Who to Call When You Find a Lost Dog

Fourth of July fireworks are just one of many reasons a dog might be found away from its home. Dogs often go missing when people move homes, or when an un-neutered dog’s hormones surge.

Sadly, many of our furry friends are also being abandoned during these tough times, as hardship forces otherwise kindly pet parents to let go of dogs they can no longer afford to keep. And as the number of abandoned dogs rises, so does the number of feral dogs, dogs born in the wild and never brought up with human contact.

In short, you can run into a homeless dog just about anytime or anywhere nowadays. What can you do to help these poor puppies?

If you find a dog and don’t know its owner, it’s best to call the local animal control or shelter as soon as possible. Since most dogs are recovered not far from their own homes, you may also want to try your local veterinary clinic or pet groomer as the puppy you found may be known to them.

Here’s a list of animal control departments, shelters, and welfare groups in the United States, arranged by state:

MontanaNebraskaNevadaNew HampshireNew Jersey
New MexicoNew YorkNorth CarolinaNorth DakotaOhio
OklahomaOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandSouth Carolina
South DakotaTennesseeTexasUtahVermont
VirginiaWashingtonWest VirginiaWisconsinWyoming
Washington DC    
Animal control by state

What to Do When You Find a Lost Dog

While you may find a dog that was abandoned or was born feral, chances are much higher that someone is frantically looking for it. Assume any dog you find has an owner who wants it back. Your highest priorities should thus be getting the dog to safety then identifying it so you can report it.

How to Approach a Lost Dog

Image credit: Canva

Lost dogs are often stressed by the fear of being in unfamiliar surroundings, and may also have injuries from accidents or abuse.

Because of this, you may find them in full fight-or-flight mode. Always consider your safety first, and approach dogs slowly and carefully lest you trigger an attack.

At the same time, the dog may be panicky and likely to bolt if you approach too closely. Keep yourself safe and keep the dog from running away with these tips for making a non-threatening approach:

  • Pay close attention to the dog’s body language; if its ears go back, you should also go back
  • Call softly and calmly to the dog from a distance
  • Don’t approach the dog directly, and keep your head and gaze turned to one side
  • Don’t maintain eye contact with the dog
  • If the dog lets you close, hunker down and let the dog smell your closed hand
  • Lure it to you with food or treats – but put the food on the ground, don’t try to hand-feed it
  • In hot weather, you may also be able to lure the dog with a drink of water
  • Be patient, make sure the dog is comfortable with you before trying to leash or contain it
  • If you can’t get close to the dog, try to get a clear photo of it with your phone so you can post a found-pet notice with a picture later, and report it as soon as possible to animal control or the nearest shelter

How to Contain a Lost Dog

Once a lost dog allows you to approach, you’ll have to restrain it somehow from running off again. If it allows you to come close enough, try to slip on a leash or improvised leash on it. If the dog is panicky or aggressive, you can try containing it safely using barriers.

Contain a lost dog inside a fenced yard or room, but away from your other pets and children. A lost dog’s panic could easily turn to aggression against other dogs or people, and a kid’s innocent wish to play with it could instead trigger a bite.

You may try luring a calm lost dog into your car by opening the door.

A panicky dog however is unlikely to accept such an invitation, and if you try to coerce one such into your car, you could get yourself into a dangerous situation as the dog may freak out or attack you while you’re driving.

How to Help an Injured Dog

You may find a dog that’s been hit by a car or injured in a fight with other dogs, or by wildlife. Should this happen, you’ll have to assess if you can help the dog immediately by yourself, or if it’s better to report it to the police. Always consider your safety first!

Injured dogs are in great pain and fear, and this can cause them to lash out fiercely even against their owners. Take extra caution when trying to help an injured dog. To help an injured dog that isn’t yours, follow these tips:

  • If you are the driver of the vehicle that hit it, it’s your responsibility to report the accident; it will also help you deal with the dog’s owner if you try to help the dog
  • If you find an injured puppy, keep a sharp eye out for its mom; a frantic mother dog is likely to attack you if it finds you near its distressed pup!
  • If you find an injured dog on the road, secure its safety and yours first by redirecting traffic around it; pull over, and have someone direct motorists away, or deploy your early warning device
  • If the dog is mobile, restrain it gently using barriers; don’t just try to pick up an injured dog
  • Small dogs can be caught and restrained using a blanket or towel; once you’ve got them, wrap them up like a burrito, this immobilizes them at the same time gives them comfort
  • Covering a dog’s head with a towel or blanket can help calm it, and also helps avoid being bitten
  • If you can get close to the dog but it shows signs of aggression, you can try muzzling it; muzzles can be improvised from stockings, neckties, clothes, or bandages. Make a knot and slip it over the dog’s muzzle, then secure it behind his head. Make sure the muzzle doesn’t impede the dog’s breathing.
  • If the dog may have broken bones, which is likely if it was hit by a car, find a way to move it to safety without moving its limbs or spine too much. You may slip a cardboard sheet, car shade, or blanket under the dog, and use that as a travois or stretcher to get the dog to safety.
  • Clean and bandage open wounds if you can; do not apply medicines unless you have veterinary medicines with you, as many of the medication we use are unsafe for dogs
  • Keep wounds elevated and under pressure to slow down bleeding
  • Prepare a nest of whatever soft padding you can find inside your car and transport the dog in it to the nearest veterinarian or animal shelter
  • Cover the dog in a blanket or jacket, as injured animals may go into shock and will need to be kept warm; the covering will also help calm them

How to Report a Lost Dog

Once you’ve managed to leash or contain a dog, you need to identify it. Check its collar for its name and owner info. If it’s not carrying identification, it may be microchipped. You can have the microchip scanned by a veterinarian or at the nearest animal control department or shelter.

