a lost dog sits on the sidewalk

If your own dog has ever gone missing, you know what a relief it is to get the phone call from someone who’s dialed the number on your dog’s collar or see your missing pet run to you at the local animal shelter.

Stray Dog

 Critical in many of these owner-pet reunions is that a Good Samaritan found, held or chaperoned your dog to a safe place. Knowing how grateful we were or would be to them, we naturally want to do our part if we ever see a lost dog wandering the streets. Here are some guidelines for what to do if you want to help reunite the dog and its owners.

Guidelines to Reunite a Lost Dog 

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 near the animal, take note (or have a passenger take note) of where you saw the animal 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 animal.

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

You have the stray or lost dog—now what?

If the animal is safely approachable and friendly and you feel you can safely 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 there 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. As any of us who own dogs can attest, it’s very easy for the most beloved pets to 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 the stray or lost dog

If the shelter has released the animal 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 financially 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 length of the waiting period required by your local authorities before you can formally adopt your new pet. Just remember to set realistic expectations for you and your family (especially young children) that the owner’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 pay it forward, so that someday if your pet ever needs a helping hand, someone will be there for them.

Has your dog ever gone missing? What happened? Tell us in the comments.

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