For dog lovers, our biggest fear is probably what to do if our dog goes missing, and our strongest instinct when we see a stray dog is to protect it and bring it back to its owners.

But, when dealing with a strange dog, it can be very easy to scare it away and make the situation worse. Here are some tips on what to do if you run across a stray dog, and how to get it back safely to its humans.

Safety First

There are three things you should always keep in mind if you see a stray dog: the safety of the dog, your own safety, and the safety of others. When we see a dog in trouble — loose near traffic, for instance — it’s easy to panic and with the best of intentions, create an even more dangerous situation.

If you are driving and see a loose dog, react as calmly as possible. Slamming on the brakes could get you in an accident or scare the dog into running away or into traffic. If you are not in a situation where you can safely pull over, take note (or have a passenger take note) of where you saw the dog and either come back around and pull over safely or call animal control and give them as much detail as possible about where you spotted the dog.

Whether on foot or in the car, the danger might not be in the situation, but the state of the dog itself. The dog may be scared or injured. If he appears to pose any threat of biting or attacking, do not approach. Note the location and contact animal control. If possible, stay at the scene where you can observe the dog until help arrives, so you can assist them in locating the stray.

You Have the Stray or Lost Dog — Now What?

If the dog is safely approachable and friendly and you feel you can take her with you, entice her to come to your car with friendly commands or the promise of a treat. At this point, you can decide whether to take her to the local animal shelter or home with you.

If you decide to take her home, we still recommend swinging by the shelter first. If the dog is collarless or tagless, the shelter can scan her for an embedded microchip with the owners’ contact info. You can also ask if anyone has reported the dog lost. Most shelters will also keep a picture of the dog and your contact info in the event you take her home, in case the owners turn up looking for their pet.

Don’t assume that just because you found the dog wandering the streets that she was abandoned or unwanted. It’s very easy for the most beloved of pets to escape home and go astray. You know you’d want whoever found your dog to make every effort to find you, so return the favor, even if it feels like love at first sight or fate that you found this new friend.

Going the Extra Mile to Help a Stray or Lost Dog

If the shelter has released the dog into your care, you can follow some of the tips we outlined in “What to Do if Your Dog Goes Missing.” You can post flyers, hit the Internet, whatever you can think of to get the word out to the dog’s family that their loved one is safe and sound and ready to come home. Again, think about what you’d want someone to do if they found your dog.

You might also want to take the dog to a veterinarian to be checked out. Keep in mind though, that you are likely to be liable for any medical bills you incur, although you can check around as some veterinarians offer free or discounted care to unowned animals. If you’re going to be keeping the dog at home, it’s probably worth at least having it checked for any diseases or parasites that could be spread to other pets.

If enough time has passed and no owners have come forward, you may consider adopting the dog yourself. Your local animal shelter will be able to provide you with the waiting period required before you can formally adopt your new pet. Just remember to set realistic expectations for you and your family (especially young children) that the dog’s original family might still turn up.

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but they sometimes need to rely on the kindness of strangers. Today, you can be the one who helps them out in their time of need and tomorrow, hopefully their owners will return the favor, so that someday if your pet ever needs a helping hand, someone will be there for them.

Don’t know how to approach a stray dog? Here’s Cesar’s advice on the subject…

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