What to do when you come across a stray dog
Dogs are present on every continent in the world except Antarctica. Depending on the location, dogs running at large may be considered a commonplace occurrence. Dogs running at large are often known as community dogs or street dogs; some have homes but are left to wander as they please, while others don’t “belong” to any one person or household and are looked after by the community they live in. There are also dogs running at large that are feral and seek no human interaction.
In the United States, we rarely see the community or street dogs that don’t have guardians. Those that don’t have a guardian or home are often caught and brought to shelter or pound in the community where they’re found. Often communities have an Animal Control unit, and they are dispatched to catch the dogs that are considered strays. However, many communities do not have local authorities for the job. That is where Good Samaritans often help stray dogs.
In the United States, an estimated 30 million stray dogs, and 3.1 million of those dogs enter shelters each year. This means that there is a high probability that you’ll encounter a stray dog at some point. Unfortunately, many people find themselves in this position and are left feeling helpless as to how to catch and help a loose dog. Below are some tips and tricks to help prepare you to be the Good Samaritan in your community.
To start, have a ready-to-go supply kit at your home, place of work, and/or vehicle; this will save time and energy. This will also help you be prepared at a moment’s notice.
Essential items to have in your kit:
- high-value treats
- slip lead
- sturdy handling gloves
- plastic/crinkly bag
- control pole
- snappy snare
- hog panel
If the dog you’re seeking to help seems friendly by displaying loose, wiggly body language and willingly comes to you, then it makes the task of catching the dog very easy, and you’re able to jump to the section, “I Caught a Dog, What’s Next!?”.
Now, if only catching all dogs were that easy! But, unfortunately, many dogs that are running loose are scared and out-of-sorts. They may also be overly cautious of approaching unfamiliar people. So, how do we catch those dogs or even get close enough to handle and help them?
Helping the Shy and Fearful Dog:
- Refrain from calling and approaching a fearful dog. That may cause them to panic and become a flight risk, sometimes blindly running into traffic.
- Instead, stay quiet, turn sideways to the dog, squat down and loosen your body language.
- Provided the dog is not showing signs of aggression and the dog is given a choice to move away, make yourself smaller by sitting or even laying on the ground. This could help the dog feel more comfortable.
- Avoid making direct eye contact.
- Instead, avert your eyes and offer “look aways”. These changes in our bodies help to communicate to the dog that we’re not a threat to them.
- Although it may seem counter-intuitive, moving away from the dog may entice them to follow you.
- Acting uninterested in the dog and focusing on and admiring something else may elicit and pique interest in the dog enough for them to move towards you. Crinkling a plastic bag or sprinkling food in front of you as you turn away from them can also lure a dog into your space.
- Broadcast food towards the dog and create a treat trail towards you, throwing food pieces closer to you each time.
- Take time and remember to breathe as you lure the dog into a snappy snare or slip lead. Avoid reaching for or lunging at the dog when they get within reach. If you’re unsuccessful, you will have ruined any trust that dog was starting to build with you, making it extremely difficult to get the dog to come near you again.
- Even if you successfully catch the dog, they may still panic and feel suddenly trapped, which may cause them to “fight” as their sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and “flight” is no longer an option. Understanding and practicing defensive dog handling can be very handy during these times. Michael Shikashio and Trish McMillan offer instruction workshops on this, which I highly recommend.
- Suppose the dog is too fearful or evasive to catch. In that case, creating a plan, gathering help from rescue organizations, and trying other options like setting live traps and/or possibly bringing in helper dogs will be beneficial.
Helping the Reactive Dogs:
- Shy and fearful dogs often become reactive dogs, especially if they feel trapped. Occasionally, we need to corner a dog to catch and help them. When presented with this situation, having knowledge of dog body language and proper tools in your toolkit is very beneficial.
- Look at the dog’s overall body carriage and tension. Keep a watchful eye for body freezes, suddenly closed mouths, and pulled-back commissures (puckered lips), all of which can be warning signs before an attempted bite.
- For these dogs, wearing a good set of handling gloves and having a control pole and/or hog panel present will provide additional safety. A control pole allows a person to catch and restrain a dog while keeping the dog a safe distance away, should the dog try to redirect onto the handler. A hog panel can be used as a barrier or wall to prevent a dog from escaping a space or preventing a dog from biting when used as a shield.
- After catching a reactive dog, find a secure place to house the dog, like a crate or fenced-in privacy yard. Back-tying is another option to keep the dog and handlers safe until additional help arrives.
I Caught a Dog, What’s Next!?
- Once a dog is successfully caught, the next step is to take the dog somewhere the dog will be safe and, if possible, find the dog’s guardian. Check the tags for contact information if the dog is wearing a collar. Sometimes people will write the contact info on the inside of the collar, so check the inside of that collar and the tags. If no ID is found on the dog’s physical items, take the dog to a place where they can scan it for a microchip, such as a shelter, rescue, vet clinic, or animal care facility. The professionals there can thoroughly scan the dog for a chip, and check for tattoos.
- If all those efforts yield nothing, the next step is to contact all community stakeholders for the dog you’ve secured. This means vet clinics, rescues, shelters, and humane societies, animal control and care units, local law enforcement, social media, radio stations, and newspapers to look for missing dogs that may match the description of the dog you have. This also gives you a chance to list the one you have as a found animal.
- If the dog’s guardian can not be located immediately, it’s essential to find a place to safely care for the dog until its stray hold is up. Then a shelter or rescue group can process and intake the dog to help find them a new home.
Things to Keep in Mind for Our Own Dogs:
- Keep the microchip up-to-date and scan for it at least once annually to ensure it hasn’t migrated within the body, which may make it challenging to find should your dog ever be lost and then found.
- Be sure your dog is wearing a properly fitted collar with current ID tags whenever the dog is outside. If tag noise drives you crazy, there are many options on the market for silent ID tags. Another option is easy-to-read embroidered ID collars.
- GPS collars are another great way to locate your dog should they get loose. This is especially true if your dog tends to be shy and fearful of unfamiliar people, making it less likely that someone would catch your dog.
- Have clear, up-to-date pictures of your dog to share on social media with locals and neighboring communities so people are informed and can help in the search. Additionally, if your dog is found, it’s good to go back and contact places with an update that your dog has been located.
If you want to know more about this topic, I will be speaking on it in depth on it at the 2022 Aggression In Dogs Conference. There is still some time to register, click here now.
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