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What To Do When You Find a Stray Dog

By David F. Kramer


Pet homelessness has been a sad epidemic in the United States and throughout the world for many years. A close look at the statistics paints an even bleaker picture of the state of our four legged friends that are forced to fend for themselves.


According to the ASPCA, there are 13,600 animal shelters nationwide that have the task of dealing with millions of animals. Each year, as many as 7.6 million animals are expected to enter shelters. That’s about 3.9 million dogs and 3.4 million cats. Of these, a staggering 2.7 million—1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats—are euthanized.


While about 2.7 million animals are adopted each year from shelters, only about 649,000 of the lost pets are eventually returned to their original owners. When it comes to dogs, about 35% are eventually adopted, while 31% are euthanized, and for cats, 37% are adopted and 41% euthanized.


With all of this sorry information, your average animal lover is always moved by the appearance of stray dogs in their neighborhoods. There are some who simply shake their heads, others who might set out food and water, and a smaller portion still who might try to corral a lost dog and get it to a shelter or try to reconnect it with its owner. Just what is the best option?


The Risks of Helping Stray and Lost Animals


“There is always a certain amount of assumed risk when bringing any unknown animal into your home, especially one that has not been assessed by a veterinarian or an animal professional,” says Jack Griffin, director of Shelter Services at the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.


“One would not have the medical or behavioral history of the animal, which means that there is really little known about an animal. Once taken into the home, behaviors that were not observed out on the street could present themselves. With all of this to consider, there is definitely an amount of risk that one would be taking on by bringing an unknown animal home.”


“We recommend that if a person comes across a stray animal, that they bring the animal to a local animal shelter for medical assessment and to check the database should their owner be looking for them. Should they be unable to capture the animal easily, we suggest that people contact the local authorities.”


How to Get a Stray Dog to Trust You


Sometimes, however, situations might make an immediate response necessary, such as extreme weather conditions or a possibly or visibly injured animal, and the time taken to contact and wait for the proper authorities to arrive could make for a matter of life and death.


According to Lauren Nucera, a pet advocate and rescuer for Chester County Dog Tails in Pennsylvania, there are many steps you can take to gain the trust of a lost dog.


“Getting a dog to trust you can be a waiting game; it takes time and patience,” says Nucera. “Take a spot low to the ground or somewhere close by to where the dog is roaming. A loop leash makes it easier to get the dog if he or she has no collar. Don’t face the dog head on, as it might see that as a challenge, but rather sit to the side so that you aren’t eye to eye with it.”


A loop leash is a type of leash that is basically a variation of a slipknot. It can be made wide enough to not disturb the dog in the way a conventional leash might. You can secure and tighten a loop leash by tugging on the far end, so that you can avoid having to place your hands near the dog’s mouth to get it secured. It is by far a safer option if you need to corral a dog that might be fearful or unwilling.


“It’s always a good idea to have plenty of dog treats handy,” says Nucera. “Allow the dog to just sniff you and gather your scent. With an open hand, allow the dog to takes treats from you. Eventually you should be able to loop him. Then, in a calm and submissive way, guide the dog to where you want him to go.”


But the best intentions of dog lovers and rescuers can sometimes be misguided, warns Griffin.


“Building trust is dynamic, fluid, and can change rapidly. Chasing stray animals is dangerous for all parties involved,” says Griffin. “Traffic, potential wildlife, uneven ground, etc., can all spell an unintended injury for both humans and dogs. Trust comes with relationships and is always fragile, as well as not knowing this particular animal’s behavioral background. It is a risk that may be best left to professionals.”


The Difference Between Stray, Feral, and Lost Animals


While it’s important to establish if a found animal is indeed a lost pet or possibly feral, this determination is often difficult to make. Identification collars can come loose and be lost, and even the best kept dog might be haggard and dirty by the time you come across it.


“A stray animal would be defined as any animal without a known owner. Any animal at large can show a fear of strangers or have a positive association with strangers who feed them,” says Griffin. “There are perfectly social feral dogs and there are owned animals that are very fearful of unknown people. So we, along with most animal shelters, operate on the assumption that every found animal has an owner looking for them. Otherwise it would be guesswork at best to identify who was or who wasn't once owned.”


