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What To Do With A Lost Dog: Finding The Way Home

lost dog

Knowing what to do with a lost dog can help save a canine life and reunite a family. Your actions count for a lot when determining if a lost dog will become a stray or reunite with their owners. However, no matter the gravity of the situation, it’s essential to stay calm and follow the steps we get into shortly. 

Canines getting lost is just as stressful for the dog as it is for the owner. So, it’s essential to keep them as relaxed as possible by avoiding eye contact, using food lure, and placing their calming beds where they’re most comfortable. 

If you’re the Good Samaritan who found a lost dog, read along to find out how to help them back home. Using books on how to find lost dogs, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on how to shelter, feed, comfort, and retrace a stray dog. 

Approaching a lost dog may be the most difficult part of rescuing them. The dog is confused, scared, hungry and may react mildly, like smacking lips and shaking, or with severe aggression. Our next section on how to approach a lost dog goes into this more extensively. 

If you’ve successfully approached and secured the dog, here is what to do with a lost dog:

  1. Check for identification: Look for a collar with tags with the dog’s name and owner’s contact information. If there are no tags, take the dog to a veterinarian or animal shelter to see if they have a microchip that can identify the owner.
  2. Spread the word: Post on social media, put up flyers where the dog was, and contact local animal shelters and rescue groups to see if anyone has reported a missing dog matching the description.
  3. Provide care: If the dog appears injured or sick, take them to a veterinarian for treatment. If the dog seems healthy, provide food, water, and shelter until the owner is found.

It’s also essential to keep your dogs’ health in mind if you bring in a lost pet to avoid illnesses like parvo, kennel cough, rabies, and other viral diseases.

  1. Contact animal control: In some areas, animal control may be responsible for picking up and caring for lost dogs. Contact them to see if they have any information about the dog.
  2. Taking them to reputable, no-kill shelters: Dog lovers rightly feel the need to give a lost dog shelter and care at their homes. However, shelters increase the dog’s chance of being found since most owners check local shelters first if they ever lose a dog. You can check up on the dog frequently to ensure they’re safe and cared for. 

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How to Recognize a Lost Dog

Surveys show that 11 to 16% of dogs will likely get lost at least once in five years. This just shows how easy it is to lose a beloved pet. Additionally, the American Humane Association estimates that over 10 million dogs and cats are lost or stolen every year in the US.

Seeing the statistics above, it’s crucial to help lost dogs whenever you can. When encountering a dog that appears lost, it is vital to be able to recognize the signs that indicate the dog is indeed lost. Here are some key indicators to look out for:

  • Disorientation: It may be lost if the dog appears confused or disoriented. The dog may wander aimlessly, appearing unsure of where it is or where it should go.
  • Approachability: Lost dogs may be more approachable than other dogs. They may come up to people more readily, seeking attention or assistance.
  • Unkempt Condition: Lost dogs may appear dirty, malnourished, or injured. They may have matted fur or be limping. These signs may indicate that the dog has been lost for some time.
  • Unfamiliar Location: If the dog is in an area where dogs are not commonly seen or seems disoriented in a familiar area, it could be lost.
  • They are unaccompanied for long: A dog could be lost if you notice a dog lingering in a specific area for an extended period without any sign of an owner.
  • Seeking Shelter: Lost dogs might try to find shelter in unusual places, like under cars, in bushes, or other hidden spots.
  • Appearing Anxious or Nervous: A lost dog might display signs of anxiety, nervousness, or confusion. They might avoid eye contact, cower, or tremble.

If a dog displays any of these signs, it is crucial to approach the dog carefully and try to determine if it is lost so that you can know how to help. Getting lost is a very dark time for a pet, and this clip proves it:

Safety Measures When Dealing with a Lost Dog

Approaching the Dog

When encountering a lost dog, it’s crucial to approach it cautiously. The dog may be scared, disoriented, or injured and could react aggressively if it feels threatened. Here are some tips for safely approaching a lost dog:

  • Approach slowly and calmly, speaking in a soothing tone of voice.
  • Avoid making direct eye contact, as this can be perceived as a threat. Approach the dog facing sideways slightly.
  • Approach them with your body turned to the side, as it’s less intimidating than a head-on approach. 
  • Don’t make loud noises or try to call the dog.
  • Offer the dog a treat or some food, but do not attempt to grab or restrain it. Entice the dog to you instead.
  • Allow the dog to approach you on its own terms.
  • Do NOT chase the dog, as this could cause them to stray even further.
  • Squat down and slowly let the dog smell your hand once they’re comfortable with your presence. 
  • Only reach out for the collar once the dog eats from your hand and appears comfortable with you.

