In the twilight, we saw two large dogs in hot pursuit of a bunny, whizzing across an open field near Harris Stowe University in St. Louis. Expecting an uneventful drive home from our downtown offices, my husband and I were startled. “What? Loose dogs? In the city?”
But seeing them should not have surprised us. Street dogs here and in many urban areas are plentiful. Some are stray, meaning their lives have included some human socialization. And others are feral, born on the street, never having experienced people beyond our being an element (often perceived as dangerous) in their environment. But whether stray or feral, these dogs struggle. Illness and injury are rampant. Their desperate food-and-shelter searches often fail. And devoted rescue organizations with limited funds too often have to leave an overwhelming number “out there.”
Believing these two canine city survivors crossed our path for a reason and feeling called to help, we immediately turned our car into the campus and embarked on a rescue mission. And in this adventure, we learned six steps that could help you save feral pooches and even turn them into family.
1. Connect with an animal rescue group or shelter in your area for advice and assistance
If there are groups in your city dedicated to street rescue, they may be able to help you directly with your efforts. And if they cannot, or if your town has “turn in” shelter facilities only, still speak with them and ask for tips and resource recommendations. In our city, Stray Rescue of St. Louis, founded and directed by Randy Grim (a renowned and devoted street rescue expert), is a top organization to contact. We reached out to them and were excited when they signed on to both instruct us and provide hands-on help.
2. Commit yourself to a long rescue process
You will find that getting homeless dogs off the street often requires many steps. It is not as simple as luring them with a treat and looping them onto a leash. Stray Rescue told us to take the time to find and become familiar with the dogs’ home base. On the large campus, there would be a specific spot where the pair felt safer, where they tended to rest.
Then, we needed to feed them there daily (allowing them to see us, but never pursuing them). After some time had passed, we were to set humane traps in that location to capture the pair. Armed with this helpful advice, we scouted the campus and found a cluster of shrubs where our potential rescues, Harris and Stowe (OK, not unique names, but a nod to their origins) often lingered. We placed large food and water bowls at that location, replenishing both daily for three weeks, with the dogs often in view.
Then on a Friday afternoon, Stray Rescue loaned us two humane traps and helped us load them with canine-tempting, odorous meat products, like hot dogs and canned beef. My husband and I committed to inspecting the traps every few hours all weekend. After around-the-clock check-ins on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (and the accidental capture of a few opossums), we had Harris and Stowe safely contained.
3. Before rescuing, make treatment arrangements with a veterinary facility
Taking the time to find a clinic that is open to immediately treating stray or feral dogs upon rescue is crucial. Don’t assume all vet facilities are set up to handle this. You can investigate by calling the clinics in your area and also asking your city’s rescue and shelter organizations for recommendations. With the rescue of Harris (male, approximately 6 months old, feral) and Stowe (female, approximately 2 years old, feral, likely Harris’s mother), we benefited from Stray Rescue’s help in moving them, still in the humane traps, straight to a vet hospital that worked with the organization regularly and had a finely tuned street-to-clinic process.
4. Don’t rush hands-on connections with your rescues
Attempting to pet or snuggle with feral dogs early in your relationship may not help them connect with you. Instead, allow them to get physically close at their own pace. When Harris and Stowe came to our house, we did not crowd or touch them. We stayed near, but not too close as they lived in our finished basement and explored our gated backyard. We placed yummy treats, dinners, and water in their very large, towel-lined wire crates, and then backed away as they entered on their own.
The first touch came after they had been with us for almost a month. I was eating pizza in the basement when, in an act of courage (and desire for food), Harris walked up and stood right beside me. I gently rubbed his shoulder and rewarded him with a small piece of pizza crust. Our hands-on connection had begun!
5. Slowly and carefully introduce the street survivors to your other pets
Some stray or feral canines are friendly to other dogs, while others are wary and defensive. So if you already have pets in your household, take introductions at a snail’s pace, perhaps with one pet at a time. And plan for humans to outnumber dogs during the intros. We already had three pooches — Fargo, Dakota and Chuck — in our family when Harris and Stowe joined us. They lived separate lives for about a month (basement rescues vs. upstairs longtimers).
Then, on intro day, with Harris and Stowe in the yard and my husband and two friends present, I brought Fargo out to meet the new pooches, taking her back inside after about 10 minutes. I did the same with Dakota, then Chuck. We sighed in relief, as the event was a non-event, with all the pooches accepting or not paying much attention to each other. And as time progressed, we increased the mingling and eventually the basement joined the upstairs as one happy family.
6. Teach, train, yet accept your new canine family members’ uniqueness
You may need to put some hopes and expectations aside in your relationship with stray or feral rescues. For while some street survivors learn to walk on a leash, play fetch, respond to commands, and calmly handle necessary events like car rides and visits to the vet, others do not.
For example, Stowe will not go for walks. When we put on her leash, she sinks into an immobile mound. She just does not want to explore our neighborhood in this manner, so we accept it. And Harris, who does walk on leash (and seems to at least sort of like it) and play fetch with squeaky toys, carries such a high level of fear and anxiety that rides in the car and vet examinations are always challenging experiences. And that’s just the way it is. We understand.
When you think of urban stray and feral dogs, you may think you will never encounter any — and that you couldn’t do much to help if you did. But as you drive through your city, know the problem is there and the possibility exists that you can do something. As I look at Harris and Stowe, now with us for more than eight years, I am thankful we crossed paths and that we embraced our rescue mission. For taking just six steps allowed us to save and turn two feral survivors into cherished family.