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What to Do with a Stray Dog: A Second Shot At Life

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

what to do with a stray dog

It can be overwhelming to know what to do with a stray dog. As animal lovers, you all want to help dogs who are in need of a home. In this article, you will provide some guidance on how to handle the situation and what steps to take in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the dog.

When dealing with a homeless dog, your safety and the safety of the dog should be your top priority. Remember that the dog may be scared or aggressive, so it is important to approach slowly and calmly. In some cases, it might be necessary to involve local authorities or animal control, especially if the animal is in a bad condition.

The journey of assisting a lost dog can be both challenging and incredibly rewarding. We have used lost dog manuals and expert advice to help you find the best home for the dog, whether in another home or your own. As someone who lives in a rural area, I also deal with rescued feral or abandoned dogs regularly, and will relate the story of Penny, my most recent rescue and what I did with her.

We’ve all watched YouTube or TikTok rescue videos that left you in tears on a random Tuesday afternoon at work. Maybe it’s a story of a dog with a happy ending that found a forever home or a dog that battled a hard life to the very end. No matter what, when you hold this dog’s life in your hands, you want to do the right thing.

If you’re sure you’re dealing with a lost dog and not one that was born or raised in the streets, our linked article has a different guide for that. However, it’s important to make sure you are prepared for the responsibility of owning a dog and have the resources to provide for its needs.

It’s important to remember that taking in a homeless dog is a serious responsibility and should not be taken lightly.

Check out this heartwarming transformation:


Before/After, 2 years later… Notice the change in body language, eye contact, and confidence… Until now, this was a dog that never had peace in his life… It’s amazing what a little love (and some cookies) can do for a dog in need. Can you believe this is the same dog?! A very special thank you to @theanimalpad @losadoptables and the #teamfinn community for never giving up on Simba. And to Simba’s forever mother, Alisha, who loves him for who he is.. ❤️🙏 #fyp #foryou #animalrescue #rescue #dogsoftiktok #beforeandafter #transformation

♬ Pope Is a Rockstar – SALES

The Story of Penny: My Own Rescued Feral Dog

Penny, a rescued feral dog on her bed

Stumbling upon a homeless dog can tug at the heartstrings of any animal lover, and as someone who’s dedicated their life to caring for dogs, it’s a scenario I’m deeply familiar with. My own most recent experience with a feral dog, whom I later named Penny, is a testament to the unforeseen paths we sometimes walk with these creatures.

Penny was a spectral presence in the fields where my dogs and I wandered on our daily hikes, her feral instincts keeping her just out of reach. Noticing her loneliness, I began leaving food and water, making it a part of my daily ritual, hoping to offer some small comfort to her otherwise harsh existence.

As time wore on, a shift occurred — one that brought us inevitably closer. Penny was injured, a clear signal that our distant relationship had to change for her survival. The pursuit to catch her was painstaking, lasting several hours, but necessity lent me patience. Finally, with a gentle hand and a quiet voice, I managed to slip a leash over her head. It was clear that her spirit was broken, and as she cowered and trembled, the gravity of her plight truly hit home.

Cradling the underweight, tick-infested dog, I brought her into the sanctuary of my home. Her teeth, worn down from a lifetime of survival, and her body, a map of scars and stories (missing two toes on her hind leg), spoke of years of neglect. It was during the vet visit that the weight of her situation truly settled upon my shoulders — Penny had cancer.

The easy road would have been to surrender her to a shelter, but looking into her tired eyes, I understood what I needed to do. Penny wouldn’t spend her final days in a cage, waiting for an end that would come amidst the scent of disinfectant and the echo of barking kennels. I decided then and there that she would know what a home felt like, perhaps for the first time.

Is this the right thing to do for every one who encounters a wandering dog? No. You should never keep a dog just because you feel bad for them and if you are working in rescue, you need to be extremely careful about overextending your resources by trying to rescue and keep too many dogs. But it was the decision I made for Penny.

