Meeting a stray dog brings you to a crossroads of sorts. The choices you make in the next few minutes, days, and weeks could be no less than life-changing—for you and the wayward furry fellow. In 2018, animal shelters, animal control agencies, and rescues in America took in 1.7 million stray animals, with a Return to Owner rate of only 37.1 percent for dogs. Is it okay to keep a stray dog? How do you help him find his way home?
You have every legal right to keep a stray dog, but we hope you’ll at least alert a local rescue to the little (or big) dog lost. If you find a stray dog and cannot find the owner, you should take the dog to the local animal shelter, police department, or animal control officer—call first to see what policies exist regarding stray intake. If you intend to keep the stray, you should still file a found dog report with local authorities and animal groups. If you don’t want to keep a stray, learn what to do when you find a lost dog and how to reunite the dog with his family.
But what if this stray dog is running loose because his previous owners callously abandoned him? And what if the stray comes to you immediately, sensing you’ll protect and help him? What if it’s love at first sight? What then?
Ensuring the stray dog’s safety always comes first. But if you’re thinking of welcoming the dog into your home permanently, it’s time to tick the boxes on a long to-do list that includes some investigating and serious decision making. Read on to learn the essential considerations and actions necessary when you take home—and hope to adopt—a stray dog.
Keeping a Stray Dog: A Serious Responsibility
Some of the dogs who enter animal shelters each year are strays found on the street (either accidentally lost or intentionally abandoned), and others are dogs surrendered directly to the shelter by owners who can no longer care for them.
Stray dogs in animal shelters may be returned to their owners, adopted, sent to a rescue, or transferred to another shelter. In some cases—for example, if the dog is deemed aggressive or unadoptable, has a serious medical condition, or if there isn’t enough space in the shelter—stray dogs may be euthanized. Animal control facilities may have different policies in place to manage unclaimed strays, which may include transfer to a rescue or shelter, or euthanasia.
Don’t decide lightly to bring home a stray dog. Think about your readiness for a dog and discuss it with your family, or risk having to surrender the dog because you weren’t prepared for the long-term responsibility and the financial cost of dog ownership.
Can You Keep or Adopt a Stray Dog?
Yes, but only after making a committed effort to find the dog’s owners. Of all the dogs who enter shelters each year, some 620,000 of them are reunited with their owners. The dog you found may be among those lucky canines.
Also, you ARE NOT legally the dog’s owner until after a waiting period established by state or local laws.
If you find a stray dog, call to file reports with:
- The animal control officer
- Animal shelters
- Local rescues
- The police department
- Veterinarian offices
- Dog daycares and boarding facilities
- The city clerk’s office
- Local TV and radio stations
Local veterinarians, boarding facilities, or the city clerk may be able to compare the dog’s description to medical or registration records to track down the owners. Television networks and radio stations may maintain lost and found reports.
Social media groups and pages are helpful for reuniting pets with owners. Ensure anyone claiming the pet can provide photos, registration documents, or vet records to prove ownership. Check with local authorities or shelter organizations if you need assistance determining whether claims to the lost dog are valid.
Catching, or Getting a Stray Dog to Approach You
Use an abundance of caution when approaching a stray dog. Your goal should be to stay safe yourself, keep others nearby safe, and to safely contain the dog so he doesn’t bolt into traffic.
Chasing a nervous or skittish dog will only cause him to run, which can create a dangerous situation—and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to outrun him. Instead, keep your body low, avoid making eye contact, and talk gently while moving closer to the dog. If he looks like he may run, stop advancing and remain silent. Sit down, if you can safely do so, and remain still and quiet. With enough stillness and patience on your part, the dog may decide to approach you.
Playful dogs may play a game of keep-away, darting away as you get closer. In this case, running away from the stray may produce the best results: He’ll see you’ve decided to join his game and will then run toward you.
Opening the back door or hatch of your vehicle may be just the trick you need, especially for a friendly stray who seems to be looking for attention. He may hop into the vehicle, ready for an adventure.
Here are more tips and tactics to help:
- Move slowly and speak to the dog in reassuring tones.
- Don’t reach near the dog’s head, or lean over his body or head until you get to know him better, as he may react fearfully and bite.
- Create a slip leash with a belt or a piece of rope. (This is a temporary solution until you can get a dog collar and leash.)
- Try to get the dog to come to you by offering dog treats if you have them handy, offering people food that’s safe for dogs, or pretending to eat something.
- Exercise caution if you contain the stray in your vehicle: Fear and anxiety may cause unpredictable behavior while you drive or when getting the dog out of the car.
- Contact a local rescue or animal control if you think the situation is more than you can manage.
What to Do With a Stray Dog at Night
If you encounter a stray dog at night, focus on containing him safely: He may need to stay with you overnight. Shelters and animal control facilities often run with limited staff—weekend or after-hours calls are reserved for emergencies rather than stray intake. Call the non-emergency line for your local law enforcement agency for advice on where to take a stray. While it may seem obvious, do not leave a stray tied outside the shelter or other facility. It’s dangerous for the animal, and without the appropriate intake information, the shelter professionals may miss opportunities to return the dog to his owner.
If feasible, wait near where you found him before taking him home just in case his family is searching for him. Check him for ticks or injuries under an outdoor light, and keep him in a separate, dog-proofed room overnight before returning to the area you found him the next morning.
Once he’s safe, it’s time for next steps.
Do Everything You Can to Find the Stray Dog’s Owners
No matter the condition of the stray dog—collarless, shivering, fearful, dirty, injured—don’t assume this means he doesn’t have an owner, or that he was neglected or abused. It’s possible the dog has been lost for several days, or even longer, and has experienced adverse conditions during that time.
