Lost Dogs of the Finger Lakes

Volunteer director Charlene Mottler with her beloved dog Joey, who passed away in 2019. 

Posting Pups Gone Missing

by Nancy E. McCarthy

Reuniting lost dogs with owners is the mission of Lost Dogs of the Finger Lakes, a Tompkins County-based volunteer group launched in 2013. LDOTFL has attracted over 36,000 dog lovers to their Facebook page and last year posted 700 photos of lost or found dogs. With such a large base of followers, information is quickly shared. “Viral” posts alert residents and engage communities resulting in countless happy endings.

“Many dogs, upon reunion with their owners, will cry out over and over in a way that I can only describe as the sound of pure joy. It brings tears to my eyes every time as there is no sound as beautiful,” says Charlene Mottler who assumed the role of Lost Dogs’ volunteer director when founder Lisa Freelove moved out of state last year. The current Lost Dogs team also includes assistant director Jacque Harrington and five other volunteers.

Reinventing the wheel

Using Facebook to locate lost pets isn’t a new idea but what motivated Freelove to start her own page was the absence of crucial details from many lost and found dog posts. Though well-intentioned, some lacked photos or pet descriptions, town of origin or owner contact information. It was often unclear how to report a dog sighting or connect a picked up pup with its owner. And something else was missing besides the dog—how animal shelters and dog control officers (DCOs) interact in lost dog situations which vary in different towns or counties.

So Freelove, along with Charlene Mottler and Karen Wadsworth, developed an improved template starting with concise posts including all pertinent details plus current photo. Behind the scenes, they began connecting anxious owners with the right resources in their locality.

LDOTFL became one of those resources when their mission expanded to include involvement in extreme cases of recovering fearful dogs on the run. These scenarios require understanding lost dog behavior, sharing techniques with owners on how to safely lure a panicked pup back home and coordinating with local agencies such as shelters or DCOs to humanely trap them. One primary function of a DCO is responding to stray/lost dog sightings, so it was shocking to Mottler that many owners didn’t even know their town had a DCO. To address this critical gap, LDOTFL compiled a comprehensive DCO and shelter contact list from cities to hamlets in the 10 counties they cover—Mottler calculates nearly 10,000 square miles. 

Search and rescue

Strategic trapping became a passion for Mottler who leads LDOTFL’s volunteer search and rescue team. “My first case was staking out a dumpster with Lisa at Taco Bell in Ithaca in the middle of the night; waiting for an elusive dog to appear,” says Mottler. “From that point, I was hooked.” After much research and independent study, she began taking trapping and rescue courses.

Most missing dogs don’t require herculean efforts to reunite them with their owners. Typically the more difficult cases revolve around dogs adopted into loving homes coming from heartbreaking situations: animal hoarders, puppy mills, chained or caged dogs or outright physical abuse.

“One of our hardest cases by far was Wren who lived her entire two years of life inside a crate,” says Mottler. “She came from a hoarding situation and escaped within two weeks of arriving at her new home.” Wren was on the run in deep woods near her Brooktondale home in Tompkins County for 47 days. She was finally caught by LDOTFL with support from her owners, multiple animal agencies, community involvement and a customized trap built for the crate-averse pup.

If a runaway dog is sighted, trapping is a useful rescue tool. Scent trails of smeared food start from the sighting area and lead toward a food station placed in a safe location. A trail camera monitors the station. Once the dog finds the station and an eating pattern is established, a humane trap is transported to the site. Food is left outside and inside the trap but not set. Desensitizing the pup to the trap’s presence is especially important for skittish canines that fear confinement. Once the camera captures the dog entering the trap to eat, it is later set with a trigger plate or motion sensor.

Team Tara

In January 2020, Pastor Garrett Plitt adopted Tara from the Finger Lakes SPCA (FLSPCA) in Bath, Steuben County. Tara, a Lab mix, was part of an animal cruelty case. She was Plitt’s first dog and his constant companion.

About six months after adoption, something spooked Tara during a walk and she broke free with her leash trailing behind her. Tara was missing for 10 days with sightings back and forth across New York and Pennsylvania state lines including her own backyard in Lindley, New York.

Plitt was devastated. While Googling lost dog pages, he found and contacted LDOTFL. Mottler immediately set in motion the time-tested techniques to lure Tara back home. Her SOS text to Vicki Mosgrove, executive director of FLSPCA, included a request for a trap. Then Mottler coached Plitt on how to lay scent trails to lead Tara to the backyard. FLSPCA coordinated pick-up of traps loaned by Elmira Animal Control and Shelter and Hornell Area Humane Society. This intensive effort required close collaboration and communication between Plitt, volunteers and agencies.

When the trail cam captured Tara’s nervous behavior around the trap, it was determined that a much larger size was needed. FLSPCA purchased an 8’ x 8’ poultry pen and added a customized door and trigger mechanism. Plitt could also monitor the trap from a window in his home.

“I remember the relief in Garrett’s voice when he called that she was in the custom trap,” says Mosgrove. Mottler received an exuberant text: “WE GOT HER!” Then Mosgrove, along with FLSPCA volunteer Sue Arthur, drove over to help Plitt bring Tara safely into the house. “That week-and-a-half felt like a year. When I got her back it felt like a heavy weight was lifted from my shoulders,” says Plitt.

Tara is doing great now: friendly, less fearful and fully recovered from her scary flight. But Plitt always walks his best friend with a firm grip on her leash. “I’m not taking any risks,” he says.

As for Mottler? She was thrilled but ready for the next case. Mottler has enough stories for a book—which she intends to write someday.



Where’s My Dog?

“By far, the top two causes for dogs to become separated from their humans is being let outside without supervision or not leashed with properly fitting collars or harnesses,” says Mottler. Noises, like gunshots or fireworks, can also send a pup into a panic. Newly adopted dogs rescued from a rough life bolt through doors, jump over or dig under fences. Seniors

get confused and wander away. The list goes on!

Here are tips from LDOTFL to help you find your missing furry friend.

• Check your yard, street and nearest yards.

• Call your local DCO and animal shelter to report your lost pup.

• Go door-to-door to alert your neighbors.

• Contact Lost Dogs of the Finger Lakes.

• Share LDOTFL’s post on your own Facebook page and community pages.

• Hang scent items, such as pillowcase or socks, and smear pungent food around your property’s perimeter.

• Post flyers with photo and contact information within a mile radius of your house. Expand the radius if your dog remains missing.

  If your pet is chipped, make sure its profile is current. Notify the microchip company.

  Dogs are drawn to farms. Visit nearby farmers to alert them.



Find Lost Dogs of the Finger Lakes on Facebook.

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