I notified the local shelters about Penny, ensuring that if someone was looking for her, they would know she was safe and cared for. Under my care, and with the vet’s help, Penny began her palliative treatment, not to cure, but to comfort. Over time, the skittish, haunted look in her eyes faded, replaced with a tranquility that comes with feeling safe.

Today, Penny’s coat is glossy, and her belly is full. She rests comfortably, surrounded by a family who has promised to fill her last days with love. She may not have been mine from the beginning, but she is mine now, and I will ensure that when she leaves this world, she will know she mattered — she was loved.

Steps to Take When Dealing with a Stray Dog

A homeless dog lying on pavement

PETA approximates around 70 million homeless dogs and cats at any given time. Most of these are a result of irresponsible breeding habits. However, a good portion of homeless dogs is lost, seeing as 11 to 16% of dogs will lose their way at least once in their life.

Here are a few things you can do to help:

Step 1: Identifying a Stray Dog

When you come across a dog wandering alone, you need to determine if it’s a homeless or a lost pet. Here are some ways to identify a wandering dog:

  • Collar and ID tags: A dog with a collar and ID tags is most likely a lost pet. 
  • Physical appearance: homeless dogs may appear dirty, matted, emaciated, and even injured. They may also have overgrown nails or matted fur. These signs suggest that the dog has been on its own for a while.
  • Behavior: dogs on the street  may seem scared of you or aggressive when approached. They may be hesitant to approach humans or other dogs and show signs of anxiety like licking and shaking. They may also be scavenging for food or water.

If you’re unsure whether a dog is homeless or a lost pet, it’s best to approach the dog slowly and cautiously. If the dog is fearful or aggressive, it’s best to contact animal control or a local animal rescue organization for assistance.

Step 2: Ensuring Your Safety

When dealing with a lost dog, it is important to prioritize your safety. These dogs can be unpredictable and may pose a risk of injury or disease. To ensure your safety, you recommend following these guidelines:

  • Approach the dog slowly and calmly, avoiding sudden movements or loud noises.
  • Keep a safe distance from the dog and avoid making direct eye contact.
  • If the dog appears aggressive or is growling, barking, or showing its teeth, do not approach it.
  • If you do approach the dog, do so from the side rather than head-on, as this can be less threatening.
  • Avoid touching the dog unless you are confident it is friendly and approachable.
  • If you are bitten or scratched by a street dog, seek medical attention immediately to prevent the risk of infection.

By taking these precautions, you can help ensure your safety when dealing with a feral dog. Remember, it is always better to err on the side of caution when interacting with unfamiliar animals.

Remember that you must also protect your other dogs if you have any. Feral dogs may have severe illnesses like rabies, parvo, kennel cough, and other viral diseases. This is why it’s best not to take them home immediately.

Step 3: Approaching the Dog

When approaching a strange dog, it’s essential to do so carefully and calmly. Here are some steps you can take to approach the dog safely and with the least amount of stress for both the dog and us.

Using Calm Body Language

Dogs can sense fear and anxiety, so it’s important to approach them with calm body language. Avoid making direct eye contact, which can be seen as a threat. Instead, you can look at the dog from the corner of your eye or look away altogether. You should also avoid making sudden movements or loud noises, which can startle the dog.

Offering Food

Food can be a great way to gain a homeless dog’s trust. You can offer the dog some food from a distance and then slowly move closer while continuing to offer the food. This can help the dog associate us with positive experiences. However, you should never force the dog to eat the food or try to grab it away from them.

Leashing the Dog

Once the dog has gained our trust, you can try to leash them. Approach the dog slowly and calmly and offer them a treat while you slip the leash over their head. It’s important to make sure the leash is secure and not too tight. If the dog is hesitant or scared, you should not force them to be leashed and seek the help of a professional.

