It happens to every pet lover eventually. You’re on your way to work, out walking your own dogs, or running an errand, and a loose dog crosses your path with no owner in sight. What now?
Can you approach the dog?
If your dogs are with you, secure them in your car or home before approaching a strange dog. Even if both dogs display friendly body language, the stray may be unvaccinated or dog-aggressive.
Approach slowly and without making direct eye contact. You can crouch down and avert your eyes to look less threatening, but don’t extend your hand for the stray to sniff. Reaching suddenly towards a strange dog may be interpreted as a threat and could lead to a bite if the dog is fear-aggressive. Allow the dog to sniff you and look for any signs of aggression, such as growling, a tail pointing straight up and wagging very slowly, a curled lip, barking, or snapping.
If the dog shows aggressive or extremely fearful body language, unless you are very experienced with dogs and okay with the possibility of being bitten, back away and call Animal Control and Protection. True, there’s a risk that the dog will be gone by the time the authorities arrive, but you risk a serious bite by approaching a strange dog that is behaving aggressively.
If the dog’s body language is friendly and he has sniffed you without barking or growling, crouch to the dog’s level and try putting a hand on his shoulder. Don’t reach for a strange dog’s head or neck until you can touch his body. If he tolerates or enjoys petting on his shoulder or back, you can try rubbing his neck or gently grasping his collar, if he’s wearing one.
Is She Wearing Identification?
Once you are able to touch the dog, you can try to examine her collar and tags, if she’s wearing any. If she’s got tags on, do not remove them to go inside and call the owner. Instead, either use a cellular phone, secure the dog and go inside to get pen and paper to copy down the phone number, or memorize it. If the dog escapes while you’re calling her owner, you won’t have done her any favors if you’re left holding the collar and tags, and she’s back on the street!
If the dog isn’t wearing a collar and tags, you have a decision to make. You can take her in for the day and file found animal reports, you can take her to a local shelter, you can take her to your vet to be checked for a microchip, or you can call Animal Control and Protection to pick her up. Each option has advantages and disadvantages, but all will result in the dog being off the streets and out of danger, at least for the time being.
If you choose to keep the dog in your custody for the time being, you’ll need to secure him somehow. I always keep a six foot nylon leash in my car. You can pass the snap through the handle of the leash to form a slip-collar and lead, and gently pass the loop over the dog’s head. This gives you immediate control of the dog, but some dogs will intentionally or accidentally slip away, so try to secure the stray in an enclosed area as soon as possible. The best choice is a dog crate in a spare bedroom of your home, with the door closed to keep your own pets out.
Once you have the dog confined safely, your first step should always be to provide water, especially if it’s summer. He may have been out of doors alone for several days already. If you have dog food on hand, you can also offer a small meal. Don’t give any strange dog a large meal or allow him to eat free-choice. Especially if the dog is thin, a large amount of food introduced after not eating for a few days can make him very ill. If you have no dog food on hand, resist the temptation to offer people food.
Looking for an Owner
After the dog’s basic needs are attended to, you can begin your search for his owner. Start by taking the dog to a vet or animal shelter to be checked for a microchip. If none is found, call local animal shelters and describe the dog. Most will take a “found pet” report and match it to any lost reports they’ve received. In some areas, the local Animal Control and Protection department can do the same thing.
Also check Craigslist and the local paper for Lost Dog ads.
If you don’t find a lost report that matches the dog you’ve found, flyer the neighborhood, post to Craigslist, and consider taking out an ad in the paper announcing that you’ve found a dog. Many newspapers offer lost and found ads free of charge. Don’t describe the dog in detail in your found ad. Give a gender and approximate age and weight, then list your phone number and direct readers to call to identify the dog. Some dubious characters pose as loving owners and pick up dogs found stray, then sell them for research or attempt to ransom them to the real owner. Make sure that anyone claiming to be the owner can describe the dog in detail, and consider requiring proof of ownership, like a photo of the animal with their family or in their home.
What if Nobody Claims Him?
If no one claims the dog you’ve found, you face a difficult choice. You could keep the dog, but if it’s not a good time to add a member to your family, don’t make that decision hastily. If the stray seems to be of any particular breed, check Petfinder for a local rescue that specializes in that breed. Breed-specific rescues will often take found dogs into foster care and adopt them out, and may even allow you to foster the dog yourself, if you wish to do so.
Otherwise, look for a no-kill shelter nearby, and consider a similar fostering arrangement where the dog stays in your home until an adopter is found. Your vet might even agree to keep the dog in her clinic and look for an adopter. Only try to find a home privately if you already have experience in screening adopters, and be sure to charge an adoption fee in the form of a donation to a local animal welfare organization. “Free to a good home” animals are vulnerable to abuse and may be taken for resale to laboratories or puppy mills.
A Final Word
Whatever the outcome, take time to pat yourself on the back for a job well done! Many people wouldn’t give a stray dog a second thought. If you’ve taken the time out of your day to help a dog, you’ve done a good deed.