How to safely approach a stray dog

Next time you see a stray dog, follow these tips to help him without risking injury to either of you.

If you see a stray dog wandering around, chances are you’ll want to do something to help. Whether that means attempting to find his owner or dropping him off at your local shelter, you’ll need to know when and how to approach him safely. Rather than acting rashly, follow these steps to keep yourself – and the dog – out of harm’s way.

Step 1: Read his body language

Most strays are scared and skittish. Depending on his personality, he might also be aggressive. The first step is to familiarize yourself with his body language, so you can figure out whether or not it’s safe to approach.

Look out for signs of nervousness and aggression in the dog you’re trying to help by keeping the acronym TEB in mind:

  • Tail
  • Eyes
  • Body

His tail might be tucked, which might signify that he’s scared or timid. However, if his tail and body are stiff and his eyes are narrowed and fixed, this is probably a sign of aggression rather than shyness.

Always observe the dog’s body language as a whole. For example, a fixed stare might be a sign of aggression if it’s accompanied by a stiff body, raised hackles and bared teeth. However, the same gaze might also be a sign of fear if he’s looking down and appears to be shrinking away.

If a stray dog shows signs of aggression, it’s best not to approach him. Instead, call your local animal shelter. If you decide based on the dog’s body language that he’s safe to approach, proceed using the following steps.

Step 2: Get his attention

Don’t use a loud voice or shout ‘here boy’ like you might do with your own pet. This approach is likely to scare or startle the stray, causing him to either run off or become defensive.

Instead, talk very gently to him before approaching. Ideally, try to place yourself in his vicinity without making direct eye contact or towering over him. If you’re in a safe area, the best thing to do is crouch down to his level and wait for him to approach you.

Step 3: Approach slowly and with caution

If your attempts to coax him toward you fail, you’ll have to approach him. The key is to do this slowly and cautiously after you’ve given him time to become familiar with your presence. Move slowly toward the stray making yourself as small and non-threatening as possible. Don’t put your hand out or make any sudden movements, and stop when you’re roughly 15 feet away.

Keep using a gentle voice and avoid using any direct or harsh eye contact.

Step 4: Stop and allow the dog to approach you

At this point, if the dog seems receptive, you can use a gentle voice to continue talking to him. Try putting your hand out (palm down is less threatening) to encourage him to approach. If you have any treats, you can also put those on the ground next to you to entice him.

If at any point the dog starts snarling, baring his teeth or displaying other aggressive signals, slowly back away and call the shelter.

Step 5: Let him sniff you

If the dog approaches you, don’t grab for his collar or neck right away. First, you need to develop trust. Remain still and offer your hand, palm down, for him to sniff.

Step 6: Check his tags

Once he’s comfortable with your smell, slowly move your hand to his shoulder and up to his collar to check his tags. If his owner’s details are printed on the ID, give him or her a call and ask how they’d like to proceed. If the dog is agreeable enough, he might let you take him home. Otherwise, wait with him until his owner arrives.

If the dog isn’t wearing tags, call the shelter.

Finding a stray dog can be scary – but remember, he’s more scared than you are! Treat him with caution, respect and kindness, and with any luck he’ll be reunited with his humans in no time.


John lives on a six-acre farm with his two rescue dogs Jeff and James. He has two degrees, is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, a recognized author by the Dog Writers Association of America and is the lead editor for All Things Dog.