Guest Column: What should I do if I find a stray?

“Rescue Me” is a recurring column by Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips. She provides personal anecdotes and perspective about her life as a pet lover with a passion for cat and dog rescue. Today, she talks about what to do if you find a stray dog.

Finding a stray dog can be a challenge for even the most animal-loving person. We always want to help, but unfortunately, we’re not always prepared. I’ve personally been through several scenarios of stray-dog assistance and have learned a few lessons on what not to do. If you’ve never gone through such a situation or if you’ve had unsuccessful attempts in the past, here are some tips and steps to take when you run into a stray dog. Consider:

Safety of the situation. Trying to save a stray dog can be a risky endeavor because you don’t know the animal. Making sure that everyone involved is safe should be your top priority.

  • Your own safety: When approaching a stray animal, be careful; you never know how a dog may react or what he or she is capable of. The animal may be aggressive and there’s a chance you’ll be hurt in your attempt to help them.
  • Safety of those around you: Do not make rash decisions on the spot. Avoid agitating an animal in a public place. If you are driving when you spot a stray, stop in a safe manner. Few things are more dangerous while on the road than wildly stepping on the brake or swinging to the side. Remember that you are still a part of traffic.
  • The dog’s safety: When you see a stray dog, be careful not to frighten the animal and cause them to hurt themselves. A sharp stop or sudden movements can scare the dog to the point of jumping into traffic, for example.

Your surroundings. Before you approach the dog, check the area, particularly if you’ve found a young puppy. Without losing sight of the dog, see if you can spot any other dogs — maybe there’s a mother or other puppies nearby.

Look for signs. Without getting too close to the dog, see if you can spot an ID tag or any injuries. This will let you know how to proceed with the situation, and how urgent it is for you to react.

Your involvement. Consider whether it’s best to leave the dog alone and call the animal rescue center instead. You can always keep an eye on the dog while waiting for a professional. Dogs are unpredictable; it’s often good to let the professionals take care of a stray if you believe there’s time to wait for them to come by. When determining what to do:

  • If the dog doesn’t have any ID tags, call a shelter or an animal rescue organization. Specify if the animal looks well or sick, whether he or she seems aggressive and other behavioral patterns you notice.
  • If you notice that the dog has a tag or an ID and seems like he or she has been cared for and is without any injuries, call the number on the tag first, if possible.
  • If the dog has a tag or an ID but seems neglected or abused, call the authorities instead of the number on the tag and let them deal with the situation.
  • If calling the authorities is not an option, call a friend. Two sets of hands are always better than one, especially when you are dealing with a homeless, starving or panicked animal. If you are calling a friend, tell them to bring some supplies — treats or food and water at the very least, and if possible also a blanket, leash and collar, and a cage, crate or a cardboard box to contain the animal.
  • As the last resort, you can always call the police.

Stay put. Don’t leave the area while waiting for the backup. Try to keep the dog engaged with you so that he or she doesn’t leave the area but do not scare them away. Never approach an aggressive dog. If the dog starts exiting the area, follow him or her carefully and from a distance — you don’t want to spook or anger the animal, but you also don’t want to let them out of your sight.

Making contact. If you’re positive that an animal seems calm and not aggressive after observing him or her for a while, and if he or she remains stationary, you can try to close the distance. At first, it’s best to allow the animal to approach you. Give them some time to get comfortable and see if they come over. Attract their attention. Food usually works.

Containing the dog. If help hasn’t arrived yet, or it won’t arrive, but you’ve started to establish a good relationship with the stray animal, find a way to contain him or her if possible.

  • If you are driving a car, the trunk or the back seat is a good start but may not be enough containment. It’s unlikely you’ll have a cage or crate with you, but even something like a cardboard box can do the job. The idea isn’t to enclose the dog from all sides but to put him or her in a safe space. If you have nothing of the sort, a big blanket can do the trick too, as long as it is big enough to cover the entire dog on the backseat of the car, and not just a part of the dog. With small dogs, a jacket can work too.
  • If you have no way to contain the animal inside your car, do not drive with the dog. It’s a risk to drive with a likely frightened and unpredictable animal by your side — you never know if the headlights of another car, the horn of a big truck, a sharp turn or even just the sound of your own car will frighten the dog and send him or her into a frenzy. If you have no way to contain the animal, it’s best to put him or her in your car and wait for help. Even if you couldn’t find a responsive shelter or a pet rescue center to assist, and if you didn’t have any friends nearby, the police should always respond to your call for help.
  • If you are on foot and don’t have a car, hopefully you’re in a populated area. You can most likely wait for help, but if not, ask bystanders to find some way to help you contain the dog. A cardboard box is easy to find in a town or a city with a lot of shops.

Take care of the dog. Once you’ve securely contained the animal and if you’re still alone in handling the situation — if the dog seems friendly enough — take him or her to a nearby vet or a shelter. Whether the dog was lost or feral, a stray could have some health problems. Taking care of them should be the next step.

Adopting the stray dog. Some people who find stray dogs and find out that they have no owners often consider being the dog’s guardians. While you may be full of emotions at the moment, do not make the decision of adopting this dog without careful consideration. If you love animals, you may have the initial instinct to keep the dog, but consider whether this is the best course of action for you, your family and the dog. There’s no shame in leaving the dog in a shelter, especially since you are the one that just saved his or her life. You’ve done your part already.

Be prepared for the future. These situations quickly teach animal lovers to be prepared for future encounters with stray dogs. If you live in an area where stray dogs are common, you’d be commended for learning about pet first aid practices, getting a first-aid kit and pet-rescue kit for your car so that you’re always prepared.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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