Sadly, many dogs are simply abandoned by their owners. While the reasons might seem reasonable at the time—money troubles, losing a job, having to move to a place where pets aren’t permitted, and others—doing this is no less irresponsible and cruel.


Is it Safe to Take a Stray or Lost Pet Home With You?


A concerned animal lover might opt to bring a dog home instead of to a shelter, even if just to feed or bathe it before handing it over to the authorities, or to try to track down the pet’s owner on their own. However, doing so is not without its risks to the rescuer, as well as to their own pets and families.


“There would be an assumed risk for all involved (including pets) when bringing an unknown animal home,” says Griffin. “You may bring home parasites such as fleas, ticks, worms, or other more harmful and contagious things, such as parvovirus, unknowingly. Some of these parasites represent a risk to humans, while others are specific to animals or other dogs. Nonetheless, an animal with an unknown medical history brings a level of risk.”


“Secondly, unknown behavioral history can carry a different kind of risk. With the introduction of food, toys, couch space, etc., we could see a lot of behaviors not present when we met the animal out in the world.”


How to Find a Lost Pet


The advent of social media has been a boon for placing lost pets with their families. In less time than it takes to staple a single flyer to a telephone pole, a dog’s photo and information can be shared among thousands of individual animal lovers and any number of dedicated organizations that deal with strays.


Even though lost and stray dogs are a local issue, Facebook and Twitter postings about them often end up in news feeds statewide, nationwide, and sometimes around the world. Animal shelters also utilize social media to forward their cause and showcase animals that are up for adoption.


“If someone loses their pet, the onus is on them to contact any and all local shelters in order to make a lost report. It is also imperative that they go directly to the shelter to perform a walk through,” says Griffin. Calling in and getting descriptions of found pets is not reliable, said Griffin. “One person's tan is another's brown, so it is best to go through local shelters, including animal control facilities, to attempt to make a visual identification of your pet.”


'No-Kill' vs 'Kill' Shelters - What is Best for the Animal?


Some animal lovers might be hesitant to take a stray dog to a shelter because of the eventuality that it might be put down. They might believe that they are taking the best route by holding onto a stray animal to find a home for it themselves, even if they don’t have the resources or ability to care for it properly.


Shelters are often referred to as “kill” or “no kill,” and while these terms seem to be polar opposites, in reality, that’s not always the case.


“A ’no-kill’ shelter is a shelter that euthanizes less that 10% of its population. A ‘kill’ shelter is any one that euthanizes more than 10% ,” says Griffin. “Just because a place euthanizes more than 10% of its population, it is not a guarantee that the animal will face a certain death when brought there.”


Even if a shelter is labeled a “kill shelter,” this is no reason not to leave the care of stray animals in the hands of those with the facilities and resources to meet the needs of the animal.


If this is of concern to someone who has found an animal, I would place the imperative on finding out the facility’s philosophies,” says Griffin. “Do they work with other rescues in the area? What criteria do they use when deciding on euthanasia? It’s not a fair assumption that every animal brought to a facility that euthanizes at >10% faces certain death or that an animal brought to a facility that euthanizes <10% will be housed and cared for properly.”


All in all, it’s probably your best bet to take a lost animal to a shelter if you’re able, and to contact the proper animal authorities as soon as you can.


Taking an animal home with you might be your heart’s chosen option, but your local shelter is better suited to the task of caring for a lost dog and potentially reuniting it with its grieving owner.


Perhaps most important of all, your local animal shelter could use your support—both monetarily and actively. To really do what is best for animals in need, give what you can, write to your elected officials when legislation for animals comes up, and volunteer when you have the time and ability.



This article was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM.



Learn more from our sources:


ASPCA Pet Statistics


11 Facts About Animal Homelessness


Stray Pet Advocacy





Dog Spends Three Years On The Streets, Now Healthy and Ready For His Forever Home


Caring for an Emaciated Dog


Helping Homeless Cats Through the Winter


Easy Ways to Reduce the Number of Homeless Pets


Shelters Need Your Help to Reduce Pet Overpopulation



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