Securing a stray dog can be a process. Some people even come back several times to establish trust with the dog when they remember you. Some even take months, like this dog:


I first saw her in July 2020 (but she had been on the streets longer) and she is finally with me in Jan 2022!! #houston #help #rescue #rescuedog #tx

♬ Sparks – Coldplay
Approach the dog slowly and calmlyMake direct eye contact
Offer food from a distanceMake sudden movements or loud noises
Slip the leash over the dog’s headForce the dog to eat or be leashed

Approaching a missing dog can be a delicate process, but by using calm body language, offering food, and leashing the dog with care, you can help ensure the safety and well-being of both the dog and ourselves.

Step 4: Checking for Identification

When encountering a lost dog, one of the first things you should do is check for identification. Here are a few things to check for:

Looking for a Collar

A collar can provide important information such as the dog’s name, owner’s phone number, and address. If you find a tag, call the owner and let them know that you have found their dog.

Checking for a Microchip

If you don’t find a collar, you can check for a microchip. A microchip is a small electronic device that is implanted under the dog’s skin. To find it, gently feel the dog’s skin between its shoulder blades and its neck. Whether or not you find a microchip, take the dog to a veterinarian or animal shelter to have it scanned.

If you cannot find any identification, you can also check for any other distinguishing features, such as unique markings or scars. You can also take a picture of the dog and post it on social media or other lost and found websites to help locate the owner.

Step 5: Contacting Local Authorities

If you have found a dog with no apparent owner, it is essential to contact your local authorities as soon as possible. This can include animal control, the police department, or the local animal shelter. By contacting these authorities, you can help reunite the dog with its owner or ensure that it is taken care of properly.

When contacting local authorities, provide as much information as possible about the dog. This can include its breed, size, and any distinguishing features such as a collar or tags. If possible, take a picture of the dog to share with authorities.

If you are unable to keep the dog until its owner is found, the local animal shelter may be able to take it in. However, be aware that many shelters are often at capacity and may be unable to take in additional animals. Never contact a kill shelter for obvious reasons.

Remember, it is important to act very quickly when dealing with a missing dog. By contacting local authorities and providing as much information as possible, you can help ensure that the dog is taken care of and reunited with its owner if possible. The streets pose the risk of death or injury, so speed is paramount.

Step 6: Taking to a Vet

If you find a stray, it’s important to take them to a vet as soon as possible. This will help ensure their health and safety and can also help you identify the dog’s owner if they have a microchip.

Health Check

When you take the dog to the vet, they will perform a thorough health check. This will involve checking the dog’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin for any signs of illness or injury. The vet may also take the dog’s temperature and check their heart rate.

If the dog is injured or sick, the vet will provide treatment. This may include medication, surgery, or other interventions. If the dog is healthy, the vet will give them a clean bill of health and may recommend vaccinations.


Vaccinations are an important part of keeping a dog healthy. When you take the dog to the vet, they will likely recommend that the dog receive several vaccinations. These may include:

  • Rabies;
  • Distemper;
  • Parvovirus; and
  • Bordetella.

The vet will administer the vaccinations and provide you with a record of the dog’s vaccinations. This will be important if you decide to keep the dog or if you need to find a new home for them.

Step 7: Finding a Temporary Home

There are a few options for temporary housing for a homeless dog. One option is to take in the dog yourself. Who knows, it may be a failed foster.

You can also choose a local animal shelter. Many animal shelters have foster programs for dogs without a home, and they can provide them with food, water, and shelter until a permanent home is found.

Another option is to contact local rescue organizations. These organizations often have foster homes available for dogs in need, and they can help find a temporary home for the stray dog.

If you are unable to find a shelter or rescue organization, you may need to find a temporary home for the dog yourself. This can be a friend or family member willing to take care of the dog until a permanent home is found.

It is important to ensure the temporary home is safe and secure for the dog. This means providing them with a comfortable place to sleep, access to food and water, and a secure area to play and exercise.

Step 8: Searching for the Dog’s Family

When you find a lost dog, the first thing you should do is try to find their family. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Check for identification like tags and chips.
  2. Post on social media: Share a photo of the dog on your social media accounts, including any local lost and found groups. Ask your friends to share the post to increase the chances of the dog’s family seeing it.
  3. Contact local animal shelters: Call or visit your local animal shelters to see if anyone has reported a missing dog that matches the description of the one you found.
  4. Put up flyers: Create flyers with a photo of the dog, your contact information, and the location where the dog was found. Post the flyers in the area where you found the dog and in nearby neighborhoods.

