What to Do with a Found Dog

By Elizabeth Wasserman for The Dog Daily

What to Do with a Found Dog

An old hound dropped off at the Hopalong Animal Shelter, a foster-care based shelter in Oakland, Calif., left a lasting impression. The dog had no tags but was clearly someone's beloved pet that had gotten lost and couldn't find its way back home. The shelter staff scoured the lost-and-found ads in the local newspapers and on websites. They also reviewed posters for lost dogs collected by area shelters -- all to no avail. After staying at the shelter for a few months unclaimed, the dog was facing possible euthanasia.

"One of my board members just loved that hound," recounts Sarah Cohen, Hopalong's executive director. The board member searched the lost-and-founds one last time. The effort paid off: the dog's picture was found on an old "lost dog" poster from a nearby community. Dog and owner were reunited. "The message for people is to never give up looking," Cohen says.

Not all lost-dog stories have such a happy ending. A study published in January 2007 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) found that only 71 percent of lost dogs were recovered during a four-month period in Montgomery County, Ohio. In other communities, the reunification rate is even lower. So what should you do if you find a lost dog? According to experts, there are steps you can take to improve the odds of bringing a family back in touch with a pooch who went astray, or to help it find a new home.

Contact a shelter or animal control agency

While your first impulse may be to catch that stray dog you find wandering into your yard or in a parking lot, experts caution to first call local animal control authorities. If you're not sure there is one in your community, call the city or county clerk, or even the police, and ask what to do. "Getting bitten is a major concern," says Kimberley Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. "I know people want to help, but they should always contact the animal control professionals first." The study reported in JAVMA, conducted by researchers from the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, found that the chances of reuniting a lost dog with its owners was vastly improved if the found dog was taken to -- or even just reported to -- a local shelter. Shelters act as clearinghouses for information about lost pets and their main purpose is to reunite lost pets with people. In fact, 35 percent of lost dogs in the study were reunited with owners through calls/visits to a shelter.

Try to help find the owner

Another effective means to reunification is to post "found dog" posters in the neighborhood where you picked the pup up. The study found these signs helped recover dogs in 15 percent of the cases. Information on a dog tag or license also proved helpful to reunite dogs and owners. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a veterinary medicine professor at Texas A&M University, agrees that professionals are best able to handle strays. Under some conditions -- if you know the dog, it seems overtly friendly, or if the dog approaches you with tail wagging -- it may be safe to catch the dog and look at its tags. "Don't frighten the animal," Dr. Beaver says. "The dog may already be scared if it's out and running." Some tags include the owner's phone number. If the dog has a license but no contact information, call the town or city in which the license is registered. If there are no tags, bring the pup to an animal shelter. Most shelters now have the ability to scan dogs for another set of identifying information -- tiny microchips that are increasingly implanted under the skin of beloved pets. A unique serial number on the chip can be read at the shelter to find the dog's owner. It's also a good idea to drop posters with local veterinarians who might know the dog's owner, or may be contacted about a missing pet.

Adopt the pup -- or help it find a home

If you're willing to take time and help a found dog, it probably means that you're a dog lover. As such, you probably want to take additional steps to help your newfound furry friend. Many shelters simply don't have room for all the unwanted dogs in a community and often resort to euthanasia after anywhere from a few days to a few weeks -- ask about their policies on this in advance. You can help by scouring the classified ads for lost dogs, both in print and in cyberspace, at such sites as Craig's List, which has localized listings, or sites such as Petfinder, Lostdog or Missingpet. And the power of word-of-mouth -- letting everyone you know about a situation, who will let everyone they know about a situation -- can't be underestimated.

Another way to help is to search for a "no kill" animal shelter; several organizations maintain directories of such shelters, including Hearts United for Animals, Save Our Strays and Nokillnetwork. Another way that Cohen recommends helping is by offering to provide temporary foster care for the dog while the shelter helps search for the dog's owners. Most animal shelters are already at capacity. It just may be, however, that you fall in love with your found dog friend and decide to adopt if the pet remains unclaimed. Be aware that most states have laws specifying a time period that a pet owner has to find a missing dog before it becomes the property of a shelter or can be adopted out. "The big thing is to never assume the animal is just abandoned," Cohen says. "You need to go through steps, taking it to a shelter, posting a notice at a shelter and asking what the legal time limit is."

Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.