 cm) long x 3/8 in (1 cm) in diameter. While that sounds tiny, it is plenty big enough to contain a strip of rolled up paper containing all sorts of pertinent information, including any health and dietary issues. The advantages of having a vial within a vial are 1) redundant packaging reduces the (albeit) minimal risk of water seeping in and 2) when the outer vial is opened up, the inner vial easily slips out into a hand and it is easy to see there is a piece of paper, whereas a rolled up paper may get stuck fully expand on the inside of the outer vial and be missed.
Both pill and non-pill vials come with an O-ring on the cap to make them waterproof. However, the rubber may not assure that the vial body will not loosen and unscrew from the cap, resulting in loss of the reason for using them as dog identification. But this is easily and cheaply remedied by wrapping the cap/body junction with a small strip of gaffer's tape, which is waterproof and has an adhesive effective at low temperatures unlike the "the handyman’s secret weapon", duct tape.
Pill vials are available in drugstores but are probably cheaper if you find them online doing an internet search on "pill vials" or "geocaching". We got ours on eBay for less that US$2.00 apiece. The only drawback to ours is that we felt the split ring they came with was too thin/weak and might not withstand being caught on a branch and yanked off. We replaced those split rings with sturdier split rings or heavy-duty S-hooks. Now all we have to do is be very diligent about updating the information, for example rabies vaccination info that, according to our laws, must be repeated every three years. (If you don't have collars that can be individually attributed to a particular dog, a dog's name can be scratched or taped onto the body of the vial.)
Clear plastic inner vial holds strip of paper with all important
data. Yellow disk indicates that the dog is microchipped.
Pill vials are small, unobtrusive, can hold lots of information that is easily modified for free, readily available, come in pretty colors and are cheap. Either alone or in combination with other means of identification and recovery, maybe they will work for you.