Life on the street is impossible and unsafe for a domestic animal. If you’re able to give some days or weeks of comfort and love to a lost or homeless dog, the dog’s life is made better by it.
The Sunnyside neighborhood of Winston-Salem, NC, where I live, is a busy, diverse area between the North Carolina School of the Arts and Highway 52. With so many people and so much activity, stray dogs are common.
I spend a lot of time on my front porch. Some mornings, I’ll see a dog scurrying past. It might be a female who’s had several litters of pups or is still nursing. Her tail is level to her back as she glances carefully and quickly around the road before crossing. Another day, it’s an intact male, swaggering down the block looking for a lady dog or a meal. He trots with a relaxed, confident gait and navigates traffic with the savvy of a bike messenger. If I call him, he might give me a sideways glance, but more likely he’ll ignore me and move on.
These dogs are feral, or close enough. These are dogs that no one is looking for. They will retire to one of the abandoned warehouse yards where they and their small pack make their home.
Other dogs gallop down the street and dart into traffic without looking, mad with fear and maybe a bit of glee that they are free of whatever fence or wall or tether kept them at home. Usually, these dogs perk up when I call. They often barrel right up to me and stop in a cartoonish tumble, quivering with excitement, eager for a person to be near. It’s easy to slip a finger in their collar and check for tags. If the tags are up to date, it’s simple enough to get these dogs back home.
Of course, dogs don’t always have a collar or identification. Perhaps a gate was left unlatched; maybe the dog bolted after a bath. Sometimes dogs who fear thunderstorms will inexplicably run out into the most brutal weather in terror.
So how do you help a stray dog? Here are a few key points.
USE COMMON SENSE
I’m obligated to tell you to NEVER APPROACH A STRANGE DOG. If you choose to ignore this warning, as I do on a regular basis, please use common sense. Don’t ever corner a dog, and don’t assume that it’s okay to grab its collar.
IF THE DOG APPEARS SICK OR INJURED
Call your local Animal Control immediately. If you’re able to approach the dog without risk of injury to yourself, then tethering her with a leash or a length of clothesline to a tree or a fence post will keep her in place until Animal Control can arrive. Provide the dog with water and shade if possible.
IF THE DOG LOOKS NEGLECTED OR ABUSED
Don’t assume that every rangy dog you see meandering through your park is abused or neglected. In only a few days, most indoor dogs assume a look of neglect if left to fend for themselves outdoors. Coats mat quickly; paws become cracked from walking on hot asphalt. A few missed meals, and all but the tubbiest will show a little rib on their backs and sides. When I’m tempted to put a found dog in the category of “neglected and abused,” I think how my own 12-year-old Akita mix would look to someone who found her wandering. Her hair has fallen out in spots, she needs a nail trim and a bath, and she’s a few pounds shy of her ideal weight. In short, she looks pretty bad, but she’s well loved and certainly not the victim of the kind of abuse or neglect her shoddy appearance might lead a rescuer to assume.
Finding a dog who really is a victim of abuse or neglect carries complex ethical and legal issues too complicated to discuss here. If you find such a dog, you must talk to your local Animal Control. Even if the dog you found is now safe from his abusers, chances are very high that other dogs are living in that home and Animal Control must be alerted.
IF THE DOG LOOKS HEALTHY
What of the healthy, collarless dog? If you have dogs of your own, think carefully about their well-being before you bring a strange dog into your house.
First, get the dog into the car (many times this is as easy as opening the door), or secured with a leash or light rope, and drive or walk him to your nearest veterinary office. Ask a vet tech to come outside and scan the dog for a micro-chip. You may just be a phone call away from a cheerful reunion. If there’s no chip, you’ll have to do a bit more leg-work. Your options are:
- Take the dog to Animal Control. If you can’t house him temporarily, this is the best option. Every Animal Control is overcrowded, and there is no guarantee the dog will find a home. He may even be euthanized. Still, euthanization is a more humane option than returning the dog to life on the street, which comes with the risks of illness and likely a painful death by car or poisoning.
- Take the dog home with you. Give yourself a time limit, perhaps a week or a month, to find the dog’s family. If you can afford it, get her into a vet for a general physical and a rabies shot. If you are housing and caring for the dog, then law enforcement considers you its owner and you are obligated in the U.S. to vaccinate against rabies.
- Board the dog. Again, give yourself a monetary or time limit.
Once you have decided how to house your found dog, you’ll need to take some action to help him find his family.
- State laws differ, so you’ll need to check them out. North Carolina law requires that you report a found dog to Animal Control within 24 hours. You can simply post to a website in most cases. You don’t have to take the dog to the shelter, but you are legally obligated to report it. If you have the dog for seven days, you’re responsible for its well-being and are considered the owner. If you still have the dog after 60 days, you are obligated by law to license the dog with your local Animal Control.
- Walk him around the neighborhood. Ask your neighbors if they know him. Sometimes dogs will run far from their homes, but usually they are lost just a mile or two away.
- Make a “Found Dog” poster. This is more effective than you might think, as many dog owners are on foot in search of their pet. Write up a general description (such as, large brown dog or fluffy young red dog, as opposed to Chocolate Lab or Chow puppy), and don’t use a photograph. Instead, require the seeker to “call to identify” the dog, especially if your foundling is a great-looking purebred or a stocky bully-breed. Post at veterinarians, convenience stores, bars, and parks. Post on Facebook, and e-mail descriptions to your neighbors.
- Many papers will run a free Found Dog advertisement.
- Local news stations often have a Found Pets section where you can post for free. Again, avoid using a very specific description or picture of the dog.
- Your local Animal Control is a great resource. Their website likely has a place to list a found dog, as well as a list of owners looking for their missing canine. You should check this site daily. Many times, owners of missing dogs post a flier at Animal Control, so visit as you are able to check the bulletin board.
- Contact local rescue organizations to put the dog on their waiting lists. If you find the owners, you’re not obligated to the rescue organization to place the dog with them, but it’s wise to secure a place in line if you can’t go through the process of finding her a home yourself.
If all your efforts fail and you cannot locate the owners after a week or two, you must commit. Find the dog a new home, take her to Animal Control, wait for a spot in a rescue or a no-kill shelter, or keep the dog.
IN THE END
Sometimes finding a dog entails a happy reunion for a sad family and a stressed dog. Other times it ends with a dog getting a new owner or, sadly, being euthanized.
In the past twenty years or so, I’ve cared for about thirty dogs that I found or took in to foster. I’ve taken some to Animal Control, found homes for others, and turned a few into rescues or no-kill shelters. I’ve also kept a few of them. Two of my current dogs were foundlings; one appeared on the street where I work and another was in a dumpster off the highway.
Taking in a stray or lost dog comes with the same challenges found with bringing any new pet or person into your home. But sheltering these dogs, even temporarily, provides a deep sense of well-being to the dog that is apparent in her hearty appreciation of a meal and a satisfied sigh when she beds down for the night. No matter what the outcome, it’s important to remember that life on the street is impossible and unsafe for a domestic animal. If you’re able to give some days or weeks of comfort and love to a lost or homeless dog, the dog’s life is made better by it. Dogs often forget harm done to them, but they never forget a time when they were loved.
(top image by flickr user futurowoman)