A lost dog lying in the leaves.

What to Do If You Find a Lost Dog

It’s a dog owner’s worst nightmare: losing their four-legged pal. Despite planning and precautions, losing pets is a heartbreakingly common experience. American Humane reports that one in three pets will become lost or get stolen during their lifetime and that 10 million dogs and cats go missing every year. Microchips and their registries have made for some amazing reunions, but even temporary separation from dogs can prove highly emotional.

Finding a lost dog can be plenty stressful too, for both parties. Any dog lover would hope to reunite a lost pet with their owner, but what’s the best way to safely and effectively do so?

Safely Approaching a Lost Dog

When you spot a wandering dog, you may feel tempted to rush over and offer assistance. It’s important to resist this urge. A lost dog could be sick, frightened, or injured and could behave unpredictably; your safety is important too! Approaching too aggressively could cause a dog to make a run for it or even scratch and bite you.

Take note of the dog’s body language. If they’re calm, you can slowly begin to approach them. The American Kennel Club (AKC) cautions against taking a head-on approach, which may frighten or intimidate a dog. Concerned canine enthusiasts should instead turn their body to the side, squat, and extend their hand as they slowly move toward the lost dog. Treats or strong-smelling food may help coax a dog closer.

Once you’ve reached the dog’s side, take a few moments to let them smell you. While this introduction occurs, it’s important not to make direct eye contact. This too could frighten or intimidate a dog that’s probably already feeling stressed. Use a calm, low voice and only grab for their collar if you’re certain that it won’t startle them.

When Not to Approach a Lost Dog

Never attempt to approach a dog who does not willingly approach you or who appears at all aggressive. Watch out for these signs in particular:

Beware. A wagging tail does not necessarily indicate that a dog is happy to meet you. It merely signals that they’re feeling emotionally stimulated in some way. Your presence may have startled them and they could be preparing to lash out.

If you cannot approach a lost or stray dog safely, try to take a video or snap a quick picture. That way, you won’t need to rely on memory alone when describing them to animal control authorities. Contact those authorities immediately and be prepared to discuss the sighting with them if the dog disappears before they arrive. Once you’ve spoken to the appropriate officials, share whatever photos and videos you captured online to start a conversation about the lost dog.

Handling a Lost Dog

Unless a veterinarian says it’s okay, avoid letting a lost dog mingle with other pets. Their vaccinations may not be up-to-date and they could be suffering from infectious diseases or parasitic infestations. You don’t want your good deed to pay off in the form of fleas or to inadvertently start a fight between your pets and a stranger. Depending on where you encountered them, you might opt to confine the dog in your car, a separate room in your house, or a fenced-in yard.

If you’ll be transporting the dog to an animal control facility, shelter, or hospital, take care to restrain them securely in your car. On the road, drive safely and carefully to avoid heightening your furry passenger’s feelings of anxiety. The Humane Society of the United States advises against driving with an unrestrained animal. Not only will the sensation of riding in a car overstimulate a lost dog, but the situation could present injury risks to you both.

Exercise particular caution with injured dogs. If you encounter a dog who is obviously suffering from a broken bone or other painful injury, consult a veterinarian before attempting to administer first aid or transport them to an emergency care facility.

Finding a Lost Dog’s Owner

If you’re lucky, a lost dog will have tags listing their owner’s contact information. In these instances, helping a dog find their way home may be as simple as making a quick phone call to the number listed on their tag. Even dogs without collars may be identifiable by their microchips. Veterinary clinics, pet hospitals, and animal control organizations should all have the technology necessary to scan the dog for a microchip. If the dog is, in fact, chipped and their registration information is current, you’ll be able to find the necessary contact information for their owners.

Reuniting unchipped dogs and owners becomes a little more complicated. Fortunately, animal control authorities, shelters, adoption centers, and hospitals can all lend a helping hand. Depending on your situation, it may make more sense to leave the pet with one of these organizations than to bring them home. People with several additional pets, for example, may opt to leave lost dogs in the care of trustworthy professionals rather than attempting to introduce them to cats or other dogs. Even if you’re sharing some of the responsibility with a shelter, vet, hospital, or animal control entity, you can still do your part by spreading the word on social media. Post pictures and descriptions of the pet online and browse lost pet listings for descriptions of similar dogs. The old-fashioned route can’t hurt either. If you’ve got the time, put up some flyers around your neighborhood with a photo, description, and contact information.

Independent article by PetPlace.com. PetPlace® may be compensated by its affiliates when you click on or make a purchase using the links in this article. PetPlace is a brand of Independence American Holdings Corp. (IAHC).