Finding a stray dog in your neighborhood is a situation many people don’t know how to properly handle. Before approaching the dog, trying to catch it (to see if it has a dog tag), or introducing the dog to your other pets, you need to be sure that the dog is not a threat to your own safety. You also should know what types of rescues and animal shelters are in your area so that they can possibly house the dog until the owner is found. Taking the stray dog to a veterinarian or shelter is also recommended because they can check for a microchip and link the dog to its owner. Often runaway dogs are found very close to their home, so it is good to check within the neighborhood that you found him in to see if the owner is close. Here is some other advice to help.
- assess the situation
- approach the dog safely and strategically
- take the dog to a vet or shelter to be scanned for a microchip
- decide whether you want to foster the dog or surrender it
- post notices for “found dog” or take them to the shelter
- assume every missing animal has horrible, uncaring owners
- forget that this animal is likely loved and missed by someone
- mix the animal in with your own pets before having them looked at by a vet
- give it away to another person or keep the dog before making an effort to find it’s owner
- blame the shelter or rescue for the problems of society
When you see a stray dog, your first instinct will likely be to try and catch them. This may be easy to do, but most of the time it will not. It is a good idea to keep a leash and some dog treats in your car for such an occasion, so you will be prepared.
Check the dog out from a distance – make sure it is not behaving erratically. It’s body language might be tense and tight due to fear, but do not approach a dog that is snarling or already growling from afar. For a dog that does not seem approachable, you should contact your local animal control agency right away. Although unlikely, it could have rabies, and at the very least it may be a an otherwise dangerous dog and should be caught as soon as possible.
Check for a collar and tags – this is typically an indication the dog is probably not too far from it’s home, maybe even just wandered out of the yard. Go door to door and ask people nearby if they are missing their dog. Many times they will be unaware the dog even wandered away, but will be glad for the warning.
If no one has seen the dog before or has any idea where it belongs, you may need to approach and catch the dog.
Most stray animals will be slightly fearful or playful, and will probably want to run away from you, which is part of why they are on the lam to start with. Getting them to come to you will likely not be easy, and may often require doing the opposite of what you think.
For example, many dogs will look at you if you call their name or try to coax them, but this will actually drive them away in the end. They have likely been called in by their owners many times before, and that probably isn’t effective. Walking towards them, even in a submissive way, or talking to them will also likely drive them off.
If you think the dog is safe to approach, the best thing to do is stop, sit down and turn sideways, or even lay down. Many dogs will come to you out of curiosity when they think you no longer want something from them.
Having treats is beneficial. Sometimes you can toss them to get them to taste some so they know what you have. But holding out your hand or continually tossing them, will not make the dog want to run to you. Even with treats, confronting them directly will likely drive them away. You want to appear disinterested and aloof to capture their attention.
Having a leash with you, you can make a slip lead. Slide the clasp through the handle and use the loop of leash to encircle their neck. It will cinch tighter as they pull away from you. Hold on tight to the clasp to lead them, or clip the clasp back to the handle loop, and use the large loop of the leash (now halved in length) to hold on and lead.
Providing there are no collar or tags to read, you will next need to see if the dog has a microchip.
This is a small grain of rice sized, electronic chip, implanted in the back of their neck, usually between the shoulder blades. Vets and shelters have a wand that can read the number on the chip with an electric charge (that cannot be felt, nor does it hurt the dog). The number is linked to a database that can track down the owner, or rescue/shelter where the animal came from (if the owner had not updated their contact information).
Once you have the chip number, the vet or shelter will usually contact the owner through the database company. They may even take the dog and have the owner come and get them, releasing you from responsibility.
At this point, if the dog has no chip or the owner cannot be located, the vet will likely want you to take the dog with you. Most do not want to be responsible for every stray someone finds. Others work with animal control and are a local stop on a pick up route. If the vet does keep the dog, chances are it will be heading to the shelter.
If you do not want the dog to go to the shelter, then it will be up to you to seek his or her true home. In many places it is required by law that you spend at least 30 days of due (and documented) diligence seeking a home before you can turn around and rehome the animal otherwise. This is also why many foster based rescue organizations will not agree to take in stray animals. To do so legally, this typically requires a contract with the city or government. Due to the volume of strays and the demands placed on an organization, rescues are often not big enough and have no place to keep the animals that would come in. This is why physical shelters are usually prepared and do this part of the work in animal welfare.
If you choose to surrender the dog to the shelter, there is a legal “stray hold” period before the animal can be released for adoption. Many times this is 72 hours, but if a chip is found, this can be as long as 10 days. That means that nothing can happen to the animal other than redemption by his or her original owner until that time is up.
Be aware the shelter is the most likely place someone will go to seek their missing dog, and is how many dogs are reunited. Keep in mind that forgoing the shelter may make it harder for you to find the dog’s owner.
If you keep the dog to try and reunite them with their owner, then you will need to get the word out that the dog has been found. This is best done by posting a Craigslist ad right away. Typically you should note when and where a dog was found, whether it was a large or small dog, and perhaps his or her sex. However, leave some details to be filled in by the owner when they contact you so you know it is indeed the dog’s true owner. Having the owner fill in some descriptive details helps ensure accurate reunions.
You should also post some flyers around the area the dog was found that say ”Found Dog” and the subtle description you used in the online ad. Be sure to include a contact number or email so people can find you.
Sit back and wait for hopeful owners to contact you. You will probably get some incorrect guesses and requests, but hopefully you will find his or her owner shortly. Typically the dogs have not gotten very far before being found, and may even be just a few doors down from their home. This reunion process can take as little as a few hours, and can go on for a few weeks. You should be prepared to sit it out however, if you have committed to this process.
