I used to work in Animal Control, and did volunteer work for rescue as well. If you’ve worked in Animal Control and animal shelters, you see a lot. You see the unbelievable in the day to day. Nothing surprises you after working in a shelter or doing rescue work. I’m sure there are other professions where one could say similar things - teaching, nursing, social work all come to mind. You also see a lot of things that happen as the result of accidents and mishaps, poor or mismanagement of animals, circumstance, or just plain lack of knowledge.
That said, to this day, I still get phone calls or e-mails from people when they find a dog, wanting to know, what should they do? Here’s a list of recommendations of what to do to maximize the potential for RTO - return to owner.
Safety first. If you are trying to catch a loose dog and have no experience catching a dog and the dog’s behavior is making you uncomfortable, play it safe. Call your local animal control or police department for help.
If you feel you can safely catch a loose/stray dog, use a slip lead. It’s easier and safer than trying to snap a regular leash on a dog’s collar (assuming he/she has a collar). If you don’t have a slip lead, you can convert a regular leash into one by taking the metal/clasp end and thread it through the loop that is intended for your hand. Now you have a nice wide loop to gently lasso a dog.
If the dog is friendly, and has a collar, check it for identification. City licenses, identification/name tags, microchip tags should be looked for, and can be used to locate an owner. If the city license has a phone number, call the city agency and give them the ID number on the tag. Some city agencies may not relinquish the owner information to you due to confidentiality, however, they will contact the owner and put him/her in touch with you when you provide your information. If the animal has a plastic or metal ID tag indicating that he/she has a microchip implanted and the chip number on the tag is visible, you can call the microchip manufacturer or registry and give them the chip number. If the chip has been registered by the owner, the manufacturer/registry will have owner contact information. If the owner has NOT registered the chip - which is unfortunately, common - they can tell you where the batch of chips was sent to/where the chip may have been implanted at. It is still possible to track down an owner this way, IF the shelter/rescue/veterinarian kept good records of all chips they implanted.
If there are no ID tags, check the collar thoroughly; some owners have information embroidered on the outside - or inside - of the collar. If there is no ID and no collar, you should take the dog to your nearest veterinarian or animal shelter to be scanned for a microchip. Do not assume that a dog does not have a microchip as microchipping is becoming more and more popular these days with microchipping clinics, low cost access to chipping, increased number of chip manufacturers, etc. Make sure the shelter employee or veterinarian scans thoroughly in front of you. Thoroughly over neck, shoulders, sides of the dog, chest, etc. Chips have been known to migrate within an animal’s body, and yes, I’ve seen dogs get scanned, and the (human) scanner missed the chip. It’s also possible that a dog has TWO chips and only one is picked up by the scanner. Sometimes, a dog has been chipped unknowingly by a shelter or rescue or vet, and there was an existing chip. So, scan, scan, and scan again.
If you do not wish to leave the dog at the animal shelter, it is imperative that you leave at least two clear photos (front and side view), and identifying information (coat color, coat length, eye color, size, approximate weight, breed if known or best guess, male or female, neutered or spayed - if you can tell, where found, date and time found, any specific info that might help identify the dog (“wearing red nylon collar with fish print” “has distinctive white tip at end of tail” “has double dew claws” “one blue eye” etc.). A veterinarian should be able to assess if the animal is neutered or spayed; if you’re at a shelter, an employee should be able to help assess spay/neuter status by checking for a spay scar, lack of testicles, tattoo indicating s/n status, etc. Leave information that is objective and identifying, not subjective or open to interpretation or speculative at best, based on the context in which you happened to cross paths with this particular animal. Just because an animal is stray, it doesn’t mean it has been mistreated. Hell, we all get lost from time to time, it doesn’t mean we aren’t loved. In addition, you do not know the circumstance of what caused this animal to become stray. I’ve picked up animals that were missing from their beloved owners for weeks, were stolen from their homes, ran away while owner was out of town and pet sitter let the dog out, escaped during storms, fireworks, housefires, you name it, etc. You simply do not know. Do. Not. Know.
