Lost-pet poster: Six tips for a more effective sign

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I returned home Saturday to two discoveries: Both of my dogs were gone from the yard. And worse: One dog’s collar had slipped off and was lying by the fence.

Wally returned home on his own, but with Daisy still missing -- and lacking any identification -- I had only two likely ways of seeing her again. Someone would have to catch her, drive her to an animal shelter and have her scanned for a microchip containing my contact information. Or someone would have to see her on a lost-dog poster.


It’s good I didn’t know the odds. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, a nonprofit organization whose members include the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Veterinary Medical Assn., less than 2% of lost cats and less than 20% of lost dogs are returned to their owners — and that’s if the animal has a tag, a microchip or both.

I poured my energy into the posters, but making an effective lost-pet flier proved to be art unto itself, a fact that I learned the hard way. Only after I had posted dozens of fliers around my neighborhood did I realize all of the mistakes I had made in the one pictured above. Here are six things I would have done differently:

1. Photo selection. I thought I was smart by making a photo of Daisy so prominent -- taking up half of the 8.5-by-11-inch paper. But as I taped up the flier alongside other lost-dog posters on a lamppost, I realized someone else’s sign was more effective: It also used a large photo, but one that showed only the dog’s distinctive face -- not the whole body. As I drove from intersection to intersection, Daisy’s photo was hard to make out, but that close-up shot of another’s dog face grabbed my attention and prompted passersby to stop and read the signs. Even though my signs were color, the black-and-white fliers with the face in detail were better: graphic, easy to see from afar and emotionally compelling. If Daisy had distinctive body markings or a memorable shape, the full-body photo would have been wise. But she didn’t. I should have emphasized her face in the photo, then let words convey her size. 2. Text selection. The words on my posters were brief, as they should have been. But I made two key errors: I used a serif font (Times Roman), when a sans-serif font (such as Arial or Helvetica) would have allowed for bolder letters that were easier to read from a passing car. I also made the largest words on my flier “LOST DOG.” Everyone could tell that these fliers were for a lost pet, even if the text had been in a foreign language. A more effective strategy would have been to put key visual descriptions in the biggest type: “BLACK LAB,” or “TERRIER PUPPY” or “3-LEGGED CAT” or whatever the case may be. These key words might resonate immediately with passersby and stick in their heads as they travel through the neighborhood.

3. Sign locations. As I madly taped fliers to streetlights and utility poles, I worried that they would be pulled off within a day or two -- perhaps by city workers just doing their job. Had I to do it over again, I would have made some larger signs -- poster board, not paper -- and asked homeowners on key streets if they would have allowed me to stake those signs in their yards, perhaps near a sidewalk or intersection. Others who had lost pets later recommended using fluorescent poster board, either as the sign itself or simply as an eye-grabbing backdrop. Just glue an 8.5-by-11 flier to a larger piece of colorful poster board.

4. Number of copies. I underestimated the number of fliers to make at the copy center. How? I guessed how many I might put on street lights, but I didn’t consider how many I might hand out to people. As I searched for Daisy by foot, I encountered neighbors and dog walkers who were sympathetic and vowed to keep an eye out. I gave a flier to them all, and they essentially expanded my search team. I initially printed 75 copies, but I probably should have made 150, maybe 200.

5. Preparedness. As soon as I found that collar in the yard, time felt unbelievably crucial. With every passing minute, I imagined Daisy wandering farther from home -- and farther from where I would be posting fliers. Superstitious pet owners may think I’m crazy, but I’m convinced I now should approach a missing dog like an earthquake: Get the kit ready in advance. Create a flier now, include the best photo and update it every year. Put the design in multiple places, including a flash drive stored with a big roll of sturdy tape and a staple gun. I wasted two hours calling my partner (who had the laptop where all of our photos are stored) in vain, then madly searching for a decent print of Daisy, then writing a flier, then running to the copy center and then buying tape at CVS because the copy center was sold out. Those were two agonizing hours that I just wanted to be searching for my dog.


6. Hope. Don’t lose it. Because I was looking for a dog that had no identification, no penchant to come when called by name and no spectacular sense of direction or intelligence (love her, but let’s be honest), I was fairly certain that I would never see Daisy again. As night fell of the day of her disappearance, a dog walker in the neighborhood told me to keep my chin up. She lost her springer spaniel, and two months later it was found at a park miles away, she said. Indeed, SPCALA has an “Animal Finder” advice sheet that said: “A lost pet can wander the streets for weeks or months and people who find lost pets may keep them for several weeks before taking them to a shelter.” My local city and Humane Society shelters said the same thing, encouraging me to check their websites daily and to walk their kennels regularly, just in case.

I didn’t need to, I’m happy to report. A dog lover corralled Daisy and drove her to a city shelter, which scanned her microchip and called at night to say my girl was waiting to be bailed out. I don’t know anything about the good Samaritan other than she told a shelter employee that Daisy “seemed like a nice dog.” Daisy has been reunited with Wally, and my fence has been mended. And now I’ve got a lost dog flier on a flash drive ready to go, garden stakes in the garage and a roll of tape stashed in the den, just in case.


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-- Craig Nakano