The Art of Catching a Dog on the Run

There was a time when dogs simply wandered and meandered the streets without so much as a second look from the populous and owners assumed that, sooner or later, the dogs would come home.  Not so today due in large to a more diligent dog culture and increased compliance with leash laws, a majority of our best four-legged friends are safe behind fences or inside our homes when they cannot be supervised.  Now,  when we see a dog on the loose, our first assumption is that he has escaped or has been dumped and is lost.  Naturally, our first instinct is to try to catch the dog before he wanders into traffic or another life-threatening scenario.
Just like us, dogs have different personalities and a gregarious, well-adjusted dog is easy to catch; they just amble up to you with their tail wagging.  But other dogs may be timid, insecure, reactive and under-socialized and the experience of being out in the wide world can be disorienting and terrifying, making catching a panicked dog something of an art.  You need to know what will soothe and what will spook him, what precise move you need to make and when to make it, therefore, the following are some dos and don’ts for catching a dog on the run and bringing him back safe and sound, which applies to both of you:

  • Don’t grab.  Instinct takes over when trying to capture a dog on the loose with undesirable results.  Don’t make sudden moves or try to immobilize a loose dog by clutching him to your chest and don’t lunge at a frightened, lost dog as he may bite.
  • Don’t chase the dog.  Our biological programming tells us to run after what we want but the problem here is, the dog will outrun you, sometimes directly into the path of danger.  If you see a dog wandering in traffic, don’t jump out of your car.  Turn on your flashers and follow the dog as best you can without disturbing the flow of traffic.  Whenever it is safe, pull over and call the highway patrol to assist in stopping and/or slowing traffic.
  • Don’t talk.  Once again, our natural instinct, when we see a loose dog, is to slap our leg encouragingly and send an auditory signal that we are happy to see him and would like to get closer.  A loose dog is flooded with adrenaline and is very reactive, causing him to associate these actions as something frightening and overwhelming making him bolt when he hears them, even from his owner.
  • Use calming signals such as yawning, using your peripheral vision, and blinking (not direct stares), and oblique approaches such as moving from the side, not head on.  Avoid moving toward him in a direct line, standing rigidly straight and staring at him, as you will be mimicking a predator.
  • Go low and slow; get down to the dog’s level and be extremely patient.  It may take hours of sitting motionless before a lost dog decides to come over to check you out.  You can drop to the ground and fake indifference or lay flat with some food on your stomach and watch the dog from your peripheral vision – do not stare.
  • Get a “Magnet Dog” to ride shotgun.  Sometimes a lost dog is so suspicious of humans that you need the assistance of a friendly, playful, gregarious dog to entice the lost dog to come closer.  Large dogs can be boisterous and hard to handle as the lost dog comes near so look for a reliable dog-friendly toy or medium-sized breed as your magnet.  Keep your body angled away from the lost dog so you are not facing him head on and yawn or blink.  This will, hopefully, make you fade into the background, giving tunnel vision to the skittish dog, causing him to focus on your magnet dog, not you.
  • Don’t be unprepared.  Always carry a leash in your car and some treats.  When waiting for a lost dog to approach, keep the leash inconspicuous but handy.  This way, you can put it on quickly should you capture the dog before either of you panic.
  • Don’t assume the worst.  Once the lost dog has been captured, think “lost”, not “stray” as some dogs are dumped, but not as many as you think.  The condition of the dog is often not indicative of how it was treated.  If the dog is emaciated and in poor condition, it could be that he has been on the loose for a month or more and not the product of an abusive environment.  If the dog is skittish or reactive, don’t assume he has been abused.  More likely than not this is just the dog’s temperament and Mother Nature is to blame, not his owner.
  • Do go to the shelter with a captured lost dog even if you are reluctant to do so out of fear the dog will be euthanized.  If you don’t leave the dog there, keep in mind that the local animal control facility will be one of the first places an owner will check for his lost companion so leave information where the lost dog can be located.

Many shelters have equipment used for scanning dogs for implanted microchips which will give you the information needed to return a frightened lost dog safely home to his very worried owner.