Veterinarians are great. I’ve had the fortune of working with so many fabulous ones around the country, not just for my own personal animals, but from my experience in working in shelters and on investigations/cases around the country. They all vary in their experience just as we do. But many veterinarians, though well meaning, do not have a lot of experience with stray animals. They primarily deal with well cared for, OWNED pets day in and day out. So, a cursory exam by a vet and a few words about the animal’s condition should not be taken as word of God. I’m sorry, I know I will not offend any veterinarian or tech friends I have when I say that, because they know it is true as well. Many vets simply do not have experience with cruelty or neglect cases, so when they see a dog who is slightly scarred up, or missing a few teeth, or underweight, they should not assume this is the result of cruelty or neglect. There are many possible explanations for any of those scenarios.
Make a flyer. Add at least two photos, the identifying information about the animal, where it was found, and your contact information. Post it in as many places as you can near where you found the animal. Take copies of the flyer to every shelter and veterinarian in the local area. If you are taking the responsibility of holding onto this animal then you are taking the responsibility of trying to locate its owner - so post away, and check back with those places regularly. Social media has been great in helping people reconnect with lost pets as well - so post away on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Craig’s list, etc.
Have a plan. If you are assuming responsibility for this animal, then have a plan. Are you going to hold onto the animal indefinitely, or for a finite period of time and then relinquish it to the shelter, or to a rescue? Be aware - it would behoove you to check what your local animal control/shelter’s policy is regarding strays before you make the decision to hold onto the animal. In some cases, if you do not leave a found report and notify them that you have found a stray that you are holding onto, you might find yourself being considered the “OWNER” when you try to relinquish it a few weeks later. A little leg work and information gathering up front will save you heartache later. Again, some municipalities have a time frame - ex. if you are harboring and caring for an animal, even if you found that animal, for two weeks or more, it may be considered legally YOURS at that point. If you decide to turn the animal over to a rescue group, check out the rescue group thoroughly before doing so. A reputable rescue will have no problem answering your questions about their intake process, their adoption/placement policies, their foster home procedures, etc. A reputable rescue should be able to provide you updates and medical information when asked for on any animal in its care.
If you are taking the animal home, have a plan. If you have your own personal animals, where will you keep the animal separate? If the animal’s health status is unknown to you, it is best to keep the animal separate. Keeping in mind that many communicable diseases have an incubation period, so the dog may look okay but could be harboring parvo, lepto, corona virus, distemper, etc. Some skin conditions such as sarcoptic mange, demodectic mange, scabies, ringworm, etc. are not noticeable to the untrained eye; these are not deadly but you sure don’t want to expose your own animals to them. Then there are fun things like giardia, tapeworm, and fleas - well you get the point on why separation is really important. If you have other animals, it is advisable to separate not only for health reasons but because you do not know how your pets will accept this newcomer nor how how well the newcomer likes socializing with other animals. Best to play it safe. This is true not only if you have dogs in your home, but if you have cats as well. If you have children, keep the dog separate and away from your children - until you have had a chance to carefully evaluate the dog after a period of acclimation or have had the dog behaviorally assessed by a professional. Again, why put your children at risk when you do not know the animal’s prior history and experiences with children?
I haven’t even touched on finding a stray cat - and sadly, the reclaim rate is so so much statistically lower for cats than dogs. But many of these same basic principles apply. Look for identification, take to a vet or shelter for microchip scanning, put up flyers, file a found report in as many venues as possible, and separate the animal from your own while you are trying to locate its owner.
