If You See a Stray Dog

The right and the wrong way to help a dog whos wandering.


Have you ever had that tug on your heart and conscience when you spot a dog running around a parking lot, through a busy intersection, or alongside a strip mall with that recognizably hopeful yet lost expression? How often have you wondered what would happen if you decided to do something to help but didn’t for fear it would backfire, with the dog getting skittish and running into oncoming traffic or down yet another block, lost further still? Even if you did manage to get hold of the dog, what then?


You don’t have to wonder anymore. Knowing what to do can lead to positive results. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of the half million stray or lost dogs who with good samaritans’ help find their way to shelters each year, more than 135,000 are returned to their owners, and more than 180,000 are adopted. Then there are the many uncounted dogs who never have to reach a shelter because they are wearing ID tags when they lose their humans and possess a disposition easy enough for a stranger to gain their trust, get hold of their collar and owner’s contact information, and return them to their human family in short order.

Given the high chance that you will spot a stray again, and the equally high chance that as a dog lover you will want to help, you may want to be prepared with tips from the experts on how to approach a wandering dog and what to have on hand — and when not to approach because that might only serve to further jeopardize the animal’s (and your) safety.

Have a ‘kit’ at the ready
The Humane Society of the United States suggests having the following on hand in your car:

– contact information for the local animal control officer, the police, and a nearby shelter.

– a tasty, easy-to-smell treat such as dried liver to lure a dog to you and perhaps even win his trust.

– an animal first aid kit in case the dog is injured.

– water and a bowl to put it in.

– a blanket for warming or for the dog to rest on.

– a good leash and collar.

Safety is paramount so if you spot a stray while out driving, first pull over carefully and then put on your hazard lights so other drivers know you are staying put. If you have a sense you will scare the dog away by trying to get near it, call the animal control officer or local police, depending on who does the rescuing in your area, and then keep an eye on the dog as best you can. If on the other hand you think you might be able to gain the dog’s trust, offer the treat and a friendly, reassuring tone so that you can get hold of him to attach the extra leash (or collar and leash) you keep in your vehicle.

Sometimes the best way to proceed when you spot a stray depends on where you have found the dog. A warmer climate, a rural area, a city, and the suburbs each lend themselves to different scenarios that will determine whether you can simply coax the dog into your car for a quick trip back to the address on his collar or a local shelter, or if you should keep a safe distance and make a phone call.

City stray, country stray
Things can get dicey in an urban area. For example, the Stray Rescue of St. Louis, Missouri, recommends calling animal control for urban strays in the area that tend to be discarded rejects from owners who held them in abysmal conditions as part of the dog fight gambling industry, abusing them to keep them fighting until they were no longer useful. Scarred, missing limbs, and even with bullet wounds, these dogs become feral, running alongside other feral dogs who provide companionship but are equally ill-equipped for survival without intervention from animal control or police officers, who are set up to deal with potentially dangerous dogs.

Such feral dogs, often starving and weakened by parasites, need a humane trap that tricks them into being rescued and does not involve any human contact. Believe it or not, despite what these dogs have been through and how fearful of humans they become, many of them can go on to be rehabilitated and placed in loving homes.

In warmer climates or more rural areas where dogs are sometimes accustomed to running free, a pet may still become lost and, out of confusion or fear, be difficult to catch. Texas A&M University suggests that if such a dog does come over to you, he should not be brought in close contact with your own dog because he may not be up to date on vaccinations and may even have an infectious disease. If possible, after perhaps luring the loose dog with food and/or a filled water bowl and some friendly talk, search for a collar with an ID tag if you can get close enough without alarming the animal. If the dog does not have an ID tag or even a collar and you’ve gained his trust, get him to a veterinarian, who may well be able to bring about a reunion after reading an embedded microchip that identifies the home from which he got away.

As far as the suburbs, even in the toniest of them you’ll find there are occasional strays in the form of local escape artists — those who, for instance, dig out from their fenced-in yard to take over yours, or the amiable Lab who has figured out that his electronic fence has lost its zap and makes daily jaunts to the town center. Such dogs can usually be easily returned to their owners with only a small degree of coaxing. For the familiar wanderer, the owner’s contact information is often on the collar so you can let the family know that their pet is at your back door or the local coffee shop.

Always make sure not to do anything to make a lost or displaced dog more frightened or disoriented than he already might be, lest he run into traffic or otherwise increase his safety risks. Therein lies your best chance of facilitating a happy ending.


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