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Finding a stray dog: How to act and what to do

Brown dog lying in the streets

Tips on how to behave if you have found a stray dog

© dezy - Shutterstock

It can be hard to know what actions should be taken and how to behave around a stray dog, particularly if they're scared. Here we look at what steps to take.

By Greta Inglis

Updated on the

Whilst the UK is fortunate to have a network of dog rescue organisations and dog wardens across the country, the number of dogs abandoned each year means you may find yourself faced with a stray dog who needs your help.

It can be hard to know how to help a dog you find loose on the street. When scared, dogs can become defensive, leading them to avoid being approached and touched at all costs. It's important to remain calm and follow the steps we outline here. This will make sure you are complying with the law and doing all you can to get the dog to safety.

What is a stray dog? 

With around 40 pets abandoned each day in the UK, the chances of coming across an abandoned dog are unfortunately fairly high. A stray dog is defined as a dog that has escaped human control, and is without an owner in a public place.

This definition is obviously very broad, and could incorporate free-roaming owned dogs (dogs that are left to wander freely but do have a home to come back to), lost dogs, and dogs that have been willfully abandoned.

Because the reasons can be so varied, it's really important to follow the steps outlined by law to ensure that every effort is made to reunite the dog with his family. There may be somebody desperately searching for their dog.

What should I do with a stray dog? 

From a practical perspective, there are certain steps to follow if you've found a stray.

If the dog seems approachable, friendly and healthy, you'll need to take them to a local dog warden or vet centre. Here, the dog will be scanned for a microchip, and if they have one, they will be returned to their rightful owner.

Did you know all dogs in the UK must be microchipped by law? Here's everything you need to know about microchipping your pet

If the dog does not have a microchip, and is not wearing any kind of ID tag, they will be held for a seven day period, during which an owner can come forward to claim their pet. The dog can either be held in kennels run by the council the dog was found in and managed by the warden, moved to a dog rescue, or kept by you!

If you decide to keep the dog in your home (after telling the dog warden, which is a legal requirement), you must care for the dog for a minimum of 28 days. You can keep the dog for longer than that, but be aware that the original owner can come forward to claim the dog at any point. 

If the dog has been transferred to a rescue and 7 days have passed with no-one claiming ownership, it will then be put up for adoption. If you are interested in adopting the dog, you will have to go through the same adoption process as anyone else, even if you're the one who found them.

If the dog does not seem approachable or friendly, do not try to take it anywhere. Call the dog warden or an RSCPA dog welfare inspector. They will come to the scene and collect the dog.

Rehoming groups cannot take a dog off the street, unless there are emergency circumstances. The dog warden or an RSCPA inspector should be contacted.

How to behave around a stray dog

If you've found a stray, you'll need to consider whether or not it seems safe to approach the dog. Animals can become aggressive when they are scared or in pain, and there's nothing scarier to a dog than being lost or abandoned, with no way of getting home.

Consider whether the dog's body language seems relaxed or tense. Some dogs will be so happy to see a friendly face, they'll most likely run to you with a wagging tail, grateful for the attention and care you're showing them. If this is the case, you can try luring them with treats to build trust, and gently check around their neck for an ID tag. If you feel safe enough to put a lead on, do so and call the warden. At this point the dog is secure, so keep it calm by offering food and talking in gentle, reassuring tones.

While some dogs may seem grateful and happy to be helped, other dogs will be scared and defensive. They may even warn you not to approach. Signs to look out for include:

  • Stiffening of the face and mouth 
  • Tail either tucked in fear or held upright and stiff 
  • Hackles raised 
  • Intense eye contact 
  • Lip licking
  • Low growl 
  • Barking and showing teeth 

If the dog is showing any of the body language listed above, it's essential that you remain calm and don't run away. This can spark a chase instinct in a dog, who may follow after you. Remain as relaxed in body language as you possibly can, and back away slowly.

Calming signals indicate to the dog you mean no harm and are not a threat. You may want to try the following:

  • Yawn
  • Avoid eye contact 
  • Stand sideways to the dog 
Bear in mind that a dog that wags it's tail, is not necessarily a happy dog. A stiff, slow wag of the tail may be a warning signal, telling you to keep your distance. 

You should try to move a safe distance away and call the dog warden immediately. They are trained to secure dogs that are nervous or behaving defensively, and the situation may not be safe for you to be involved in.

Can I adopt the stray dog I've found? 

If you find a stray dog, it's your duty by law to report this to a dog warden. Failure to do so may be classified as theft of the dog if their owner comes forward. Just because a dog seems lost and frightened when found, this does not mean they have necessarily been abandoned. They may have a loving family waiting to see them again.

It can be easy to become attached to the dog you've found. Dogs often bond quickly to their rescuer, as they associate that person with care and attention during a very stressful time. This can create an attachment between you and the stray dog you help, making dog adoption seem like a good idea. It's worth considering however, that this a dog with a totally unknown history and past. You will know nothing of their training, experiences in a home or how they'll behave once they decompress. This doesn't mean the dog won't make a great pet in the right home, but it's best to leave the professionals to work out whether you are the right home for this specific dog.

Once the dog has been collected by the warden, it will most likely be signed over to a dog rescue group. Here, it will be assessed and evaluated and criteria for the ideal home worked out by dog welfare experts and trainers. You can register your interest in adoption with the dog warden, and these details can be passed to the rescue that takes on the dog's care. Once the holding period elapses, the rescue will carry out an evaluation. You may be found to be a suitable home, and in this case, you'll be able to formally adopt the stray dog you found.

Do stray dogs make good pets? 

If you're thinking about rehoming a dog, you may be wondering whether former stray dogs can make good pets. It can be a worry for some people to think there is no history or background on their dog, and this is understandable. It means you won't know what past training or treatment your dog received, and there may be triggers and fears that come to the surface only once your dog starts to settle and relax. This has its challenges, as you have to be open, committed and patient enough to see your dog through these moments, reassuring and re-educating them as you go. Former stray dogs may be nervous of new people, afraid of sudden movements, noises or traffic, to name just a few of the possibilities.

On the other hand, challenging as certain behaviours can be, you'll also be helping a dog have their chance at happiness and a new life, full of love, kindness and good experiences.

Thinking of rehoming a dog? Check out our adoptions platform here.

Rescue dogs have an extraordinary strength when it comes to taking on new learning and new routine, and working with a behaviour modification specialist will go a long way in supporting the training you'll do. The gratitude and love your adopted dog will show you is not to be underestimated, and the bond you form will be a joy to experience.

If you've found a stray dog, your mind may jump to the possibility of the dog joining your family, but it's important your rescue dog is the right fit for you and your family. Follow the steps outlined here first, to ensure the dog receives the care and medical attention they need, and are given the chance to be found by their family if lost. Remain calm and reassure the dog, and be sure not to get in over your head. Call the dog warden to come and assist, and they will then take on the process as dictated by law. If it's meant to be, the dog may end up with you once the full process has been completed. If not, remember there are thousands of wonderful former stray dogs just waiting for their second chance.

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