If you decide that you can’t take on all of this responsibility - which is totally FINE - and that you must turn the animal over to a shelter, find out what the shelter’s policy is regarding stray holds, redemptions, and adoptions. It is NOT the worst thing in the world for an animal to be turned over to a shelter (it may seem like a sad, horrible thing to do, but in most cases it is NOT). Shelters were created for a reason - as a haven for loose, stray animals. Better in a shelter than on the street subject to accident, injury, poisoning, fights with other animals, etc. Most of the shelters I have worked at were happy to give the relinquisher an ID number so he/she could follow up on the animal. Often times, the outcome is a good one! The owner comes looking in the most likely place for a lost pet - THE SHELTER! And, if no owner comes forth, then hopefully the animal goes up for an adoption to a more permanent home!
Lastly, make no assumptions about the animal’s behavior, past life, history, or mental status based on what you see before you, unless you are a trained expert and have compounded a body of evidence in front of you. Too often, we hear these statements by finders:
"he/she must have been abused, the poor thing cowers when I raise my arms up even to just say hello or pet the dog!"
"he has scars on face, neck, legs, therefore this pit bull was probably a bait dog!"
"he’s underweight and his nails are long, so I’m sure he was neglected!"
"he guards his food so I know he was starved!"
"his skin is so patchy, he must have had this condition forever and no one treated it!"
Any reputable dog trainer, veterinarian, or animal behavior person could refute these claims with a dozen other possibilities for the same behavioral/medical outcomes.
You don’t know anything except that you found a dog who needed to be found and now needs help finding his or her way back home.
Let me tell you about a dog I found stray while working as an ACO. <see photo> The shelter had received numerous calls about a loose pit bull roaming the same couple of blocks for days, but every time one of our officers arrived on scene, the dog was nowhere to be found. The callers all described a similar dog - thin, emaciated, gray maybe blue, maybe brindle, wounds, cropped ears. Finally, one day a resident called and said the dog was semi-confined and could we come try and catch it. The dog had wandered down the basement stairwell of his neighbor’s house and was laying in a heap at the bottom. When I arrived, I took my sliplead and catchpole out of the truck, not knowing if the dog was friendly or not. As I looked down the long narrow pavement leading to the stairwell, I noticed a lot of broken glass and debris, and kept thinking, well if the dog isn’t friendly, I’m kind of trapped. I slowly made my way towards the dog, talking to him calmly, and moving sideways towards him. He lifted his head gently. I got a little closer, and he did not indicate any unfriendly body postures, so I made a large loop with my slip lead and proceeded to get close enough to slip it over his head. I said, “are you ready, big guy?” and he stood up and did my most favorite of dog body gestures, the extended bow-into-a-big-stretch as he stood up. Not a playbow, but a gentle long stretch like the one your dog probably greets you with regularly in the morning, the way my dear departed pit bull Mojo did every day. He was easily led to the truck and back at the shelter, was very easy to handle during intake. He quickly became a staff favorite, and two weeks or so after he arrived, his owners came forward. It seems the dog had gone missing from their yard a few weeks prior to the day I picked him up; they believed he was stolen out of their yard but had no way to prove it. They had pictures of him as a puppy and more recently as an adult, showing that yes, this was indeed their dog. They said they hadn’t come to the shelter sooner because they didn’t live that close and never thought he would land there. The dog did not have the wounds or scars in photos, he must have acquired them while he was gone missing. Nor was he thin or improperly cared for, in the photos. He must have lost weight while on the run. We knew someone had loved this dog. He was social, he walked beautifully on a leash, even past other dogs (so, no you can’t assume the crop eared, intact male pit bull with wounds was once a fighting dog!), and he knew how to “shake” paws and loved tummy rubs. I never forgot that dog, or many of the dogs with similar stories. The bottom line is you just don’t know an animal’s history by its appearance, so don’t assume it’s stray because it’s been turned loose, abandoned, forgotten etc. Do those things happen? Yes, of course they do, and sadly that is the reason why some animals are wandering stray but it’s not the only reason.
This article isn’t meant to deter you from helping homeless and stray animals. It’s meant to help you make better choices about how you describe them, what to do with them, and how to best help them find their way back home.
c2014 by Andrea Kilkenny/Our Gang Pet Services, LLC