Last updated on February 18th, 2023 at 06:02 pm
When a stray dog shows up on your doorstep it can be hard to resist the temptation to wrap your arms around him and bring him inside. And, good for you for caring! However, before you decide to adopt him and make him part of your family, there are some considerations.
Dogs become stray due to a variety of reasons: they may have run away or been lost, they may have been abandoned, or they are feral dogs who have never lived in a human home. Without knowing the history of a stray dog, it may be difficult to know how to handle him.
Here are 7 important things to think about when you find a stray dog:
- Make sure the dog is safe to handle
- Consider a vet visit to check a stray dog’s health
- Look for dog tags or get him scanned for a microchip
- Check state laws regarding the adoption of a found dog
- Ensure that a stray dog will get along with other pets and family if you adopt
- Be willing to care for him for 30 days and surrender him to owners if found
- If unclaimed, stray dogs can make wonderful pets
Finding Stray Dogs and Considering Adoption
When I was a kid in Iowa, I had a habit of finding lost and hurt animals. Much to my mother’s dismay, I would bring them home to feed them and nurse them back to health. Then, I tried to find out where they lived, if they seemed like somebody’s pet. I also saved wild animals like baby robins who fell out of their nest and a pigeon with a broken wing. My mother drew the line when I wanted to bring a feral cat into the house–too wild she said.
As an adult, I continued to rescue animals in need. I saved a few lost dogs including one who fell into an Arizona open water canal and was frantically struggling to get out. Without help, he probably would have drowned. He had a tag, so I was able to contact his owner who lived close by. She was overjoyed and in tears when she came to pick him up. Apparently, a gate had been left ajar and he ran off to explore. He was a sweet and curious Basset Hound. I had already decided that I would adopt him as a brother for my two Beagles. But I am really glad I was able to reunite him with his Mom.
But in some situations, owners may not come forward or cannot be located. Additionally, some dogs have never been owned, have been abandoned, or allowed to roam freely and chose to wander off. Therefore, you may consider adopting a stray dog. See this Quora thread regarding moving stories of people adopting street dogs. Just be sure to take some precautionary steps before you decide to bring home that adorable little pooch you just found!
1. Make sure the dog is safe to handle
Because you have no knowledge of a stray dog’s history, be cautious when approaching him. Watch for signs of aggression and back off if he growls or bares his teeth. Likewise, if the dog seems terrified of you, he may run off. So, approach slowly and speak gently. You can also bring an enticing food offering such as dog treats, a hot dog, or cheese to let him know you are a friend. If you cannot safely approach him yourself, then you should call animal control staff to assist you.
If you find a stray hanging out around your home a lot, you can place water and some food on the doorstep to get him to trust you. Then you may be able to safely approach him and bring him inside. If you have other pets, you may want to keep him in a separate area of the yard or garage and check him for fleas and ticks first. He may need a flea bath before you bring him inside. Homeless dogs can have a pretty rough life if they have been living outside for a long time.
If your pets are up to date on their vaccinations, you can bring the stray inside if the weather is bad. But try to keep them separated as much as possible. If you have a child gate, that may be ideal so the dog can see out of a room but not get too close.
2. Consider a vet visit to check a stray dog’s health
If you cannot readily find the dog’s owners and plan to care for a stray dog, take him to your local vet for a check-up. At a minimum, the vet may want to give him rabies shots and one or two other vaccinations. Be sure to see my post about flu and other key vaccinations.
Your vet can also check his general health and well-being and determine if he has any serious health problems. If you have other pets in your home, this is a very important step to take to protect them. You will want to make sure they are not exposed to communicable or other types of contagious illnesses.
3. Look for dog tags or get him scanned for a microchip
Don’t assume that a stray dog has been abandoned. He may simply be lost, so be sure to check for dog tags. Hopefully, he will have a city license tag or his owners’ contact information. But if not, you can have him scanned for a microchip. Microchips are tiny chips encased in glass and have an identifying number that can be read with a scanner. See my post about Microchips and how to change the contact info for more information.
If you take him to the vet for a check-up, the vet can do a scan. Otherwise, most shelters have scanners and can help you contact the registration company which will have the owner’s contact information. Microchipping pets has become a common practice recommended to owners over the past several years. Additionally, most rescue groups and shelters will microchip a dog if he does not already have one.