Check the dog for a microchip at a veterinarian’s office or an animal shelter. Though not required by law in the US, microchipping is common—and most animal shelters now send adopted animals home with one. If the dog has a microchip, a special scanner retrieves an identification code linked to the owner’s contact information in a massive database.
If the dog has no identification tags, microchip, or personalized dog collar, walk him around the area you found him multiple times and at different times of the day and evening to give his owners—if he has any—the chance to spot him. If there is a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area, ask passersby if they recognize him.
Take a picture of the dog and create flyers to post near where you found him, or in surrounding neighborhoods if you found him in a retail, rural, or industrial area. Take the flyers to shelters in the region and the local animal control, in case his owners reach out to them. Ask around to find out whether there is a common location and/or website for posting lost dog signs in the community.
Keep Safety Top of Mind
If you’re considering keeping the dog, chances are your first impressions were positive. But this is a strange dog—you don’t yet know whether he has concerning behavioral issues or health problems. It’s possible the dog acts out when fearful, or has an illness, injuries, or parasites.
Essential health and safety precautions to take with a stray dog:
- Keep the dog separate from children until you get to know him better, and he has a clean bill of health.
- Keep the dog separate from any other pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, etc.) until you get to know him, and he has a clean bill of health.
- Wash your hands often while handing the stray dog.
- Don’t let the stray dog kiss your face until he has a clean bill of health.
- Check the dog for fleas and ticks before bringing him inside.
- If he is calm and agreeable, give him a bath.
Create a Dog-Safe Zone in Your House
Choose a room in the house where you can keep the dog safely contained, and away from children and pets. Ideally, the room you choose has a tile or wood floor so cleanup is easy should he have an accident. Clear small items, household cleaners, plants, electrical cords, and chemicals out of his reach and lay a blanket on the floor. Check on him frequently to see if he is chewing on anything—you may need to remove the blanket if he’s a chewer.
Feed the Dog Moderately at First
Don’t offer the stray dog heaping portions of rich food because you are concerned he is starving—both of you will regret your generosity when he gets an upset stomach and/or diarrhea. Whether lost or abandoned, the stray was likely accustomed to a different food before roaming loose. And if he was loose for a while, he probably ate poorly from garbage and scraps he could find.
What Can I Feed Stray Dogs?
Begin by feeding a small portion of high-quality dry dog food and see how he reacts. If he responds well to the food, increase the amount you feed him until he’s on a regular feeding schedule, with food apportioned for his weight and activity level.
If he has trouble digesting dog food, offer small portions of bland foods:
- Cooked white rice
- Skinless, unseasoned chicken or turkey
- Unseasoned, cooked ground hamburger
- Low-fat cottage cheese
Pre-mixed rice and protein meals can be stored in the refrigerator, and small portions may be offered every few hours. Mixing in a tablespoon of cooked or canned plain pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix) may help soothe diarrhea. When the stray can handle the bland diet, add a few kibbles of dog food. Increase the dog food and phase out the rice mixture with each feeding.
Take the Stray to the Veterinarian
Whether the stray dog is staying with you while you search for his family, or you’re hoping to keep him—he needs a visit to the veterinarian, STAT. The vet will check him for injuries, health issues, and parasites, and give him any vaccinations and prescription medicine he may require. The vet can also check him for a microchip while you’re there.
Get to Know the Stray Dog
During your time together, get to know your stray better while walking around the neighborhood to see if someone recognizes him, taking him to visit the vet, and bathing him. Other ways to learn more about this dog:
- Play low-key games of fetch with him in the yard, to see what personality traits emerge.
- Take him for walks with a leash and collar.
- Test out simple obedience commands to see if he knows any.
- Take him to a park where he’ll see other dogs in the distance.
- Walk him with people nearby—keeping him on a short leash in case he lunges at someone.
As you and the dog become more comfortable with each other, you’ll learn more about his temperament and notice behavior issues you missed in your first days together.
Stock up on Dog Supplies
Whether you’re a first-time dog owner or you’re adding another furry family member to the household—you’ll need a dog collar and other gear to keep him safe and comfortable. Review the comprehensive list of essentials in our guide for first-time dog owners, and fill in any gaps in your dog supplies.
Research the Legal Issues
There is no legal obligation to take in a stray dog you encounter, according to the Lost Pets FAQs page of the Animal Legal and Historical Center of Michigan State University. For those who decide to take in a stray, these are some essential legal issues to understand:
- You have the right to take in a stray dog.
- By taking in the dog, you are responsible for taking care of the dog during his time with you.
- You must make “reasonable” efforts to reunite the stray dog with his owner.
- In some states, placing ‘lost dog found’ notices around the community and in local publications is required by law.
- Laws relating to stray dogs vary by state and sometimes by municipal ordinance.
- The length of the holding period—which gives owners time to find stray dogs before they are put up for adoption—varies by state and municipal ordinance.
- Bringing the dog to a local shelter for the holding period and letting them know you wish to adopt the dog, may give you more legal protection if the previous owners return to claim the dog.
- You are responsible for protecting others from the dog. (As is any person caring for any dog.)
Bringing home an abandoned dog is a wonderful thing to do, but this generous act requires a measured approach. You must make sure a loving family isn’t waiting for him, and that you’re prepared to keep him fed, warm, healthy, and happy. Once your stray dog due diligence is complete, breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate giving your dog his forever home with a treat and a game of fetch.