Remember, it’s important to act quickly when trying to find the dog’s family. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to reunite the dog with their loved ones.

Adoption or Foster Care

If you decide to adopt or foster a homeless dog, there are a few things you should consider before bringing them into your home.

Preparing Your Home

Before bringing a new dog into your home, it’s important to make sure your living space is safe and comfortable for them. Here are some things you can do to prepare:

  • Set up a designated area for the dog to sleep and eat. This is an important step because it’s crucial to let the dog take in and accept your home and choose a place they feel comfortable. Like this dog:
  • Remove any hazardous materials or objects from the area.
  • Place any valuable or breakable items out of reach.
  • Install baby gates to block off certain areas of the house if necessary.

Training the Dog

Training your new dog is an integral part of helping them adjust to their new home. Here are some training tips to keep in mind:

  • Start with basic obedience training, such as teaching them to sit, stay, and come;
  • Use positive reinforcement, such as treats and praise, to encourage good behavior;
  • Be patient and consistent with your training; and
  • Consider enrolling your dog in a training class to help them socialize with other dogs and people.

Introducing to Other Pets

If you have other pets in your home, it’s important to introduce them to the new dog slowly and carefully. Here are some tips for introducing your new dog to other pets:

  • Keep the new dog on a leash during the introduction;
  • Allow the pets to sniff each other from a distance;
  • If there are any signs of aggression, separate the pets and try again later; and
  • Supervise all interactions between the pets until they are comfortable with each other.

By following these tips, you can help ensure a smooth transition for your new furry friend and make them feel right at home.

It’s also important to remember that not all stray dogs are lost or abandoned. Their owners may have intentionally released some, while others may be part of a feral dog population. In these cases, it may be best to contact a local animal control or rescue organization for assistance.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can you help a stray dog you found?

If you find a lost or homeless dog, the first thing to do is to ensure your safety and the safety of the dog. Approach the dog slowly and calmly, and avoid making any sudden movements. If the dog is friendly, check if they have any identification tags or a microchip. If they do, contact the owner and return the dog to them. If they don’t, take the dog to a veterinarian to check for any health issues and to see if they are microchipped. You can also contact local animal shelters or rescue organizations for assistance.

What are our options if you can’t keep a stray dog?

If you are unable to keep a street dog, there are several options available. You can contact local animal shelters or rescue organizations to see if they can take the dog in. You can also try to find a new home for the dog by posting on social media or contacting local pet adoption agencies. If all else fails, you can contact animal control to take the dog in.

Where can you take a stray dog near us?

You can take a wandering, lost, or homeless dog to a local animal shelter or rescue organization. You can also contact your local animal control agency for assistance.

What should you do if a stray dog approaches us?

If a stray dog approaches you, stay calm and avoid making any sudden movements. If the dog is friendly, try to find identification tags or a microchip to contact the owner. If the dog is aggressive or appears to be in distress, contact Animal Control for assistance.

Is it legal to keep a stray dog as a pet?

In most cases, it is not legal to keep a stray dog as a pet without first attempting to find the owner or contacting animal control. If you find a homeless dog and wish to keep them as a pet, contact Animal Control to see if there are any legal requirements you must meet.

What should you do if you find an injured stray dog?

If you find an injured stray dog, contact a veterinarian or animal rescue organization immediately. Do not attempt to treat the dog yourself, as this can cause further harm.

Final Thoughts

Taking care of a stray dog can be a rewarding experience for both the dog and the person who takes them in. Remember, it’s important to approach the situation with caution and to prioritize the safety of both yourself and the dog.

If you do decide to take in a feral dog, make sure you have the time, resources, and commitment to provide them with the care they need. This includes regular veterinary check-ups, proper nutrition, and plenty of exercise and socialization.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.