By now, you’ve probably heard about Arthur, the stray dog in Ecuador who joined a team of Swedish adventure athletes on an endurance race, battled harsh elements and river crossings, and was adopted by the team’s captain in the end.
That’s one lucky dog! Most lost or stray dogs don’t have quite such an amazing journey, but they still benefit from human help.
As Arthur’s teammates demonstrated, helping a dog in need can lead to a happy ending for all.
If you find a stray dog, it’s important to know how to care for it and help it find its home.
We’re here to teach you what to do with a stray dog, including how to catch it, where to take it, and whether or not to keep it yourself.
To catch or not to catch
If you find a stray dog, it’s important to consider the safety of both the animal and yourself.
1. The first step is to assess the situation: If it seems unlikely that you can catch the dog, call your local animal control agency for help.
The Humane Society recommends having the number of your local animal control programmed into your phone just in case.
2. If the dog bounds towards you happily and shows no signs of fear, it may be easy to attach a leash and invite her into your car.
3. But often, lost and stray dogs are skittish, even panicked, and can be dangerous to themselves and people. The Seattle-based Missing Pet Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to reuniting lost companion animals with guardians, warn to never, ever call out to a nervous stray, as dogs in a panic are likely to run away at the sound of your voice.
4. If the dog seems wary, remain calm, move slowly, and try to attract her to you non-verbally with passive body language and food.
Okay, you caught me. Now what?
After you’ve secured the dog, take a moment to breathe: This pooch just went from “stray” to “found.” Great work!
5. The first thing you should do, of course, is check the dog for ID. If they have a collar and tag, call the owner and hope for a happy reunion.
6. You can also take it to a nearby vet’s office to be scanned for a microchip; these days, almost all veterinarians have microchip scanners and will scan a found animal for free.
7. If the dog doesn’t have tags or a chip, you have two options: Take the dog to your local public animal shelter, or take it home and care for it until you find its people.
It can feel scary to take an animal to a shelter, but that’s actually the first and best option to help a lost dog be reunited with its family.
In most places, it’s also the law: You are required to take found dogs to the local animal shelter where their guardian can claim them. Visit the Shelter Pet Project to find shelters in your area.
8. If you really can’t face taking a stray dog to the shelter, you still need to contact the local animal agency to report a found dog.
10. In the meantime, provide the dog a safe space in your home away from resident pets (at least until you’ve had the chance to take her for a vet visit and assess her personality).
Taking home a stray dog means taking on a lot of responsibility, including providing care and searching for its guardian.
Adopting a stray
Adopting a stray dog is a nice fantasy: You find an a scrappy puppy on the street; nobody else comes looking for it, and you get a new best friend!
As nice as this may sound, the truth is, stray dogs often have someone out there missing them. Imagine how you would feel if your own dog went missing and someone decided to keep her without trying to find you! Before you decide to adopt a stray dog, take every possible step to locate its family.
If you’ve exhausted the possibilities and it seems clear nobody is looking for your foundling, then you may wish to consider adopting her. As the Humane Society explains, laws on adopting found animals vary from state to state, and most places have a hold period for strays.
Whether a dog is in the shelter or in your home, you can’t become its rightful guardian until the hold period expires and you have worked to find its original family.
But if you follow the necessary steps and no owner comes forward, congratulations: That dog is stray no more, and you have a great origin story for your new family member!
Help others help strays
The most important thing to do if you find a stray is consider what you would want done if your own dog was lost.
You’d want the person who found her to keep her safe and to do everything in their power to contact you.
If you find yourself in the position to help a stray dog, be honest with yourself about your resources. If you’re prepared to invest energy, time, emotion, and potentially money into caring for the dog and searching for its family, then by all means, do everything you can to help.
But if you’re not equipped to take on the care of a stray, that’s okay, too—that’s why animal agencies exist.
And remember, you can always reach out to other dog lovers for help.
As a community of dog lovers, it’s our job to help them find their way home, whether it’s the home they came from or the one they find with you.
Top image via Flickr/rswatski