I don't know when it began and who authorized it, but I'm spooked by this new system of alerts over the phone.

The phone rings at any time of the day and informs me about local emergencies, including missing children, and missing elders.

I keep wondering if I signed up for something that said I wanted to be notified about such things.

It is alarming to get one of these calls, and I'm not sure what I should do.

Should I go out and look for the person in question?

I'm curious if alerting the public has been helpful in locating any of the missing people. I guess they're a good thing if they're useful, but I find them unsettling.

I got one call today, however, that really makes me wonder if these alerts have gone too far. This call was not about a missing child, an escaped criminal, or a wandering old person. It was about a missing dog!

We had a dog, Mickey, who used to wander.

We would leave her loose in our yard, and occasionally she would disappear (this was before invisible fences.) I would drive all around the neighborhood yelling her name out the window, wading through swamps, stumbling through woods in search of her. Usually, she would return home on her own, often wet, dirty, and full of brambles.

If only she could have written her memoirs, I'm sure she had some exciting stories to tell.

Sometimes, we found out about her adventures.

There was the time the storekeeper called us from his store about half a mile from us but across the Post Road. "How could she have crossed the road?" I marveled. "I saw her," he said with awe. "She waited for the light to turn."

Then there was the elderly couple who lived a street away. More and more, when Mickey disappeared we knew that was where she had gone. The woman would call me to tell us that she had our dog. She said there was no need to apologize. Her husband was quite ill and a visit from our little dog always cheered him up.

It would never have occurred to me to ask the entire town to help us find our darling pet. I always felt guilty that I had allowed her to get lost in the first place.

I know what it is to have a treasured dog in your life. When our last dog died way too young from a botched surgery, I was devastated.

I still miss him. My children and most of my friends have dogs. We love these creatures; they hold a place in our families; and they leave a huge gap when they are gone. But they are pets, not people.

I don't know what it says about us as a society, but our pets have become almost equal to the human members of our families. Years ago it might not have occurred to me to extend sympathies to someone I hardly knew who had lost a pet. Now, I'm sure that Hallmark makes cards for the occasion.

I have a co-worker who never shows the slightest signs of softness when dealing with students. She is gruff with everyone at work. But just ask her about her cats and she will melt, getting tears in her eyes when talking about a recent feline medical emergency.

It has become widely accepted that dogs are members of the family. People bring them to all kinds of gatherings from soccer games to barbecues. The owners don't seem to wonder if the occasion is suitable for canine participation, or if their pets will actually enjoy being restrained on a leash while people all around them are gobbling down grilled meats.

We like to think of our pets as human. We see smiles on their faces, and expressions of surprise and perplexity. Sometimes we dress them up and make them members of our wedding parties. We put pictures of them on our Christmas cards, adding their names to the list of those extending holiday wishes.

It's true that sometimes our pets seem even more loveable than humans.

They welcome us home with enthusiasm every single time we show our faces. They seem to listen to our woes and offer comfort by a lick or a lean. They don't criticize (although they do demand walks, and treats, and attention). They don't want us to be anyone but who we are.

Yet no matter how precious our pets are to us, they are not people.

A missing dog is not the same as a missing grandmother or a missing child, and I don't want to be alerted when Fido has fled.

Carol Randel's "Random Thoughts" appears every other Friday.