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Lessons From One Dog’s Miraculous Survival

By Colleen Williams
published: July 9, 2014 - updated: March 12, 2024 • 3 min. read

In a real-life story reminiscent of Disney’s “Homeward Bound,” a golden retriever who survived 20 months in the wilderness returned to her family last month. Murphy, a 5-year-old female, was separated from Nathan Braun during a camping trip in California’s Tahoe National Forest more than 18 months ago.

“I was thrilled that this dog made it home,” says Brian Kilcommons, author and pet behavior expert. “It’s against the odds, by all means.”

Murphy’s breed certainly contributed to her survival, Kilcommons says. Golden retrievers were bred for hunting, and their sense of smell and durable fur coats would help them survive two harsh winters. A pug would not have had the same fortune, according to Kilcommons.

The story, while heartwarming and newsworthy, underscores the need for families to take precautions when planning wilderness excursions with their pets.

Keeping pets safe in the wild

Training plays a crucial role in pet behavior during a camping trip or hike through the woods. “A lot of people don’t train their dogs and they expect the dogs to respond to them,” Kilcommons says. “They take them out into the wilderness. There are new sights and sounds; there are deer running; there are rabbits; there are birds. And they expect the dog to respond. If the dog takes off after a deer, it can go for miles and get lost.”

Owners should keep even well-trained dogs on a leash in the wilderness, Kilcommons says. He also recommends that families carry a picture of their dogs so that if the animal does get lost, owners can quickly share the pet’s information with the nearest animal control shelters.

Identification 2.0

In the event that pets stray from their families, proper identification is crucial to their recovery. These days that means more than donning a simple collar tag with an engraved phone number. More owners are using microchips to keep track of their beloved pets.

These implanted devices have been available to pets for 25 years, but their use recently has grown exponentially, says John Wade, a veterinarian and CEO of Microchip ID Systems, an information and product hub for the pet microchip industry.

Since microchips hit the market, vets have implanted them in some 30 million animals, Wade estimates. They insert the microchip, which is about the size of a grain of rice, under a pet’s skin between the shoulder blades. By scanning the microchip, vets and shelters can read the unique cat or dog ID code to identify the pet. “It’s a great recovery tool,” Wade says. “In the U.S., if you put all registries together you’re looking at 1,500 to 2,000 dogs a day recovered through microchips.”

Pet families are prone to making some mistakes when it comes to microchips, Wade says. First, they fail to register the pets. This means that animal shelters can’t connect a missing cat or dog to the identification information in the chip. Other times they’re not aware that their pets have microchips at all. Some breeders are required to microchip dogs, but they forget to tell new owners about the device. Some pet parents think that their animals are automatically registered. If they’re unsure, families should ask their vet to scan the dog to see if a chip is there, Wade says.

Pet owners also are using GPS systems, such as the Tagg dog tracker that attaches to a collar, to follow their pets using mobile devices. But GPS systems are less reliable if service is spotty, Kilcommons cautions.

While Murphy’s Tahoe survival story offers hope for lost pets, her case is the exception—not the rule. Pet families who take measures to train and identify their dogs will be prepared to enjoy the outdoors without the drama.

[Image via Can Stock]
colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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