If the dog seems aggressive or shows signs of distress, such as growling, barking, or backing away, it’s best to back off and call for professional help.

Securing the Dog

Once you have gained the trust of the lost dog, your next step is to secure it and prevent it from running away again. Here are some tips for safely securing a lost dog:

  • Use a leash or collar to restrain the dog, if possible. If you do not have a leash or collar, try using a rope or a belt.
  • If the dog is injured or in pain, handle it gently and avoid putting pressure on the affected area.
  • If the dog is too large or strong to handle on your own, ask a neighbor or passerby for assistance.
  • Once the dog is secured, provide it with food, water, and a comfortable place to rest while you search for its owner.

Remember, safety should always be your top priority when dealing with a lost dog. By approaching the dog with caution and securing it safely, you can help reunite it with its owner and ensure everyone involved stays safe and protected.

Checking for Identification Tags (The ID Tag)

The first thing to do when you find a lost dog is to check for identification tags. Identification tags are typically located on the dog’s collar and contain the dog’s name, owner’s name, and contact information.

If the dog has identification tags, call the owner immediately and tell them you found their dog. If the owner is unavailable, leave a message with your contact information and the dog’s location. 

If the dog does not have identification tags, there are other ways to try and locate the owner. Check any additional identifying information on the dog’s collar or tags, such as a rabies tag or microchip.

Contacting Local Authorities

If you have found a lost dog, contacting local authorities as soon as possible is important to increase the chances of reuniting the dog with its owner. Here are some steps to follow:

Animal Control

The first authority to contact is usually Animal Control. They are responsible for animal welfare and are equipped to handle lost dogs. You can find the contact information for your local Animal Control office by searching online or checking the phone book.

When you call, provide as much information as possible about the dog, including its breed, size, color, and identifying features. Also, give the location where you found the dog and your contact information so that Animal Control can follow up with you.

Police Department

If you cannot reach Animal Control or the dog appears injured or aggressive, you should contact the police department. They can help ensure the safety of the dog and the public. You can find the contact information for your local police department by searching online or checking the phone book.

When you call, provide the same information as you would to Animal Control. The police may also ask for a description of the dog’s behavior and any attempts you have made to find the owner.

Using Social Media Platforms


Create a post about the lost dog with a picture and a brief description of the dog. Share the post with friends and family and ask them to share it with their networks. Additionally, join local Facebook groups for lost and found pets and post the information there.

Another useful feature on Facebook is the ability to create events. Create an event for a search party to help find the lost dog. Invite friends and family to the event and ask them to share it with their networks. This can be a great way to involve the community in the search.


Twitter is a fast-paced platform useful for finding a lost dog. Create a tweet with a picture and a brief description of the lost dog. 

Use relevant hashtags such as #LostDog or #MissingDog to increase visibility. Share the tweet with friends and family and ask them to retweet it. Additionally, tag local animal shelters and rescue organizations in the tweet. They can help spread the word and assist in the search.


Create a post with a picture of the lost dog and a brief description. Use relevant hashtags such as #LostDog or #MissingDog to increase visibility. Share the post with friends and family and ask them to share it with their networks. Additionally, tag local animal shelters and rescue organizations in the post. 

Overall, social media platforms can be a powerful tool for finding a lost dog. By utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you can increase visibility and get the community involved in the search.

Contacting Local Shelters and Vet Clinics

If you have found a lost dog, one of the first things you should do is contact your local animal shelters and vet clinics. They may have information about the dog or know of someone who is looking for a lost pet. Here are some steps to follow when contacting them:

  1. Gather information about the dog: Before contacting local shelters and vet clinics, ensure you have as much information as possible about the dog. This may include a description of the dog, where you found it, and any identifying features, such as a collar or tags. It’s best to take a video of the dog rather than relying on memory alone.
  2. Call local shelters and vet clinics: Look up the contact information for local shelters and vet clinics and reach out to them. Be sure to provide your information about the dog and ask if they have any information about a lost pet matching that description.
  3. Provide a photo: If you have a picture of the dog, send it to the shelters and vet clinics so they can share it with others looking for it.
  4. Follow-up: Following up with local shelters and vet clinics regularly is essential to check if anyone has claimed the dog. If no one claims the dog within a certain amount of time, you may need to consider other options, such as finding a new home for the dog or contacting animal control.

