What To Do If You Find A Lost Dog

If you’ve encountered a lost dog in the past, you likely know the dogged efforts required to bring about a happy reunion with his family. But for those who’ve never found a lost dog, the steps to take aren’t always clear, especially when the dog is injured, sick, or fearful. What can you do for a dog in one of these scenarios?

There are several effective strategies to help a lost dog find his way home. These tactics are not meant for the neighborhood dodger who is still wearing his personalized collar and ID tags—if that’s the lost dog who found you, you’re both in luck. His owner is a phone call away, maybe even right around the corner.

These guidelines are for the rest of them, the dog who slipped his collar, or wormed out of an enclosure without his collar, or whose collar has no identification on it. Here is the perfect chance to do what you’d want anybody else to do for your own lost dog: it’s time for some detective work to help get him home.

Is This Dog Lost or Abandoned?

Regardless of the answer to this question, the ragamuffin you just found definitely needs your help. However, the answer can guide the next steps you take. Keep in mind that scars, injuries, or a dirty coat aren’t proof of abandonment or abuse. When a dog has gone missing for days, weeks, or months, he can become thin, filthy, and sick. But without ID tags and/or a collar, how can you tell if this dog belongs to a family who may be anxiously looking for him? Spaying and neutering are excellent signs, as is a microchip. Get to a veterinarian or shelter and ask the staff to check for evidence of ownership in your bedraggled foundling.

Important questions to ask yourself when you find a lost dog:

  • What can you realistically afford in time and money to help this lost dog?
  • Are you likely to form an emotional attachment while you look for the dog’s owner?

If you can’t put in the time or know you’ll have trouble letting go, consider enlisting the help of a friend or acquaintance who always goes the extra mile in these situations. At the very least, take the dog to a local animal shelter. It’s a kinder gesture than leaving the dog as you found him, and improves his chances for a happy reunion with his family or for joining a new family.

How To Help A Lost Dog

Here’s what to do first:

  1. If the dog is at the side of the road, pull over carefully and turn on your hazards.
  2. Approach him carefully, even though he looks for all the world like an agreeable fellow: his behavior is still unpredictable as far as you’re concerned. Stay calm and get down on his level so you’re not standing over him. Check for tags or other identification, including a tattoo—some companion animals have them on the inside of the ear or the inner leg. Quick Tip: Never remove a found dog’s collar—if he escapes from you he’ll be lost without any identification.
  3. If he is at least wearing a license (rabies) tag, local animal control can access the license registry database for the owner’s contact information.
  4. If he has no collar, take him to your local animal control, animal shelter, humane society, or a veterinarian to be scanned for a microchip – even if you plan to foster him while you search for his owner. Quick Tip:Many people are afraid to bring a lost dog to local animal control—a.k.a."the dog pound”—believing any animal left there will be euthanized. But animal control and local animal shelters are often the first places a distraught owner looks for a missing pet—few people think to read the classifieds for lost pet notices.
  5. If you must relinquish the dog to animal control but you’re concerned about euthanasia, find out the "stray hold” time and tell the staff you intend to retrieve the dog for fostering or adopting at the end of this period.

If You Decide To Shelter The Lost Dog Yourself:

  1. Leash and walk him through the neighborhood; a neighbor may recognize him. While you’re walking, try this trick: In a cheerful, upbeat voice say, "Let’s go home!" and see where the dog takes you—he may lead you directly to his front door.
  2. If you can’t locate his owner in the neighborhood, keep him separated from other animals in your house: a lost or stray dog can be sick, fearful, or aggressive.
  3. Don’t overlook social media in your search: post to your own network, and ask others in your network to share your "found dog" bulletin. Search online lost and found pet databases.
  4. Place a sign in your yard alerting passersby to the found dog.

Making a Lost Dog Poster and/or Flyers:

  • Use bright poster board or paper and write in bold, visible text.
  • Use permanent marker that will stay visible after rain.
  • State your message succinctly: "FOUND LARGE CURLY HAIRED BLACK DOG," for example.
  • Include your phone number and nothing more.
  • Hang the posters and/or flyers where you found the dog and at nearby intersections.

If someone calls about the dog, ask for a full, detailed description of the animal. Request photos of the dog—a dog’s legitimate owner will be happy to comply. Meet in a public place, bring a friend along, and make sure someone at home knows where you are.

How To Help A Fearful Or Aggressive Lost Dog

A fearful or injured dog can behave unpredictably. Be slow and calm in your approach; chasing down a dog can cause him to panic and bolt. Never approach a dog who appears ready to bite or attack. If the dog seems aggressive or won’t allow you to come close:

  1. Write down all the details you can, including his or her color, size, breed, and gender; then note the exact location where you saw him and in which direction he headed. Include road names, mile markers, and other useful landmarks.
  2. Call animal control, giving them all the details and your phone number.
  3. If possible, stay with the dog until help arrives, but never attempt to capture an unfriendly dog by yourself.
  4. If you feel uneasy about the dog’s behavior, stay in your car: making a sudden movement (even one as nonthreatening as opening your car door) may motivate him to bolt, possibly into the path of oncoming traffic.
  5. Coax him into your car if you can, but don’t attempt to transport him: the trip itself can instigate frantic or aggressive behavior in a fearful dog. Simply wait with him in the car until help arrives.
  6. Ask anybody you encounter in the area whether they know the dog—they might be able to direct you to his owners.

Reading a Lost Dog’s Body Language

  • An enthusiastic tail wag usually engages a dog’s entire body and emphatically announces, "I am happy to see you."
  • A slow, steady tail wag—known as "flagging"—indicates uncertainty; the dog is asking you to go away.

A lost dog’s family may be trying to find him. Keep your eyes peeled for lost dog posters, but also be advised the dog you found may have wandered far from home; try to look within a one-mile radius for up to a week after you found him.

A multi-faceted approach that includes the local animal control or shelter is a dog’s best bet for the most expeditious reunion with his family: it’s the kindest thing you can do to send a lost dog home again.

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