What should you do when you see a stray dog?
Stop, drop, and roll.
Just kidding, that’s for fires of course. However, like emergency or unexpected situations, spotting a stray dog can make many people freeze and panic. So, we need to establish a plan that is clear and easy to remember.
I have encountered this situation many times. Some of these instances have occurred while Rooney was with me, and others occurred while I was by myself. Some have occurred while I was driving, and other times I have been out for a run and vulnerable to the situation. In an effort to be helpful, I am going to describe my “tips & tricks” for several different types of situations you might encounter with a stray dog.
If you are driving:
I would love to say that I have never seen a dog on the road, but I have. In fact, a few months ago I saw a cow getting on the freeway. In an area where we have a high volume of cars, animals on the road could spell disaster. So these are the steps I recommend for handling this particular situation.
- Assess the dog’s demeanor and overall approachability. Does the dog seem aggressive? To determine whether or not a dog might be aggressive, take a look at their posturing. Specifically, you want to avoid any suspicious, anxious, threatened, or angry behavior.
If you don’t feel that the situation is safe, don’t get out of your car. Pull over, stop the car, turn on your hazard lights and call animal control. If animal control isn’t available, try your veterinary hospital to see who is the best organization to contact.
- Does the dog seem injured? If yes, immediately call animal control and don’t move the dog if possible. Even if a dog is very nice and sweet, they can only tell you that you are hurting them with their mouth. Specifically, if you try to move an animal that has sustained an injury, it is very likely they will bite you. If the dog is on the road and injured and you need to stop traffic, please use all necessary flares and signals available in or on your car to help keep the dog safe until the authorities arrive. When I was 17, my friends and I came across a cat that had been hit by a car while we were on our way home. We immediately stopped the car and got out to assess the cat. We called animal control and my friend’s mom who waited with us until the cat was picked up. Because we were young, we didn’t do a very good job of detouring traffic, and so we almost got hit by a few cars. Looking back, I should have set up some flares or other signals where possible.
- If the dog seems generally friendly and not injured, try to lure them in your car. About 2 years ago, I was in my hometown and saw a black lab in the middle of the street. I could immediately tell that this dog was a friendly puppy with no injuries. So, I pulled over and made sure traffic was clear before I called him over. Sure enough, not 2 seconds after I said, “Come here pup,” he ran over and gleefully got in my car.
- Check for ID. If the dog has an address on their collar, head over to the house to see if the owners are home.
- If there is no ID, head to the nearest veterinary hospital. All veterinary hospitals carry a scanner, so they can determine if the dog has a microchip. When I worked at the vet hospital, once we detected a microchip and contacted the owner, we would hold the dog in one of our available kennels for pick up. Occasionally, a hospital might not be able to take a stray (especially if it’s close to closing), and they may refer you elsewhere. In addition to a scanner, veterinary staff are often in contact with animal control and might know if a particular dog has been reported lost.
- Notify animal control and the local animal shelter. These are typically the first places people call when their dog is missing, so there is a good chance of a reunion.
- If you can, try to hold on to the dog if you can’t locate the owner. When you first decide you can take the dog, make sure you can set up arrangements to keep the dog comfortable, while also separate from your animals.
- Use social media. Nowadays, there are so many ways you can get the word out that you have found a dog. Take a few pictures and start posting on Facebook, Tweeting, and posting on local discussion boards like Nextdoor.com and WherePetsAreFound.com
If you aren’t able to locate an owner right away, keep in contact with the shelters, rescues, and veterinary hospitals in your area. They can help you determine the local laws regarding stray animals, and what your next steps are for finding the dog a home.
(Photo above: My friend and I were on our way back to work, and we saw this dog. She was very friendly, and she jumped in my arms. Another neighbor told us where she lived, so I walked her home.)
If you are running or walking without your dog:
- Stop running. Continuing to run to or from a dog who is also running is a dangerous situation. The dog will either see you as a threat or as potential prey. About a year ago I was outside running when two German Shepherds came running in my direction. I immediately slowed down to a leisure walk without making eye contact. Which brings me to step 2.
- Don’t make direct eye contact right away: Dogs perceive eye contact as a challenge or threat (VetStreet). When I used to volunteer and work in shelters, we would occasionally have dogs that were considered aggressive. Often, these dogs needed an opportunity to be desensitized to your presence. This is where I learned the importance of no eye contact. When dogs feel challenged or threatened by your presence, they usually want to sniff you (i.e. figure out who you are, where you are from, and where you have been) without direct eye contact. With the German Shepherds mentioned in Step 1, I walked at a leisure pace by them with my hand open (palm up). This allowed them to realize I was not a threat or challenge, and they left me alone.
- Don’t run away, continue walking. Running may capture the dog’s attention again, so be sure to continue your leisure pace while still in their line of sight.
- Don’t wear headphones. I would imagine that many people have been attacked while running (or walking) because they weren’t able to prepare themselves for the dog interaction because they couldn’t hear the dog coming toward them. This is a strict policy I have for many reasons while running and walking outside; it really can make a difference to have all of your senses available in a potentially urgent situation.
- If they look friendly, check for ID and see if you can take them to their home.
- If they don’t have ID, follow steps 5-8 above.
If you are walking or running with your dog:
- Again, if you are running, stop running first.
- Try to avoid the stray. When two dogs meet and one is on a leash, this can quickly spell disaster. When dogs meet for the first time, they need an opportunity to figure each other out. When one dog is being confined by their leash, this can get in the way of the conversation these dogs are trying to have. Therefore, walking in another direction can be the solution.
- Have a safety plan. I would love to say that this never happens, but sometimes, stray dogs are a real threat to you and your dog, so you may need to seek the safety of a neighbor. If your dog is small enough, look around for a potential hiding spot or escape route. Once when I was a kid, there was a stray dog roaming my neighborhood, and this dog was notoriously aggressive. When I saw him coming toward me, I jumped in the back of my dad’s pickup truck that was parked in the driveway. I stayed there quietly until the dog got bored and moved on, and then I went inside.
- Don’t wear headphones. Once again, being aware of your situation at all times is key to your safety.
- If they look friendly, check for ID and see if you can take them to their home.
- If they don’t have ID, follow steps 5-8 from the “if you are driving section”.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to be prepared for these situations before they arise (Humane Society):
- Take an extra small leash with you on your walks.
- Keep treats in your car.
- Keep blankets in your car in case the animal is injured. If the pet absolutely needs to be moved, thick blankets can help you transport them, and protect you from being bit.
- A cat carrier is always a good idea.
- Lastly, keep a Pet First Aid Kit in your car. Here is a link for a DIY Pet First Aid Kit.
Have you ever encountered a stray dog? How did you handle the situation?
For Carol’s Mom perspective on this topic, please head over to Fidose of Reality.