Not all dogs that roam are lost, but there are things you can do to help a dog find their way back home.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
November 11, 2020
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Credit: vilma3000 / Getty

We have all seen the heart-tugging videos of lost pets sleeping on dirty streets, looking frightened and lonely. We instinctively want to jump into action, saving every dog we can, finding all the doggos of the world a warm, safe, home. But not all dogs that roam the streets are lost. Some dogs may just be taking a leisurely stroll to visit a friend before heading back home for dinner, and others are just too excited about their newfound freedom to care when you call their name.

Sometimes, a dog who’s running loose may act as though he’s in survival mode—not thinking, but only reacting. In order to safely catch a dog who’s in such a state, you first need to grasp what he may be experiencing and then understand how to cautiously approach the dog.

Recognizing a Dog in Survival Mode

When a pet is stressed, fearful, uncertain, or responding to a threat, their instincts may kick in quickly. Most pet owners recognize when a dog is in “fight or flight” response to a significant stressor, but dogs also may respond by freezing (becoming motionless) or fretting (unable to settle). A dog that’s gotten out of the fence or has been lost will likely engage in one or more of these four responses, making it more challenging to get them to safety. If you can recognize these responses, you’ll have better luck at helping a dog.

Fight:

Although most dogs will run away when they’re feeling threatened, there are times when a dog may “fight,” or become defensive, because they feel they must. A dog’s body language signals in these situations might include raised hackles (fur on the back), growling, showing teeth, snarling, barking, or lunging. If a dog is pressured or forced to interact when he’s feeling this way, these behaviors may increase in intensity, leading to bites.

Flight:

It’s natural and advantageous to run away from things that appear scary. Most dogs would prefer to run away from bad things versus staying around to see what might happen. Many dogs will flee and look for a place to hide. When an attempt to run away is thwarted, a dog may quickly revert to fight mode—as they feel there isn’t another option.

Freeze:

Staying perfectly still may make it harder to be noticed by potential threats—you see this a lot at the vet’s office. We have all been there—becoming so scared your body suddenly can’t move. A dog in this state is extremely fearful and thinks they cannot outrun the scary thing.

Fret:

When you become really nervous, you likely do things that show how anxious you are. This may be biting your nails, rocking back and forth, or pacing the floor. Dogs that are super concerned with a situation do a lot of the same things, including pacing, panting heavily, lying down and sitting up repeatedly, jumping up, being hypervigilant, and escaping enclosures. A dog in fret mode will find it difficult to relax and will continue to run away or attempt to escape whatever is causing the stress and fear.

The Dos and Don’ts of How to Catch a Scared Stray Dog in Survival Mode

Remember that a stray dog may be a dog with a loving home that just accidentally got lost and can’t find his way back home. If you can’t immediately see a collar or an ID tag, be prepared to take a wayward dog to your local vet to check for a microchip. Because stray dogs may be fearful or nervous, it may be best to call animal control and notify them of the dog’s location before you do anything.

If it’s your own dog that’s loose, be mindful that his survival instincts may kick in, causing him to run away as you get closer. Try your best to remain calm and don’t hesitate to call friends and loved ones to help you. These tips will help you understand how to approach the dog and get your buddy home.

DO: Monitor the dog’s body language at ALL TIMES.

Be sure the dog’s body language suggests that he’s OK with you getting close. Always proceed with caution. Look for body signals that indicate he wants you to approach such as a loose body, ears relaxed on the head, eyes open and soft, an open mouth, and loose, hanging tail. Be cautious: A fearful dog may bite. If you don't think that you can safely handle the dog, don't try. Instead, call animal control (even if it’s your dog).

DON’T: Approach a dog too quickly

Let the dog come to you by remaining calm and positive. Keep your distance until he becomes less concerned.

DO: Call to the dog in a happy voice

Using your happiest, most upbeat voice, call to the dog. If he responds by coming towards you, great! If not, don’t move any closer.

DON’T: Chase a dog that’s scared or lost

Never run or chase after a dog—doing so will only make them want to move away from you more, and can make them more nervous. Remain calm and move slowly.

DO: Toss treats his way  

If he doesn’t eat them, he is likely too scared and concerned to even think about interacting with you. You can also offer up a bowl of water, squeak a dog toy, or sprinkle dog food on the ground.

DON’T: Corner a scared dog

Despite what you might think, a dog that’s scared and lost needs space. If you force yourself into their space, they will quickly become more stressed and will do what’s necessary to protect themselves.

DO: Try to get the dog to follow you

Many dogs become more engaged if they see you run or walk in the opposite direction. Doing this, while patting your leg, saying “pup, pup, pup,” and tossing treats might get him to follow you.

DON’T: Grab the dog by the collar or body

Never grab a dog by his collar or any body part! Grabbing a dog can be very stressful, and offensive to a dog, and increases the chances he will bite.

DO: Keep the dog in a safe, open area 

If you’re successful in getting a lost dog to approach you, you can cautiously try to attach a leash and lead him to a safe place such as your backyard or garage, avoiding other pets or dogs. If he has no collar, you can try using a limited slip lead or makeshift collar and leash and walk him to a safe place. You can give him water but avoid offering him food until he has been examined by a medical professional or animal control officer.

Even though you may be a popular human to dogs, don’t assume that you can just put a collar and leash on any dog you see and take them home. Scared dogs can quickly become dangerous to you and themselves.

To ensure your own dog is never out roaming the streets, invest in proper fencing and never leave your dog outside unattended. Be sure your dog always wears a proper-fitting collar and leash. If you have a dog that’s an escape artist with collars, invest in a good quality dog harness. It’s always beneficial to spend time training and building up a good repertoire of recall (come) behaviors using positive reinforcement so that your dog has experience coming when called.