Skip to main content

What to Do With a Stray Dog

Layne has worked in shelter medicine for over six years and likes to share her advice with fellow animal guardians.

What to do if you find a lost dog.

What to do if you find a lost dog.

What to Do If You Find a Lost or Stray Dog

Did you spot a lost dog or stray? Does the dog have a collar, but is too scared to come near you? Has the dog been near your property or in the same area for several days, and is it scared of you? Finding a stray dog can be extremely stressful. You immediately feel responsible for the dog's welfare and find yourself needing to act fast. Sometimes it's not so easy or straightforward. You will want to ask yourself:

  • Does the dog look cared for? It's likely that the dog simply escaped.
  • Does the dog have tags or a collar? The dog belongs to someone.
  • Does the dog look sick, skinny, or unkempt? It's likely a stray.
  • Is the dog friendly or shy? If the dog is shy or scared, you'll need to contact an authority.
  • Is the dog in immediate danger? If the dog is on the freeway or in traffic, call the police.
Spread the word—post online, call local shelters, make flyers if you have time.

Spread the word—post online, call local shelters, make flyers if you have time.

7 Steps: How to Rescue a Lost or Stray Dog

Included below are seven important steps to take if you find a lost or stray dog.

1. Assess the situation.

Every situation varies, and there are several scenarios to look at. If the dog is roaming on the freeway, you need to call the police because this dog is not only at risk of being hit, but it can also cause an accident. The police (in my experience) have been quicker to act than Animal Control in big cities because Animal Control is generally overwhelmed. On the other hand, if this is a dog that just keeps returning to the same place every day in the countryside, you will want to take a different course of action (explained below).

2. Assess the dog's demeanor.

The dog's demeanor will tell you a lot about what needs to happen. If the dog is skittish, injured, or looks like it has been roaming for quite some time and without a collar, you need to call Animal Control. Animal Control often will come out and find a way to professionally retrieve the animal. Yes, some people worry that an animal that is picked up will be euthanized. This is a harsh reality that comes with pet overpopulation, BUT calling Animal Control will give the dog a chance. A dog can be rehabilitated, you prevent unwanted pet overpopulation, and you prevent this dog from getting hit by a car or interacting with wildlife. It's the better choice.

3. Is the dog friendly?

If the dog is friendly, you can do several things. Always proceed with caution as ANY dog is unpredictable and can bite at any time. Say the dog is a small breed like a Shih Tzu and wears a collar. Perhaps this dog is friendly and approaches you. Let the dog sniff you and move slowly, speaking in a friendly voice. If you can access the collar, get a glimpse at the tags and take a picture. If the dog lets you pick it up, feel free to cuddle and carry it to a safe place and call the owners. If you have a spare leash near you, clip it on. You can also make a slip lead (see demo video). Make sure to check the dog to see if it shows signs of nursing or may have puppies or have recently had a litter.

4. Is the dog shy?

If the dog is shy, you can do a few things. If you have food on you, you can try to lure the dog into your yard and close the dog up in your yard until you can contact the necessary agency. If it's a smaller dog and you have something like a spare dog crate, you can try several things. You can leave the gate to the dog crate open and put food in the back. Cover the sides of the crate with a blanket. When the dog goes inside, sneakily shut the gate. Then get ready to transport the crate to a local shelter. This sometimes takes patience and ninja-like skills.

5. Take the dog to the vet or a shelter.

This is recommended only if the dog is well-socialized and friendly and can be handled. If the dog is without a collar, you can either go to your local vet's office for a microchip scan (they should have the scanner there and are often willing to help with strays) or you can go to your local shelter and have them scan the dog. A microchip (if registered correctly) will connect the owner and the dog in the database.

6. Surrender or home the dog.

In the meantime, while you are waiting for the owner to make a move, you can house a sweet dog if you have the space (let them sleep somewhere secure like a bathroom with bedding, and make sure you pick up anything they can destroy) OR you can surrender them to a local shelter. Some shelters will take purebreds, and other locations like Animal Control have to take all animals in the county that they serve.

7. Make flyers, post online, and call around.

If the owner can't be found but you don't want to give up, create flyers, make posts, and call around (detailed below).

Making Flyers, Posting Online, and Calling Local Shelters

Make a Flyer

You can create flyers. Only list the description of the dog and leave out one key component so you can truly ID the owner. If the dog has a unisex name, consider leaving out the sex (male or female) OR if the dog has striking blue eyes, leave that out of the description. Ask about this defining characteristic or have the owner verify with a photo before handing the dog over. Something like:

Found: Lucky

Brown Terrier

Blue Eyes

Found near the intersection of Madison and 4th

Call: 111-222-3333

Post Online

Post on or Be sure to exclude one definable trait—even the collar color—to make sure that the owner is truly the owner (or have them verify with photos). This is especially important with purebreds because there is a market for purebreds—so much so that people will steal dogs.

