Meet a Real-Life Pet Detective: A Q&A with Annalisa Berns
She may not wear a deerstalker hat like Sherlock Holmes or project the manic energy of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura, but Annalisa Berns is every bit the detective; only her specialty is helping distraught pet parents find their beloved lost pets. As the owner of Pet Search and Rescue Investigations, Berns is a trained search dog handler and licensed private investigator in California who is passionate about saving homeless dogs and putting them to work bringing lost pets home.
Annalisa works with her four search dogs (Juniper, Rhodie, Hope, and Faith) in Southern California, in addition to two human business associates that work out of Ohio and Florida – Jim Berns (her dad) and Susan Long. For the past 14 years, she has reunited countless pet parents with their missing dogs, cats and even the occasional turtle or snake. The search dogs, all rescues with some bloodhound, foxhound or heeler DNA, have been trained to follow their nose, using a scent article to match the smell of the missing pet. Annalisa’s training includes animal psychology, emergency management and police K9.
We sat down with Annalisa to find out how she was called to be a pet detective and how sometimes adopting a pet really can change everything.
How did you become a pet detective?
It’s a long story, but basically, I adopted a dog who needed a job! I found a little puppy with sleek black fur and white spots, huddled in the back of the dog kennel at the animal shelter. Little did I know that this puppy was going to change my life. It was love at first sight. I brought this love of my life home, groggy on medicine after her spay surgery. Then came Monday morning, and I headed off to work.
Neighbors called me a few hours later to report that a “Tasmanian Devil” had gotten into my apartment and I should come home right away. When I rushed home, I found my sweet, adorable puppy with the door frame in her mouth. The level of devastation in the apartment was similar to what you’d expect from a tornado.
I learned that my puppy had separation anxiety. There are multiple ways to handle separation anxiety. My favorite is to quit your job and spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with the pooch!
I did some research and found out that you can help ease separation anxiety by improving your dog’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Yes, my puppy had low self-esteem! Lilly needed something to focus on, something to build her self-confidence. And so, I decided we would go into bomb detection.
Imagine my surprise when Border Patrol didn’t want us on their team. So, we were going to search for missing persons with Search and Rescue. I quickly realized that we were not a match. As often happens in life, I finally found Lilly’s true calling by watching TV. Kat Albrecht was on Animal Planet using a retired Search Dog to find lost pets. We took Kat’s training and started to help search for lost pets.
What were you doing before?
Working in an office in San Diego as an administrative assistant. It wasn’t the job for me. I enjoy doing a diverse range of things, not just one thing, and I was meant to work with animals.
What is the typical reaction when you tell people what you do?
Curiosity and lots of questions! They want to know how I got into doing this and how the dogs work. Sometimes people are envious of my job, but I tell them it’s much more emotionally taxing than they realize. It’s not the fairytale some people imagine.
What do you love about your job?
Working with Search Dogs and helping animals, both the ones we find and rescuing dogs from shelters to become working dogs that might have otherwise been killed. Some of my search dogs would not have been good house pets, but they are now leading fulfilling lives as search dogs and they are saving pet’s lives. I want people to know that there are some wonderful pets in shelters and rescues. They don’t need to go to a breeder to get a pet.
What is the hardest part?
When a pet is never found. And when a search dog passes away, who has been my companion and work partner for many years.
So, what do you do as a pet detective? Tell me about a typical case you have worked
All of our cases are hard. By the time people have called us for help, it’s already going to be challenging, otherwise they would have found their pet on their own. Usually a few days have passed, so the pet may be far from home.
One recent example was when a distraught couple called about their lost dog, Gus. He had already been missing 10 days and his pet parents had searched, posting posters and flyers and driven all over looking for him. It had been raining almost every day that he was gone. We brought our search dogs, June and Hope. The dogs followed Gus’s scent trail and were able to follow the exact route he had taken over 10 days. By the time we were finished, we had narrowed the search area to two streets, about 1.6 miles from his home. We told the pet parents it was very probable Gus was hunkered down in this area.
The next morning, the pet parents postered the area. Within 10 minutes, a woman stopped who lived in a gated community and said Gus might be in her yard. Gus’s dad used a squeaky toy and called his name and Gus walked right over. Gus had a few bruises and had lost a few pounds, but was in pretty good shape. Everyone was so happy, especially Gus.
In general, who are your clients?
People who hire us are clearly animal lovers who consider their pets part of their family. Most of my customers are in Southern California, but my partners Jim and Susan work to search for pets in the Midwest and the South. I offer one-on-one coaching to anyone with a lost pet to provide insight into animal behavior and what to do in the search and they can be located anywhere.
I assume you mainly look for dogs and cats. Have you looked for/found any other type of pets?
I have searched for tortoises and snakes. Tortoises can get quite a distance from home, despite their reputation for slowness. The search dogs can find them just like other pets.
Are you anything like Ace Ventura?
You have to be a little quirky to devote your life to finding lost pets!
What are your personal qualities that make you good at finding pets?
You have to be compassionate and good with both animals and people to do this job. Also, I am hopeful and positive. Until we have evidence that something bad has happened to a pet, we will keep looking. People want instant gratification, but finding lost pets can take time.
What are some of the special tools you use?
The most important tool is knowledge. Having 14 years of experience at doing this and the skills of the search dogs are really the keys to finding lost pets.
How much public awareness is there about pet detectives?
Some, and it is increasing. There are 29 registered pet detectives or organizations offering pet finding services in the U.S. now.
How do people find out about you?
Most people find me while searching online for help in their lost pet case. People also hear about us by word of mouth or on the missing animal response web site, which lists pet finding services by location.
What tips would you give someone who has lost a pet if they can’t afford a pet detective?
I want people to find their lost pets whether they hire me or not. We have a lot of tips to help people find pets on our website. I also have written an eBook – “Lost Dog Recovery Guide: Instructions on How to Find Your Lost Dog.” I try to educate people that prevention is key. Have your pet microchipped and tagged with up-to-date information. If your pet is an escape artist, I recommend a GPS tracker. And if you hire a pet sitter or someone else caring for your pet, make sure they know if your pet is high risk and what to do to prevent an escape. And cats really should be kept inside. There are so many hazards for outdoor cats – coyotes, traffic, mean people. If your pet does go missing, act quickly and try to find them before they have traveled far.