4. Check state laws regarding the adoption of a found dog
Obey Local Laws Regarding Lost Pets
If you have taken a lost or stray dog into your home, check your state laws about adopting a found dog before you take him into your heart! Most state and local laws require a minimum period of time to find the prior owner. In my northern California County of Sonoma, found animals must be reported to the local public shelter within 24 hours. They must also be taken to the shelter or a vet to be scanned for a microchip.
If the dog does not have tags or a microchip, then other reasonable efforts should be made. You can file a lost dog report with your local public shelter initially. If a dog is truly lost, his owners probably live close by. So, you can post a lost dog notice on Facebook, Nextdoor, or pin fliers to trees and light poles around your neighborhood.
Just make sure you do not post all of the information about the dog. That will allow anyone who calls to provide more information such as gender or markings on the dog to help prove that the dog is really theirs. Unfortunately, people try to steal dogs for a variety of illegitimate purposes.
All reasonable efforts must be made to find the owner since pets are considered to be legal property in most states. This period is usually two weeks to 30 days. If no owner comes forward, then you are allowed to adopt a stray dog after the required period of time has passed. If you do adopt, apply for a city or county license and get your dog a collar with ID tags and have him microchipped or change the contact info.
I sometimes see fliers on our townhouse mailboxes and light poles for lost cats and dogs in my neighborhood. One time when I was staying at my sister’s house, I lost her cat who ran out the door when I opened it to look outside. I posted fliers all over the neighborhood. Then I decided to put a bowl of milk on the front porch, and sure enough, she came back when she got hungry!
I remember how grateful I was many years ago when my two adventurous Beagles managed to escape from our fenced-in yard. One of my Beagles even figured out how to scale a 4-foot gate so she could run out and look for rabbits. Fortunately, each time a neighbor living a few blocks away found them and called my number which was on their dog tags.
5. Ensure that a stray dog will get along with other pets and family if you adopt
If you plan to adopt if the owner cannot be found and do not want to take him to the shelter then ensure that the dog will get along with your household pets and family members. Take him to the vet to check for any diseases he could pass along and get him vaccinated.
Then slowly integrate him with other pets. Keep everyone separated using child gates or fenced-off areas and slowly let them meet through the fences and gates. If all goes well, you can let them be together off leash in the backyard and then inside a large room in your house.
Dogs need a large enough space to meet other dogs so they have room to move around and check out the other dogs or move away if they are unsure. Dogs do not like to be boxed in and need a safe place or route to retreat to. If a dog feels trapped he may lash out.
Make sure he has his own place to eat and his own bed to sleep in. Be sure to see my post Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog to get a lot more info about bringing a new dog home.
6. Be willing to care for him for 30 days and surrender him to owners if found
If you have fallen in love with a stray dog, be willing to keep him for at least 30 days while you search for the owners. Even if the legal requirement is only two weeks, wait 30 days just to make sure. His owners could be on vacation or be hard to locate for some reason. Just imagine how you might feel if your dog was lost.
Also, be prepared to relinquish a lost dog if the owners step forward and claim him. Even though you may be sad to let him go, you can find solace that he will be reunited with his family and can go back to his familiar home. So please adjust your expectations until you have completed this period of time.
7. If unclaimed, stray dogs can make wonderful pets
Rescued dogs often make the most loyal and loving dogs you can imagine! They have been around the block a few times and are grateful to be in a good home. See this poignant story from The Dodo of a woman who was traveling and discovered a stray hanging outside her Airbnd. This sweet pup refused to leave until he was adopted!
Stray dogs may have some initial health or behavioral issues to deal with due to their dire circumstances, but they will eventually become a great new friend. You will be able to develop a strong bond of trust and love, and nothing can be more rewarding!
Deanna Euritt is a dedicated dog enthusiast with over three decades of experience in raising and training a diverse range of dogs, including many rescue pups. Her practical expertise is rooted in real-life experiences, where she has successfully navigated the challenges of nurturing rescue dogs into confident, well-adjusted companions. Residing in Northern California, Deanna’s days are filled with adventures along trails and beaches with her beloved dogs, Charlotte and Georgia. In her writing, she offers insightful, compassionate advice to fellow dog lovers, leveraging her extensive personal journey in the world of dog care and training. See About Us.