Call Local Shelters

This is especially helpful. Chances are the owner is calling around to local shelters. If you can beat them to it, this is even better. Call around to all local shelters within your area and tell them what kind of dog you found. Leave your number. The shelter will connect you and the owner when the time is right.

Retrieving the dog is in the best interest of the dog and the public.

Retrieving the dog is in the best interest of the dog and the public.

Will the Stray Dog I Found Get Euthanized at the Shelter?

This is a really difficult thought most rescuers have. They worry that if they call Animal Control, the dog will end up dead in a shelter/euthanized because it can't find a home or it's under-socialized. Let's be 100% honest. There are several benefits to reporting a stray dog:

  • the dog may get reunited with its owner
  • the dog may turn out to be social and adoptable
  • the dog will get neutered/sterilized and will be prevented from procreating
  • the dog won't get hit by a car, die, or starve

What About No-Kill Shelters?

No-kill shelters hand-select their dogs. They temperament-test and pick dogs from facilities that are overwhelmed. This is what gives them the opportunity to be no-kill, because they select highly adoptable dogs. Most shelters won't take an animal over the counter. Pets are considered property, so they would be taking a chance by accepting a dog over the counter. Some shelters may take a dog—puppies or purebreds or exceptionally sweet dogs. It all depends on your area.

Can I Keep the Stray Dog I Found?

You are legally required to report the lost dog within 48 hours of it being found. Otherwise, you can be charged with a misdemeanor. Some areas have a 30-day rule. That is, if the dog isn't claimed for 30 days, you can adopt it.

Some people choose to keep the animal they've found. This occurs after exhausting all attempts to try to reconnect the dog with the owner. It's best to contact all shelters and Animal Control and have the dog scanned before deciding if you are ready to keep the stray or lost dog that you found. Many times, you can notify the shelter or the Animal Control center that is holding the dog and let them know that you would like to adopt the dog if it is not claimed. You can likely visit the dog while it waits out its "quarantine." Keep open and direct contact to make sure the facility knows you are ready to adopt once the 30-day period or designated time frame has passed.

Keep in mind that dogs are property. Educate yourself on your local laws.

What Shots Will the Dog Need?

Adult dogs generally have decent immunity, but when a dog has been free-roaming, they pick up all kinds of things. You should take them to a vet for a general exam. They will likely need:

  • deworming
  • flea treatment
  • rabies shot (in order to license them in your area)
  • DAPP shot (combination vaccine)
  • Bordetella (elective but a good idea if you are going to socialize the dog)

Note: Vaccination requirements will vary by area. The vaccine for leptospirosis, for instance, may make sense for you if you live near wildlife or in an area with rodents.

How to Tell If a Stray Dog Has Puppies

Most often, mom-dogs will have swollen mammaries either because they are pregnant or they are still nursing a litter. They will generally be pretty skinny and extremely hungry. Mom-dogs tend to regurgitate food for their puppies, so if you notice that the stray dog is hoarding food, disappearing, and returning for more, it's possible that she has a litter. You might be able to follow her and listen for signs of crying. It should be pretty apparent of she recently gave birth to a litter—in most cases, too, the puppies will be mobile and nearby if they are older. It's important that you communicate this to rescuers so that they can be captured, spayed, neutered, and adopted out.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Laynie H

Questions? Please Ask!

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on April 29, 2019:

Hi Tommi—great job caring for these fur babies. Really impressed by your history of rescues. I was inspired to write this because I currently have a friend who lives in an area with a lot of escaped dog problems. She gets really upset every time it happens—I don't blame her. Sounds like you have a lot of experience and tips as well. Great job saving lives! Thanks for the read.

Tommi Grace from Woodward on April 29, 2019:

Awesome article. I was known as "The Dog Rescuer" in my last neighborhood. I must have found at least 7 dogs' owners. They were all, luckily, friendly. One got out three times in one week, so getting him back home was easy since after the first time I knew where he lived. All but one had collars with tags on them, so it was as simple as calling the vet where the tag was registered and connecting with the owners from there. The one dog or puppy without a collar, I had to keep for several days. I put him on Facebook (a local lost dog finder) but it came to knocking on doors until I finally found the owner. He still gets out even though I am in a different home (just two blocks away from the old one) I see him, all grown up and take him back home. That is one of the benefits of being in a small town. I see a dog wondering around and I decide to do for it what I would want others to do if one of my dogs were to get out. Sneaky little fur babies LOL!