[Updated June 16, 2017]
I don’t know a single dog owner who hasn’t, at some point (or quite frequently), spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture a stray or lost dog. I know I’ve caught more than my share in the small town, or its rural surroundings, where I’ve lived for the past five years. I’ve caught burr-covered, obviously lost hunting dogs; dogs whose injuries suggested they’d tumbled from the back of a truck; as well as some fluffy little lap-escapees who looked like they were just out for an adventure.
If the dog is wearing a collar and tags with current contact information for his owner, you’re in luck – and the rest of the information in this article isn’t relevant. But out of maybe 20 dogs I’ve scooped up in the past five years, exactly one was wearing a collar and current ID tag. It certainly seems like the people who keep collars and tags on their dogs at all times are also the ones who manage to keep them safely contained – but accidents can happen to any owner. Here’s what you should do with an unidentified dog.
1. Take him to your local shelter
Don’t panic; you don’t have to leave him there if you are concerned that your local shelter is unsafe, unclean, or poorly managed. But there are a few things you should do at the shelter (see # 2 and # 3).
If the dog has an owner who is actually trying to find the dog, the owner will most likely come to the shelter to look for the dog. Few people, except the most dedicated owners, think to read the ads in the classified section or on craigslist.
2. Ask the shelter staff to scan the dog
The dog may have an implanted microchip ID. If he does, the staff should be able to help you track down contact information for the dog’s owner.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it only recently occurred to me that my 14- or 15-year-old cat, who was a stray found by a friend and then given to me 12 long years ago, was never scanned. I actually took her to my local shelter and had her scanned just the other day; I hate to think I could have returned someone’s beloved lost cat years and years ago. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to check before. (She had no chip, thank goodness.)
3. File a “found dog” report at the shelter
If he does not have a microchip, and you don’t want to leave him at the shelter, you should at least file a “found dog” report at the shelter. This protects you in case you end up deciding to keep the dog (or you give the dog to a friend); it shows that you made a reasonable effort to find the dog’s owner. If an owner shows up some time later and wants his dog back, you’ll need to be able to prove that this attempt was made in order to protect your rights to the dog.
Some shelters take a photo of the dog for their “found dog” reports and file these online; others simply keep a binder full of the reports, sans photos, on a counter at the shelter. Few people are aware that shelters keep these reports; most people just check the shelter kennels and/or website. It’s uncommon, but reunions have been facilitated through these reports.
4. Take a photo of the dog and make a “found dog” flier
Post it in as many places as you can in the area where you found the dog. Most dog owners look at posters for lost or found pets, and many of us are more familiar with our neighbors’ pets than their owners! This way, you are recruiting a small army of people who might be able to help reunite the dog and his owner.
5. Be cautious if you take the dog home
If you bring the dog home, take immediate steps to protect your pets. Check to see if the dog is infested with fleas; if he is, you’ll want to use some sort of potent flea control product immediately, before the fleas can populate your car or home. If your dogs are not fully vaccinated, or are immune-suppressed, you may want to keep the stray dog as far from your dog as possible for at least a few days, so you can make sure he’s not sick with anything transmissible. Wash your hands well after handling the stray, and clean up his waste immediately.
You also need to protect all of your family members from being attacked by the stray, until you’re certain that no attack is forthcoming. When your own dog is great with kids, cats, and your parakeet, it’s easy to forget that other dogs may be highly predatory.
Don’t take anything for granted; be careful at feeding time, and the first time he finds a nice chew bone or toy that he likes, because he may have resource-guarding issues. Keep the dog on-leash, or control his access to certain parts of the house with baby gates until you have a chance to see what he’s like.