If you take the dog to the shelter, they will hold the dog for anyone who comes looking for them. Sometimes the nearest shelter is not the one for your jurisdiction, so it is probably better to call and ask some questions about how to proceed.
Not all shelters are horrible places where animals are facing certain death, however this is unfortunately true for many. Many shelters are simply overflowing and cannot rehome the number of animals they are asked to take in. Ask questions about what their hold and euthanization process entails so you are educated before taking the animal there.
Many animals are sneaky and can get past even the savviest of pet owners. Sometimes a friend, neighbor or service person can accidentally let a dog out. Whatever the case, you must try not to judge the dog’s owners as neglectful or irresponsible. Accidents happen with cars, children, and much more.
The general condition of the animal may or may not be an indication of a caring home as well. Consider an old dog that is battling life threatening cancer and appears very skinny – one might assume instantly that someone is starving or not feeding the dog enough, but it may be getting everything it needs, and still cannot gain weight due to his or her illness.
In general if you are truly concerned about the welfare of an animal, a vet should be consulted, as well as the shelter or animal control. The animal and its owners may be known offenders in the system, and they will know to pursue a case or how to handle the situation. This excursion may be the nail in the coffin on a lingering neglect case, or it may be a first time offense. Either way, the legal animal welfare system should most certainly be involved if you do truly suspect abuse or neglect.
Fact: Most dogs are reunited with their owners through the shelter system, however less than 2% of cats are reunited this way. More than 35% of cats are reunited over time, without intervention.
You may fall so in love with this dog, especially if you forget rule #1 and automatically assume that the owner doesn’t deserve their pet back, but remember there is very likely someone worried and waiting to find their beloved dog again. If this pet were yours, you would probably want someone to do everything they could to reunite them with you, so don’t forget to do this for another as well. Most animals truly do have a loving home waiting somewhere, and hopefully you can be a part of the happy reunion.
Dogs off the street often come straight from someone’s living room, however sometimes they have been wandering for a while, or may have been a “lawn ornament” type dog and not provided parasite prevention or regular vaccines. You also don’t know how the dog will act in a group of pets, even if it is super friendly to you when it’s alone. This is an especially critical point to remember the bigger the dog, or the bigger the difference in size of the pets in your home.
Once a vet has determined the dog is free of parasites and/or you have treated them with medication and vaccines, it is still a good idea to keep the dog separate from yours for a period before introducing them. The protection provided by vaccines is not always immediate – some vaccines take 3 days to go into effect, some up to 10 for full efficacy. It is a good idea to be safe, rather than sorry. However, it is also true that unless we’re talking young puppies or elderly dogs in your home, that your regularly vaccinated dog(s) should be protected from most illnesses otherwise.
If you must introduce the new dog to your pets, have someone help you, with your dogs on a leash and the new dog on a leash. Perhaps meet through a fence and see how they do before putting them together. Mixing animals into an established group is something that should be done slowly, with planning and prudence, otherwise you are inviting an issue. That issue or incident could be what ends a pet’s life, whether it is one of yours seriously injured or hurt, or it gives the new dog an undesirable and damning history. Either way, it is best to avoid this potential problem, especially if the dog will not be staying for long.
Most states require a 30 day effort of due diligence before an animal can be legally rehomed by a private individual or uncontracted rescue agency. You should really try and seek the rightful owner, or pursue a case of neglect or abuse if you deem it necessary, as opposed to just sweeping the matter under the rug, and adopting a new dog to your home.
Shelters, rescues, and their volunteers and employees are trying to help animals, whether or not their shelters euthanize few, or many animals. The shelter is a band-aid for a larger pet overpopulation problem caused only by humans (usually ignorance regarding spay and neutering). If you choose to be angry with someone for this lost dog on your hands, it should not be directed at the people who are there to advise and assist you, whether or not you like their answers to your questions.
Some shelters can handle open admission, meaning they accept every animal requested of them, but many cannot. The reason is that the quality of life and health for animals already in the system dramatically decreases the greater the animal population in care. Many shelters have specific limits, and intentionally do not go above and beyond for the critical sake of their current charges.
Some shelters and rescues have a waiting list no matter what (especially foster based systems), and you the finder, will be responsible for providing temporary care until there is a vacancy. When you take on the responsibility of taking in a stray animal, you have to accept some of the burden of care, whether it is for an hour or a few days. This should be expected and not agonized over.
Many shelters and rescues will require some sort of evaluation as a part of their process too – occasionally this is before even a stray is admitted, though most times it is for a willingly, owner surrendered animal. The shelter will have a pre-adoption evaluation, to ensure the dog can be adopted out safely. His process varies based on each rescue or shelter. A very adoptable, easy dog will many times be adopted quickly, however, a dog that growls at people, other animals, or over food, may have some issues passing. If unwilling or unable to care for the dog yourself in the meantime, this is inevitably the solution.
Rescuers are born everyday through this very situation of finding a stray dog. Hopefully if you care enough to make sure a dog doesn’t get hit by a car or gets a proper meal, you will also care enough to help support the system and people who are otherwise responsible for a very large number of cases similar to yours.
Most rescues cannot take in strays, so although you may want to bypass the shelter system for a no-kill rescue, this is not always an option. Rescues, which are usually foster based, also have waiting lists – most of the time even longer than the shelter’s. You must remember to be patient and know that together you and your local animal welfare agencies can resolve the problem of a stray dog, rather than expecting someone else solve it for you. It takes two to tango – and save the lives of stray pets!