How to Reach Out to a Stray or Lost Dog

There's that dog again, at edge of the dog park all alone. Maybe it's time to do something.


I had just enjoyed a roast beef sandwich at my favorite stand. Heading off to toss the trash, I noticed movement behind the trash receptacle, then made out a small, brown dog, eyeing my leftovers.

Being a dog lover all my life, I thought I was prepared for any canine-related experience, but this was new to me — seeing the stray dog, the lost dog. And I admit — it was kind of scary; instead of the usual happy-dog expression, this guy’s eyes were fixed steadily on my bag of trash.

I swallowed and wondered: What are you supposed to do when you encounter a stray? How do you reach out?

1. First ask: Whose dog is this?

Sometimes, a stray is quite obvious, such as the hungry guy lurking around food areas. Others may not stand out so much. Perhaps a dog at the dog park seems to hang around a bit too long, or maybe you woke up one morning to find a skinny dog wagging his tail on your doorstop.

First, check around for an owner. Phones or young children have a way of distracting even the most devoted owners. If people are nearby, ask around, or call out: “Is this anyone’s black Lab?”

2. Secure the dog

While you might be tempted to go right over to the stray and shower him with food or attention, don’t do it. Even the happiest tail-wagging dog can turn hostile if he’s lost, starving, or overwhelmed.

Squat down and slowly try to lure him to you. “Grab something you can use as a leash — a belt, piece of rope, or even your jacket,” says Sharon Wirant, manager of Anti-Cruelty Behavior Services for the ASPCA in New York. If he approaches, let him sniff your hand, then gently and slowly secure him with the makeshift leash. Talk quietly, move slowly, and avoid direct eye contact.

“If the dog moves away from you, resist the urge to chase her. [She might] run and end up in traffic. Walk away while calling to her — this can work like a magnet, so she can’t resist following you,” says Wirant. “Alternatively, if you have your own dog and he’s friendly to dogs, bring him out on a leash.” That may draw the dog over to you.

If the dog will not approach you, or if he appears threatening — the fur around his neck or back is up; he’s baring his teeth or growling — keep your distance. Call animal control and try to keep watch on the dog, if possible, so they’ll be able to find him.

3. Watch for injury or sickness

What’s more heartbreaking than an injured, sick, or starved dog? Again, squelch that urge to rush to his side –- he doesn’t know you’re a good guy, and a dog in discomfort is highly unpredictable.

Quickly call animal control to relay the urgency of the situation. If you want to offer food or water, move carefully and don’t place the bowl too close to the dog; let him come to the offering if he’s interested. Offer verbal comfort from a distance, but resist physical contact.

4. Now what?

Once you’ve safely rounded up the wanderer, don’t bring him into your home just yet. You don’t know if he’s carrying disease or how he’ll react to other dogs or people. Set him up comfortably in a garage or porch, and begin figuring out where he belongs.

“Keep in mind that a family may be searching high and low for this dog. Notify your local humane society and animal control. Ask your vet to scan her for a microchip. Distribute posters with her photo in your neighborhood,” suggests Wirant.

Use social media to expand your reach; dogs can cover a lot of distance, so he could be far from home. Call or fax your poster to vets outside of your area. Talk to mailmen, who are very aware of who owns what dogs. Hang your poster near schools, where children –- who know all the neighborhood dogs -– will spot it.

If you are unable to house the dog at your home, take him to a local shelter. Don’t feel guilty; you can still continue to help track down the owner while the dog is safely cared for at the shelter. If you’ve grown attached to the dog, ask them to contact you if no owner surfaces.

It’s a great feeling to be a good Samaritan and help out a stray. Just remember to do so safely, so you, your family, and the lost dog will all have a happy ending.

And as for the dog behind the dumpster, a quick conversation with the sub shop’s owner and I discovered the dog wasn’t a stray, but lived in a nearby neighborhood. Apparently quite fond of roast beef, too.

Have you ever helped a stray dog? What became of it? Let us know in the comments!

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