Stray Dogs: How To Help And Handle A Street Canine


Last Updated: May 22, 2023 | 8 min read | Leave a Comment

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So, one day you’re driving along in your car when you spot a miserable-looking dog at the side of the road. He’s alone and terrified. Maybe someone dumped him?

Most people who love animals are familiar with that scenario, but what should you do if you come across a stray dog?

Many dogs are not really strays, but just someone’s best friend that may have gotten lost because they got scared and ran away on a noisy holiday like July Fourth or Halloween.

Safety First

First of all, the golden rule in any rescue, whether it’s a human or an animal involved, is to keep yourself safe. You can’t help the dog if you’re injured too! If you’re driving, make sure that it’s safe and legal for you to pull over to the side of the road and park your car. Turn off the ignition and set your parking brake.

Remember that a stray dog is most likely frightened and could be sick or injured. That means the dog could behave unpredictably. Keep all your movements slow and quiet so that you don’t spook the dog, or he could bolt into the highway and cause an accident.

Also, a terrified dog could be dangerous. After all, you don’t know how the animal came to be a stray. The dog may have been mistreated in the past, so he now associates being around people with a beating. If the dog appears at all threatening, stay in your car and don’t approach him.

If you’re out walking and you come across a dog that’s fallen into a deep hole, is stranded on an icy lake, or is trapped in water, you must make sure that you can safely rescue the animal. Many people have died while trying to rescue trapped dogs, so don’t become a statistic!

Call Animal Control

As soon as possible, and before you try to help the dog (or scare them away), call for professional help. If you’re in a city or town, call the local animal control agency. If you’re out in the country, call the police.

You should call for help whether the dog is injured or not, even if he’s wearing an identification tag. Give the dispatcher your phone number, and ask for an estimate of how long you’ll be waiting for help to arrive. Try to give the exact location of the dog by using road names, landmarks, or mile markers.

If you can, stay where you are so that you can watch the dog until help arrives.

Catch The Dog Safely

If the dog is relatively calm, you’ll need to try to contain him so that he doesn’t run away or get onto the road. Be cautious when approaching the dog. Remember, if you do get close enough to catch the stray, you will be vulnerable to being bitten or scratched. Stray dogs are most likely not vaccinated, and you could catch a serious disease such as rabies if you suffer a bite.

As you move toward the dog, keep your voice low and quiet. Reassure the dog and move slowly. If you have any food in the car, you could use it to lure the dog to you. If he’s a stray, he’s most likely hungry.

If you don’t have a leash with you, you’ll need to get creative and make one from a belt, necktie, or a piece of rope. If you can’t get the leash on the dog or confine him in any other way, try to divert traffic away from the animal if he’s injured and still on the road.

Local highway officers or an animal control representative will come to assist you. If you’re confident that animal control will be with you quickly, try to persuade the dog to get into your car. Use food to lure him if necessary.

Shut the car door and wait for help. Do not sit in the car with them, and don’t try to drive with the dog unrestrained in your car. You have no idea how he’ll react, and he could panic and become aggressive.


If you can safely transport the dog without waiting for help, take him to the nearest animal shelter. If you’re planning on keeping the dog and you decide to take him home, you must still notify animal control. Remember to tell them where you found the dog and whether you had to take him to the veterinary hospital for treatment.

Finding The Owner

If you can’t get a hold of animal control or they can’t come in a timely manner, you must make every effort to locate the animal’s owner yourself. If the dog is wearing ID collar tags with his owner’s details, contact them right away.

If there are no collar tags, the dog may be microchipped. Ask a vet to scan the dog to see if the animal has a chip implanted. Once you have the chip number, you can contact the tracing service provider, who will notify the owner that the dog has been found.

If all else fails, you can post on a local Facebook group, Nexdoor, or put an ad in your local newspaper or online at sites such as Craigslist. Take some photos of the dog, too and ask local vet clinics to display a “found” notice in their reception area. Local pet stores will also have a noticeboard where you could post pictures of the stray with your contact details.

Protecting Your Pets & Family

Even though you’re keen to help a poor abandoned dog, you must think of your own pets’ welfare too. Keep your other animals completely separate from the stray dog. For all you know, the stray could be carrying a disease that could make your family pets sick. Also, the stray dog might not have been socialized and potentially be aggressive with other dogs and cats.

Even though your kids will be keen to pet the stray dog, don’t allow them to! You have no idea how a frightened dog in unfamiliar surroundings will react. Young kids are often noisy and can be clumsy too around dogs. The last thing you want is for the dog to bite one of your family.

