This article is contributed by guest writer, John Woods (senior editor at All Things Dogs).
Dog Body Language For Stray Or Lost Dogs
Chances are, at some point in your life you will come across a lost or stray dog. Whether you are driving down a street and a dog is wandering without a collar, or you are out walking and find a pooch separated from its owner.
In cases of stray dogs, you should always call the dog warden and ask their advice on what to do next.
That aside, it’s always helpful to understand what a stressed dog is trying to tell you. By watching a dog’s body language, you can learn a lot from a dog which can inform your next steps.
Here we have some top tips on what to look out for when reading the body language of a stray or lost dog.
A Happy Dog – Very Rare
On rare occasions, stray or lost dogs will come bounding over to you. They will just be pleased to see a human. Some stray dogs may have been lucky and have been fed by humans, so assume that human = good! A lost dog may just be hopeful that you can help them get back to where they are supposed to be.
The happy pooch will be excited, they will wag their tail and be interested in anything you may offer. We all know the signs to look for: relaxed body, happy and wagging tail and calm eyes.
What A Stressed Dog Looks Like
More often than not a lost or stray dog will be stressed. Like humans, dogs can have three responses to stress:
A dog who freezes may do just that; stop dead in their tracks. They may make themselves appear smaller and haunch their back. They may flatten their ears and walk very tentatively.
Generally, a lost or stray dog tends to default to a flight response.
They will run away from you. They have no idea if you pose a threat or not, so the safest option is to run; as quick as their legs can carry them.
The fight response is what we see in what’s deemed an aggressive dog. They may snarl or growl; bearing their teeth. The hair on the back of their necks (i.e. hackles) will be raised. Adrenaline causes muscle contractions in the skin, which results in the hair standing on end. It makes the dog appear much larger than it actually is, which could pose more of a threat.
All three of these responses make it incredibly difficult to catch a lost or stray dog.
What Should You Do?
In the case of a stray dog, contact the dog warden or a local rescue to advise you on the best next steps.
If you are confident that you can help a lost dog however, we have some top tips to help you safely capture them.
First off, if the dog isn’t already coming to you. Don’t call it to you, don’t chase it and don’t corner it. All that will do is make an already stressed dog, even more stressed.
Assume a non-threatening position, not head on to the dog and avoid making eye contact with the dog.
Throw some treats on the floor and crinkle a treat bag. Ignore the dog. Make some “num num” sounds whilst crinkling the treat bag.
Be patient. It could take up to and over an hour to catch a dog. Sit down on the floor, slowly, and continue to ignore the dog.
Without making eye contact watch their body language.
Are they stressed? Typical stress signs include: lip licking, yawning, circling, tail biting and flattening of the ears.
Are they cowering away or walking tentatively? If so, they are still nervous and need some more time to figure you out.
If their tail goes up, they could merely be interested in what you’re doing or what you’ve got. Don’t immediately assume its aggression.
If they are making progress and coming towards you, their body language may change. Their hackles may go up, or they may start growling. Ignore them and don’t make any sudden movements. A growl is a warning. Stay calm and wait for them to calm down.
Safety Tip: If you notice snarling or excessive salivating, their fear has gotten the better of them and they are defaulting to their fight response. Move away, slowly, without any sudden movements. You need to keep yourself safe. This is where it pays to have another human to help, they could make a noise in a different direction to distract whilst you safely remove yourself from the situation.
Ideally, as they’ve figured you pose no threat, they will move closer. Encourage them to you with treats or food. You need them close enough that you can easily attach a leash to their collar or get a slip lead over their head. If you aren’t close enough to do that, you haven’t yet succeeded. Making any quick attempts to grab them will just startle the dog and you’ll be back to square one!
Continue to watch his body language once you’ve caught him – he may feel trapped as he is now on leash. Watch for signs of stress and the potential that he could become defensive.
This also applies to the journey you make with him. Whether you have found contact details on his collar or need to take him to have his microchip scanned. He will still be in a heightened state of stress and largely unpredictable.
He may avoid contact with you, turn his head away or look away from you or he may paw at you wanting attention. He may be panting or salivating excessively. Stressed dogs will also excessively lick themselves. It’s not an odd time to groom himself, he’s just trying to calm himself down.
Above all, if you are attempting to catch a dog, first and foremost, you both need to be kept safe. Don’t put either one of you in danger. Watching a dog’s body language is a crucial in helping you predict their behavior.
Stay calm, be patient and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
AnaJanuary 28, 2019 at 2:59 PM
Thank you for the tips ! I always have a leash in the car and treats just in case . I ve seen stray dogs running in the community when I slowly try to approach .
LouiseFebruary 2, 2019 at 9:32 PM
Thank you for suggesting the person sit down. I have caught several stray dogs this way while using treats and a soft voice. Standing or bending over or towards a dog can be very threatening to a dog. Thank you for a very god article.
AliceDecember 20, 2020 at 2:40 PM
Yes, sitting down and acting non-interested has worked for me too.
Carolyn HenselFebruary 14, 2019 at 1:14 PM
shirley KurburskiFebruary 15, 2019 at 1:34 AM
Thank you for the advice! Alot I knew but we tend to forgot and then”you” and people like you remind us,and that’s so helpful. I have to say this article reminds”me” to not show fear and dogs sense this and I need to work on that. Thanks Shirley
Deni LogsdonJune 4, 2020 at 8:19 PM
I have caught many of my neighbors’ dogs by simply opening the car door. I’ve caught a couple of strays this way, then spend time making sure it is safe to get in the car with them (keep your cell phone on you not in the car). Twice I’ve picked up strays who were dangerously close to dehydration and overheating so getting them water and to a vet and getting their chip read were real priorities.
Paulette BottomsAugust 4, 2020 at 7:00 PM
We have a stray dog. In our neighborhood. Smaller terrier type. I’ve tried all the advice but he just won’t get close to us. Hi loves other dogs and will play with them – but keeps his distance from humans. A lady showed up in the neighborhood with a dog catching crate. She yells at all of us to stop feeding the dog. If he’s not hungry he won’t go in the crate. She’s not here everyday and a lot of folks try to catch him. Any other advise?
laura RobertsAugust 30, 2020 at 4:19 PM
she is right. leave smelly food in the crate like rotisserie ckn or cat food. you can also cover the crate so he feels it’s like a den. you do need to check it everyday.