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— February 12, 2013 —

Stray dogs, how can you help?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

We have a few friends who help with rescue dogs. Some of them are particularly passionate about stray dogs. This week, we’ll discuss how to catch fearful stray dogs. (If your city has an Animal Care service, they may be able to assist you. Here in Chicago, the Animal Care and Control budget is stretched so thin that calls for strays may not be answered for days. We often have to take matters into our own paws.)

There is not much that I dislike more than seeing a picture on Facebook of a stray dog, or running across one in person. If you’re a dog person, the sight of a dirty, skinny, possibly injured dog makes you want to help. Some stray dogs are just dogs that have gotten loose from their yards by accident and will happily run to the first person they see. In my experience, however, this is rare. Most strays are fearful and difficult to catch. They may have been mistreated, causing them to fear humans, or may have just been neglected, left in a yard to fend for themselves. This can also cause them to not trust a potential rescuer.

The more fearful a stray is, the more I want to help them. A year or two ago around Christmas time, there was a female Rottweiler mix hanging out in the parking area of a local community college. It was cold, rainy and miserable for the humans. There were about 8 people communicating about the dog and trying to catch her. I went myself, but couldn’t get within 50 yards of her before she would move off. We had to come up with a plan. As I stood watching her in my warm, waterproof jacket, I could only feel pity for this scared dog who was trying to roll up in the smallest ball to keep warm in the rain. (The photo to the right is Noelle, just after being caught.)

There are a few things you can do that will increase your chances of capturing a fearful stray and a few things you shouldn’t do. The first thing you should know about catching a fearful stray is this. DO NOT TRY TO CHASE IT! If you run after a scared dog it will absolutely outrun you. You will cause the dog to try to find a new area where it feels comfortable and you may loose track of it all together. Also, you may push the dog into traffic. Getting a stray hit by a car is pretty much counterproductive to the goal of rescuing it.

You should also, not try to corner a scared dog with a bunch of your friends. Forming a “human wall” around a dog is probably not going to actually stop it, and may get someone bit badly. Then the stray you were trying to help may be labeled a “biter” and that may lead to it being put down if you do catch it.

The first thing you should do is realize that catching a stray may take hours or even days. While you may not want to leave a stray outside overnight, you must realize that giving him time to get comfortable with you is more important than catching him right now. Yes, there are dangers to the dog, but making him panic is the most dangerous thing you can do.

What a scared stray is looking for is the same any dog wants. It wants food, water, shelter and a place where it’s not feeling harassed. Try to provide those things. If the dog is not in immediate danger, provide food from a distance. Like the old saying goes, “Feed a stray and it’ll never leave.” This is the best way to get the stray to establish a home area where you can keep tabs on him. He’ll want to stay near his food (and water) source. After a few days feeding him, you MAY be able to get close enough to leash the dog and that’s that. I can’t overstate the need for caution here, as a dog that is suddenly leashed may react aggressively at first. If you have never captured a stray or are inexperienced with dogs, I’d strongly recommend getting help from someone experienced in this.

If the dog is just too scared or aggressive to be leashed, trapping it becomes the next best option. There are a variety of humane live traps that can be set to catch dogs. These traps are basically wire cages with a spring loaded door. When the dog hits the trigger, the door snaps shut. If you have been feeding the dog, it should be no problem getting him into a trap baited with food. In our area, there are a couple of humane societies that will actually loan traps for free to catch strays. The trap should be set as close to where you are feeding the dog as possible, without spooking him.

Once the dog is in the trap, the real work begins. I could write about what to do if the dog is aggressive in the trap, but the bottom line is if the dog is aggressive in the trap, do not release it unless you are in the company of professionals. The trap can be carried safely to a vet’s office or to your local animal control facility. The dog will likely need vetting anyway, so a trip to the vet is probably for the best. Also, your town may have rules on what needs to be done to unite strays with their owner. This is with the assumption that an owner is looking for it. If the owner is not looking for the dog, it may be released for adoption. In Chicago, all strays need to go to the pound for a 5 day hold, after which they can be pulled by a rescue to be re-homed.

With a little forethought and patience, you can catch that scared stray dog. Just take the time to let him get comfortable and ultimately you’ll be able to help him. Oh, and that stray Rottie mix, Noel? Well, she was adopted and is no longer scared of people, starving or freezing in a field. She has a home with a nice warm couch, regular meals and lots of love. For her, life is good. (The photo to the right is Noelle in her forever home.)