June 26, 2014

Case study – finding a lost dog

Have you lost your dog? Here are some ideas that can help you find him/her.

When I teach strategic thinking to solve problems, I use a case study along the semester to help students relate ideas to a concrete situation. The case is simple: one day, a friend of yours goes home and realizes that his dog—Harry—is missing. This is the very day that he has fired his housekeeper because of poor performance; the disgruntled housekeeper had blamed the dog for her performance and your friend suspects that she might have kidnapped him. He enlists you to help him find Harry. (The case is also a true story, Harry being my dog.)

After defining the problem and diagnosing it, we realize that the housekeeper has probably nothing to do with Harry’s disappearance but has he has fled, probably when the yard crew was mowing the lawn that afternoon. The next step is to identify solutions; i.e., to find alternative answers to the question: how can we get our missing dog back?

To find a lost dog, don’t default mindlessly to searching the neighborhood. First, generate options…

While it’s tempting to go straight into implementing a solution—say, searching the neighborhood—you will probably benefit from first generating various alternatives (Verberne, 1997) (Hammond et al. 2002). Actually, you don’t even have to generate these: the solution issue tree / solution map below summarizes potential tactics.

How to find a lost dog? This issue tree / issue map shows various ways to find a lost dog, including searching the neighborhood, informing people, and posting announcements

Issue map showing alternative ways to search for a missing dog

… only then, select the option(s) that you want to pursue

Only after you have considered alternatives should you decide which one(s) to pursue and in which order. To do so, we formulate formal hypotheses, gather evidence, use that evidence to test the hypotheses, and conclude—using a simple multi-attribute rating technique.

Individual likelihood of success Timeliness Quickness of success Lack of setup time Cost Weighted score Ranking
Weight 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.05 0.05
H1: Searching the neighborhood 50 100 100 100 90 84.5 2
H2: Tracking Harry’s chip or ID tag
H3: Informing people likely to know about missing animals 100 100 80 100 100 96 1
H4: Posting virtual announcements 15 20 20 0 0 16.5 4
H5: Checking announcements 0 0 0 50 100 7.5 5
H6: Enabling Harry to come back on his own 30 90 100 100 100 75 3

Our analysis leads us to conclude that the first action we should take is to inform people likely to know about missing animals—i.e., expand the search party. These include pet associations, local vet offices, animal agencies and shelters, and the police and fire departments. Then we should search the neighborhood.

Note: as with all ill-defined problems, this solution is subjective because it involves assigning weights to attributes according to personal preferences; that is, if you are reading this because your dog has disappeared, you may choose another prioritization and that one might be better given your circumstances and preferences. For instance, one analysis that looked at how 132 dog owners in Ohio had found their lost dogs showed that the most effective way to find a lost dog quickly (i.e., in less than a day) is through using his ID or license tag (39%) followed by calling or visiting an animal agency (30%) (Lord et al., 2007a).


Hammond, J. S., et al. (2002). Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Random House.

Lord, L. K., et al. (2007a). “Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost dog.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 230(2): 211-216.

Lord, L. K., et al. (2007b). “Search methods that people use to find owners of lost pets.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 230(12): 1835-1840.

Verberne, T. (1997). “Creative Fitness.” Training & Development.

Weiss, E., et al. (2012). “Frequency of lost dogs and cats in the United States and the methods used to locate them.” Animals 2(2): 301-315.


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