Can We Keep Him?

Every state, county, and town has laws relating to pet ownership. Most times, a stray found alongside the road will be unwanted and will remain unclaimed. However, you don’t automatically become the owner of the dog until you’ve satisfied local legal requirements.

If you keep the dog without making reasonable attempts to contact the animal’s owner, you could end up in hot water if the rightful owner ever traces their pet. That’s because technically, keeping the dog without trying to find the owner amounts to theft!

In pretty much every state, you don’t become the stray’s owner until a holding period as specified by local state or county law has elapsed. You’ll need to make every effort to reunite the animal with his owner.

If and when the stipulated holding period has expired, you must have the dog vaccinated, buy him a collar and ID tag, and have the dog microchipped.

Injured Pups

If the dog is injured and you hand him into a shelter, you may discover that they are unable to pay for the expensive veterinary treatment the stray needs. In those cases, many rescue centers may decide to euthanize the dog. It’s a case of limited space and resources. Shelters are overstretched as it is, and many just can’t afford expensive vet bills.

If you decide to take the dog to a vet, you must be prepared to assume financial responsibility for the animal’s care, especially if it’s a costly issue like removing a foxtail from a dog’s fur.

What To Do If You Encounter An Aggressive Stray Dog

Stray dogs can be dangerous.

In Indiana, two women who were out jogging along a rural road were attacked by four pit bulls that had escaped from their owner’s yard. Both women sustained severe injuries and were lucky to be rescued by a passer-by.

So, what can you do if you encounter an aggressive stray dog while you’re out and about? Check out these top tips that will help you to keep safe:

  1. Freeze – Your first response will undoubtedly be to run away. Unfortunately, that will trigger the dog’s instinct to chase, which is precisely what the dog will do. Instead, freeze and stand still. According to dog behavior expert Cesar Millan, you should stand completely motionless and face the dog. Try to keep absolutely still. The idea is to look as boring as possible. Many times the dog will simply bark at you, then lose interest and wander away.
  2. Don’t look at me! Direct eye contact is construed as a sign of aggression among dogs. Rather than making eye contact with an aggressive dog, try to keep him in your field of vision without looking at him directly.
  3. Be warned – Stay calm and use a firm voice to tell the dog to back off. Don’t shout or scream, as that could further inflame the situation.
  4. Food distraction – If you have dog treats or kibble in your pocket, these can provide a perfect distraction for an aggressive stray. So, if you regularly walk in remote areas where dogs could be running loose, it’s a good idea to make it a habit to carry a few doggy nibbles with you, just in case.
  5. Call for help – If you have a cell phone with you, call 911. Tell the dispatcher where you are and explain that a vicious dog is attacking you. Ask how long it will take for a patrol to reach you.
  6. Provide something for the dog to bite – Sometimes, you can buy yourself enough time to get away by giving an aggressive dog something to bite on. Try giving the dog your water bottle, purse, fanny pack, or even your jacket. While the dog is busy savaging the item, you may have bought yourself enough time to slowly back away to safety.
  7. Worst case scenario – If you can’t get yourself away from the dog or if a pack of dogs attacks you, hit the ground. Curl up into a ball and protect your head with your hands or with a jacket or shirt. The idea is to cover your face, scalp, and abdomen. These are the areas that are most susceptible to attack. Yell for help at the top of your voice and hope that the police or other assistance arrives before the dogs breach your defenses.

Final Thoughts

A few final words of advice for would-be Good Samaritans. First of all, think about how you’d like the finder of your dog to act if they found your pet without a collar and possibly injured. You’d expect the finder to take your dog to a vet, and you’d also want them to try to find you.

Never assume that the stray you found was callously dumped or has been neglected. Accidents do happen, and there could easily be a frantic owner searching everywhere for their beloved pet.

Finally, ask yourself:

  • Are you prepared to add the stray to your household?
  • Will you be willing to return the stray to his rightful owner if they turn up, even after you’ve begun to form an attachment to the dog?

If your answer is, “no” to either of these questions, you should hand the stray in to a rescue center or shelter.

Although it may seem like a charitable thing to do, rescuing a stray dog is not something that should be taken on lightly. If you want to keep the dog, you must take reasonable steps to ensure that he doesn’t have a worried owner waiting at home for news of their “lost” pet.

That said, many dog owners saved their beloved canine companion from a life on the streets by rescuing him. There are many happy endings to Good Samaritan stories. Follow the advice in this article to ensure that your stray rescue story ends happily, too!

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