I originally wrote this article as a response to a similarly titled article Should We Catch the Dog? by Mark Johnson, DVM, of Global Wildlife Resources. The article and ensuing discussion were about whether we should always catch feral/roaming dogs or whether it is sometimes in the dog’s best interest to leave them free. This is a rarely asked question and may not often be feasible, but it is an interesting discussion nonetheless. I would suggest also checking out Mark’s article and the reader comments if this is an issue that you are facing.
I run a business where I help people find their missing cats and dogs, and sometimes this involves catching a frightened lost dog. It is actually surprising, especially to the panic-stricken and bewildered owner, how often a beloved pet dog will run in fear even from their owner once lost and in an unfamiliar environment. This is commonly referred to as the dog being in “survival mode,” and I have worked several cases (and heard of many more) where a lost dog acted feral until it was captured. Some revert to their normal friendly selves while still in the trap as soon as they see their owner, while others need to be brought home to relax in a familiar environment before acting friendly and social again. I have also seen similar behavior in lost or stray dogs where the owner was not present. While loose, they acted extremely fearful and untrusting of people, but once trapped and brought indoors, they turned out to be friendly, well-socialized dogs.
One such case stands out in my mind. I received a call from a Tennessee rescue group that had lost a foster dog in Vermont. He was a pug mix and had slipped his leash and run away upon arrival at his foster home. I was not contacted until one month after he went missing, but I located him within three weeks using 30 large florescent posters put up over a six-mile radius from where he went missing. It turned out that he was living near a small town about four miles from where he escaped, and a local woman had been putting out food for him but couldn’t get anywhere near him. We used a humane trap baited with food and blankets mailed up from his original foster mom in Tennessee. He appeared subdued, but not outwardly friendly once trapped. However, when we carried the trap into the house and let him out, he transformed into a different dog. He ran from person to person and jumped into laps and appeared ecstatic to be back in a home after seven long weeks living in the woods. Here’s example of a similar story where the dog was loose for years before being caught: Ghost Dog Finally Makes It Home.
On the other hand, I worked another case where the outcome was very different. I was assisting another lost pet tracker in a case where the lost dog was a former street dog from the south, and he escaped upon arrival at his new home in New England. He was actually caught a few weeks later, but then again escaped his new owners within one week. Even when indoors at his new home, this dog was extremely fearful of people and had a reported history of biting in fear. It took several months and many trapping attempts before he was finally captured, and despite being on his own living in the snow and cold, the Animal Control Officer thought he looked remarkably healthy. In a very unfortunate series of events, the dog ended up seriously biting someone shortly after his capture. Now he is being held indefinitely by animal control, his new owners did not reclaim him (for complicated reasons so please don’t judge), and his future is uncertain. I don’t think there really was the option to leave him running loose where he was, but the outcome was really disheartening. (Update: I originally wrote this article in 2014. This dog lived for 1 ½ years as a foster dog before passing away due to an illness. He was described as a productive shelter volunteer that helped evaluate and befriend new shelter dogs, and no additional incidents of biting are known.)
The real question is probably not whether this dog should have been captured once lost in New England, but whether it was in his best interest to be caught down south in the first place and transported up here as an adoptable dog. I don’t know enough about these programs to provide a critical argument, but it does raise some interesting questions. Do feral or severely under-socialized dogs that are rescued down south and then transported up north really benefit from the situation? It is not uncommon for these dogs to run off shortly after being adopted, and if found and caught, they remain at a high risk of taking off again at the first opportunity. Are there other options for these dogs besides killing them or adopting them out? Are trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs for dogs ever a viable option in the United States?
Obviously this is a complicated issue that would need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Personally, I think in some cases (if the option exists) that an extremely fearful or feral dog might be better off left alone to live on their own similar to TNR colonies of feral cats. However, I would caution people that it is not possible to assess the temperament of a loose dog until it has been trapped and allowed to feel safe indoors. Unfortunately, this leads to the quandary that in order to determine if you should catch a dog, especially one where the owners cannot be located and you don’t know the dog’s history, you really need to catch the dog first.
– Danielle Robertson, Lost Pet Research & Recovery