How to Approach a Stray Dog

Published: 6/16/2021

In the US, stray dogs are a common issue. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that approximately 3.3 million stray dogs are taken in by animal shelters each year. While there's a large number of feral and abandoned dogs, rescues have had positive results. Of these 3.3 million strays, the ASPCA estimates 620,000 of these pups are reunited with their pet parents. This means around 1 out of 5 of strays found in the US return home.

While there's no easy solution to this problem, anybody who comes across a stray dog should try to help in case they're an escaped or lost pet. However, saving strays is no easy task, and there's a lot to consider when picking up a feral or lost pup. If you're unsure about how to approach a stray dog and what to do after a rescue, here are a few tips and tricks.

Practice road safety during a rescue

It's not uncommon to see a stray dog on the side of a highway while driving. When this happens, you may be tempted to pull over immediately to try to rescue the dog before they run off; however, ensure you practice road safety. 

Checking your rearview, using your turn signals, turning on your hazards will help keep the stray, and yourself, safe during a rescue.

Body language is key — for you and the dog

When you're approaching a stray, reading their body language can go a long way to a successful rescue. Dogs showing signs of aggression will require a little extra patience.

Some signs of aggression are submissive and may not seem particularly threatening, as the stray may be trying to defuse the situation before becoming actively aggressive. Signs of active and submissive aggression include:

  • Baring teeth

  • Growling/barking

  • Raised hackles

  • Gnashing teeth

  • Crouching and rolling on back

  • Averted gaze

  • Licking lips

  • Tucking the tail

  • Lowering ears

Fear and shyness can cause aggression and often doesn't mean the dog is dangerous. If you are in any doubt and think a dog may bite, call and wait for animal control instead of approaching the dog yourself. 

Your own body language is also critical when approaching a stray dog. Approach the dog very slowly and talk to them in a reassuring and calming tone. 

Do not crowd the dog or stand over them, as it may cause them to lash out. Try getting down to the dog's level so you're not so intimidating in stature. You can also try turning sideways and avoiding eye contact, as facing a dog head-on can be seen as a sign of aggression. 

If the dog backs away, don't rush them and give them plenty of time and space if necessary. If you can, offer them some strong-smelling food, like wet dog food or canned meat, to help gain their trust.

Never run or grab at a stray dog. If you're completely out of ideas, you can try running in the opposite direction to stray in the hopes they'll come out of hiding and follow you. 

Running away follows a similar principle to when your dog runs off during a walk. If you run after your dog, then chances are they'll continue to run away. Acting disinterested and running in the opposite direction can yield better results.

Securing a stray dog

If you find yourself rescuing strays on the regular, consider keeping an animal rescue kit in your car. An animal rescue kit should include:

  • A pet carrier

  • A slip lead

  • A can of wet dog food/dog treats

  • Bottled water and a bowl

  • Gauze bandages

  • Information on local authorities and a 24/7 veterinary clinic

Having an animal rescue kit on you at all times will give you the best chance at saving a stray. It also means you won't have to leave a stray alone while you go and gather supplies for the rescue. 

If the dog is very friendly and approachable, you may consider placing the dog on a leash and putting them in your car until animal control arrives. It's not a good idea to drive off with the dog in your car, as they could become fearful and aggressive during transit. 

If a dog is shy or aggressive, you can try to catch them with a slip lead and some treats. Place some treats in your hand and get the slip lead ready. 

As the dog is chowing down, gently place the wide loop of the slip lead over the dog's head. Then, gently tighten the leash while the dog is distracted. Do not tighten a slip lead quickly and forcefully, as you could damage a dog's throat, especially as they're not expecting it. 

Once you've got the dog on a leash, tie them up somewhere secure and wait for animal control or your local humane society. You can also check the dog for injuries from a distance just in case they need medical attention. Try tying them up in the shade and offer some water if it's hot out. If you come across a puppy, ensure you check the area for their mother and siblings.

Who to contact and what to do with a stray dog

So, you've secured a stray dog, and you're not sure what to do or who to contact. Depending on the dog's temperament and your own investment in the situation, there are a few ways to go about it. Here's some information on what to do and who to contact.

Taking matters into your own hands

If you find a friendly stray, you may want to consider taking them back to your home before looking for their pet parents. It's a good idea to keep them in your yard if possible to start, in case they're not house-trained or tear up your living room. 

You should try to take a stray dog to a vet as soon as possible so they can check for a microchip. Stray dogs often pick up injuries, so it's important to have them checked over by a vet. 

If you can locate their owner via a tag or microchip, consider placing flyers near where you found the pup. You can also place free "found" ads on websites like Craigslist.

Contacting the correct authorities

It's totally understandable that once you've saved a stray, you want to turn them into the proper authorities. Many good Samaritans aren't in a situation to take a stray pup to the vet and their home. 

Once you've secured a stray, whether in your car or on a lead, you'll need to contact animal control or your local humane society/SPCA facility. It's usually best to contact the authorities as soon as you spot a stray dog to speed up the process. If you live in a rural area, often, the best course of action is to contact the police. 

Suppose you don't know the location or contact information for animal control or the humane society. In that case, you can find out by contacting a local vet, visiting your town hall, or searching online.

Keeping a stray dog as a pet

If you've exhausted every effort to find the family of a stray and you've fallen in love with the pup, you might consider keeping them. While admirable, be honest with yourself and ensure they can fit into your household and day-to-day life. 

Some rescuers may think that, by taking an unclaimed and unwanted stray home, they become the owner by law. However, this isn't the case. Many states have specific requirements you'll need to meet to be a stray's owner by law. 

Usually, the rescuer is technically the dog's owner during a holding period. During this time, the rescuer will need to attempt to find the dog's original owner or prove that they are now the owner. This holding period is subject to state and county laws. Getting a dog vaccinated, licensed, and microchipped goes a long way toward becoming the new owner by law.

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