If you found the dog in your neighborhood, chances are its home is just a stone’s throw away from yours.  Try walking the dog around the neighborhood and ask around. In a recent study, the city of Austin, Texas found that most dogs are found within just 1,000 feet of home.

If you find a dog outside your neighborhood, or if you’re in the countryside and the nearest houses are quite a distance away, and the dog has no means of identification at all, your best chance of reuniting it with its owner is to leave it at the nearest shelter.

This is the likeliest first stop for an owner looking for their lost pet.

Follow these tips in reporting a lost dog to maximize the chances of reuniting it with its owner:

  • Take a clear picture of the dog to use in your report
  • Call animal control or the nearest shelter and file a report
  • Describe the dog’s color, breed if you can identify it, any distinguishing marks, and descriptions of its collar and any other accessories
  • Notify your local veterinary clinic; the clinic staff are often familiar with the neighbors’ dogs
  • If the dog looks recently groomed, you can also try asking your local pet groomer if they know the dog
  • Post found-pet notices on social media
  • Do not include the pet’s name in your social media reports; this allows you to test if a claimant is a real owner, particularly if the dog is a valuable purebred
  • Put out a found-pet poster on your fence and around your neighborhood; again, do not include the dog’s name so you have a means of verifying the real owner

Websites to Report Lost Dogs

Websites and social media are also excellent ways to get the word out that you’re trying to reunite a lost dog with its owner.

Image credit: Canva

If you can, put together a found-pet graphic using the found dog’s photo and text with your contact info. Having all this on a graphic makes it easier to share to different networks.

Again, make sure not to include the dog’s name even if you found it. You want to have a means of identifying the dog’s true owner. Revealing the dog’s name will allow unscrupulous persons to fake ownership, as most dogs will respond positively to their name being called even by persons they don’t know.

The directory above contains websites or email addresses, and you can also try the following pet finding sites and social media pages:

How to Tell the Difference Between Stray and Feral Dogs

But wait!

Is it possible your foundling never had a human paw-rent?

As stray and feral dogs increase, so do the chances you may find a dog that’s never been owned. True feral dogs have either never been owned or taken care of for long by humans, so they act like wild animals, with extreme fear of us and our surroundings.

Dogs are classified by scientists as falling into one of four classes: owned restricted dogs, owned unrestricted dogs, stray or pariah dogs, and feral dogs.

Owned restricted dogs are your typical American house pets, wholly dependent on their owners for their daily needs.

Owned unrestricted dogs are common in rural settings, especially in Africa and Asia, where village dogs are allowed the run of the community but feed and sleep at their owner’s house.

Stray or pariah dogs are unowned dogs that live in or near human settlements and depend enough on human sources of food such as begging and scavenging refuse that they’re habituated to human presence.

True ferals are domestic dogs and their descendants that have been living in the wild long enough that they are no longer used to human contact, and often regard people as predators or enemies.

The following telltale signs will help you identify if a dog is feral:

  • The dog is extremely afraid of humans, and shows it either through extremely submissive or extremely aggressive behavior; they can’t keep calm around humans, unlike stray or pariah dogs which are used to human presence
  • The dog doesn’t know how to beg for food from humans, since truly feral dogs rely entirely on hunting and scavenging for food; most strays know how to beg for food
  • The dog’s coat may be matted, and its nails are long and hard, never been trimmed
  • The dog has no identification or microchip

However, it’s also possible that an apparently feral dog looks and behaves like one but is actually an owned dog that has been missing and traumatized for some time.

Should you ever find a dog that seemingly has never been owned, you’re still best off reporting it to a shelter as if someone might be looking for it. Dogs have gone missing for as long as eight or ten years before being reunited with their owners.

How to Report Dog Cruelty

You may find a dog whose condition indicates criminal neglect or even worse abuse.

Dogs that carry the marks of beating, being chained or caged all their lives, often in filthy conditions, dumped far from home, or worst of all, victims of dogfighting rings. What’s worse, you may find such dogs still being guarded by their owners.

Such dogs may appear emaciated, have badly matted fur, open wounds and sores especially around their necks from overly tight collars or chains, and in the cases of dogs used in fighting, scars on muzzle, neck, shoulder, and forelimbs.

What can you do for an abused dog? If you find an abused dog wandering or abandoned, you can try to foster it yourself or hand it over to a shelter. If you find an abused dog in someone’s home or yard, however, the best thing to do is notify the police.

Trying to free an abused dog yourself can result in charges of theft, getting physically attacked, even shot. The dog you’re trying to help may be so traumatized that it will attack.

You can report cases of animal abuse to the following agencies:

For your safety, do not confront the abuser, try to take the dog away yourself, or make a public report on social media.

The latter is especially important if you’re reporting a dogfighting ring or illegal puppy mill, as the perpetrators may be tipped off and move or destroy the dogs before they can be helped, and even worse, may try to get back at you.

When Can You Keep a Found Dog

You can keep a found dog only if you have exhausted all reasonable means to find the owners first.

Even then, state and city laws differ on how long an owner has to reclaim a lost dog. Some give owners months or even years. The best way to take in a lost dog is to adopt it from a shelter.

When you find a lost dog, take it to a shelter. If you want to keep it, let the shelter know you want to adopt it.

They’ll be happy to know the foundling will have a home and will give you the first chance at adoption should the mandated holding period pass without any owner claim.

Best of all, you’ll get adoption papers and records, which you can use as legal protection showing that you did what you could to find the owners and that you did not steal the dog.

On the other hand, try putting yourself in the shoes of the puppy’s original pet parents. Wouldn’t you want your own doggo back no matter how long you’ve been separated?

If the original owners do show up and claim their dog, and you believe they’ll take proper care of it, the kindest solution may be to give up your new pet and be happy you had a part in their reunion.

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