Creating and Distributing Flyers

When a dog goes missing, creating and distributing flyers can effectively spread the word and increase the chances of finding the lost pet. Here are some tips for creating and distributing flyers:

  • Use a clear and concise headline that includes the word “Lost” and a description of the dog. For example, “Lost Black Labrador Retriever: Answers to the Name Max.”
  • Include a recent photo of the dog showing its face and any unique markings or features.
  • Provide a brief description of the dog’s personality, including any fears or habits that could help people identify it.
  • Include the date and location where you last saw the dog and any contact information for the owner.
  • Distribute the flyers in high-traffic areas such as parks, pet stores, and veterinary clinics. Posting them in the neighborhood where the dog last was is also a good idea.
  • Check the flyers regularly to see if any tabs have been removed, as this could indicate that someone has found the dog.

By following these tips, owners can increase the chances of finding their lost dog and bringing it home safely.

How to Care for a Lost Dog 

lost dog care


When a dog is lost, it may not have access to its regular food and water sources. It is vital to make sure the dog feeds and hydrates appropriately. You can give them food and water while waiting for animal control to arrive.

If the dog appears malnourished or dehydrated, it’s best to take them to a veterinarian for a check-up. The vet can guide how to properly feed and hydrate the dog based on age, weight, and overall health condition.


We don’t recommend allowing a stray dog to mingle with your pets since they may be sick or not up to date with vaccines. You can approach a lost dog and then take them to your local shelter. If they’re too aggressive, it’s best to contact animal control so that they effectively capture them and then take them to a shelter. 

Legal Considerations

When you find a lost dog, there are legal considerations that you must take into account. These considerations vary depending on location.

The first step is to check local laws and regulations regarding lost pets. In some areas, the law requires you  to report a found dog to the local animal control agency or police department. Failure to do so can result in fines or even criminal charges.

It is also essential to be aware of any potential liability issues. If the dog is injured or causes injury to someone else while in the finder’s care, the finder may be responsible under the law. It is best to obtain liability insurance coverage before taking in a found dog.

In addition, it is essential to document all efforts to find the dog’s owner. This includes posting flyers, checking with local shelters and veterinarians, and posting on social media. If the owner is not found, the finder may need to go through legal channels to gain dog ownership.


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Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do if I find a lost dog?

If you find a lost dog, you should first check for any identification tags or microchips that may help you locate the owner. If there are no tags or chips, you can post about the found dog on social media, community bulletin boards, or contact local animal shelters and veterinarians to see if anyone has reported a missing dog. Keeping the dog safe and comfortable is vital until the owner is found.

How can I legally keep a stray dog?

In most states, keeping a stray dog without making a reasonable effort to locate the owner is illegal. If you have made a reasonable effort to find the owner and have not been successful, you may be able to adopt the dog after a certain waiting period. It is essential to check with your local animal control or shelter to determine your area’s specific laws and regulations.

What is the process for reporting a lost dog?

If you have lost your dog, you should first contact your local animal control or shelter to report the lost dog. It is essential to provide a detailed description of the dog, including any identifying features or tags, your contact information, and any videos or photos of the dog.

How long do I need to wait before keeping a lost dog?

The waiting period for keeping a lost dog varies by state and local laws. In most cases, you must make a reasonable effort to locate the owner and wait a certain amount of time before legally adopting the dog. It is essential to check with your local animal control or shelter to determine the waiting period in your area.

What are the consequences of keeping a lost dog?

Keeping a lost dog without making a reasonable effort to locate the owner can result in legal consequences, including fines and even criminal charges in some cases. Following proper procedures for reporting and adopting a lost dog is essential to avoid any legal issues.

What should I do if I can’t keep a dog I found?

If you cannot keep a dog you found, you can contact your local animal control or shelter to surrender the dog. It is essential to provide as much information as possible about the dog to help with the adoption process. You can also find a temporary foster home for the dog while you continue to search for the owner.

Final Thoughts

Encountering a lost dog presents an opportunity to aid in reuniting a beloved pet with its worried owner. Dealing with a lost dog includes checking for identification, ensuring safety, notifying local animal control or shelters, and utilizing online resources. With these steps, you can contribute to a successful reunion and help bring the dog and its family back together. 


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.

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