(MNN.com) -- I don't remember where I was going when that stray dog weaved across a busy street near my home. But I do remember turning the car around to rescue the white pup with large tan spots that looked more like stains, except for one heart-shaped patch on her side.
As cars sped past, I stood at the side of the road and waited for her to get comfortable around me. Eventually, she approached my extended hand and I was able to coax her into my car.
I named the dog Honey and worked with a local rescue group called Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends (AARF) to find the sweet pooch a forever home.
Not every encounter leads to a happy ending. But with care, you can help a stray dog find its forever home.
Exercise caution: You don't know the dog's history, so it's important to avoid getting bitten. That means remaining cautious as you approach the dog. If it has been roaming for a while, or lived chained outside, the dog may be overly skittish around humans.
"If it's afraid, a dog's first instinct is to run and the safest thing is to let it go," says Mike Upshaw, a Georgia police officer who also trains dogs. "If the dog's hackles are raised and its tail is up, turn around and walk away."
He advises waiting for the dog to grow more comfortable around you, which may take some time. If you fear that the dog may be in danger of being hit by a car, place a call to your local animal control and provide a description of the dog, the area where you saw it and the location in which it was heading.
If a stray dog becomes a regular sight in your neighborhood, try to build a relationship over time. Upshaw suggests keeping a few dog treats in your pocket so that the treats have your scent. Leave them in that area each time you pass it, and hopefully the dog will grow more comfortable with you.
When the opportunity arises, stand a safe distance from the dog and allow it to approach you. Extend your hand, letting the dog sniff you. If it tolerates petting, proceed with caution and move slowly.
Start the search:
When I found Honey, our first stop was the neighborhood pet store, where I asked for help spreading the word about her. They kindly offered a leash so that I could safely transport her to my house. (Unlike my rambunctious dog Lulu, who hates car rides, Honey settled in and didn't make a peep. If anything, she seemed curious about the next leg of her journey.) You should also visit your nearby animal shelter to drop off fliers featuring the dog's photo, a general description and contact information.
Limit interaction with your pets: Until you have a better understanding of the dog's health and temperament, it's best to limit interaction with your pets. Honey's first destination at my home was the tub, where she got a good long bath. Fleas dotted her white fur like pepper in a saltshaker.
After the bath, we took a walk and I snapped a few photographs to post online. It took a few days before she got to meet my dog, Lulu. Upshaw says that your pets may take issue with others attempting to join their pack. During the first meeting, keep dogs leashed and limit interaction to sniffing until they become comfortable together.
"Even with dogs from the same litter, skirmishes will happen," he warns.
Schedule a checkup: Since your new houseguest will be sticking around for a while, it's best to schedule a checkup. Your veterinarian can provide clues about the dog's age and breed. The vet also can check for the presence of a microchip, which could ensure a happy reunion.
If your vet is closed for the day, see if a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic is willing to quickly scan the dog for a chip. Also, those chips are worthless without up-to-date information on file.
Pet owners: Make sure you have submitted your most recent contact information to the chip company. Your vet can provide info on how to upload new information.
As for your stray, many vets offer discounted services. Consider getting a rabies vaccination, too. If you want to get it spayed or neutered, there are low-cost options available. Check the ASPCA website for programs that offer free or discounted programs in your area.
Once you get a clean bill of health, it is OK to gradually introduce the new animal to your pets. Kids should never be left unattended around animals, especially when you don't know the pet's history. Use extreme caution when allowing children to interact with the stray dog.
Start spreading the news: It can take time for strays to reunite with their owners, if it happens at all. Start building buzz about your new houseguest by posting fliers in the general vicinity of where you found your stray, as well as pet-friendly locations such as nearby dog parks, pet stores and veterinary clinics.
Sites like Petfinder.com allow you to post a free classified ad that lasts 180 days announcing your found pet. If there is no response after a few weeks, you may need to secure a forever home for the dog.
Connect with a rescue group: Most county animal control facilities are packed with pets in need of homes, and they are reluctant to take in a stray. If you are willing to foster the dog for a while, a local rescue group may be the best way to help find a forever home.
Rescue groups are like pet PR firms, focused on finding the perfect love connection between pets and people. Animal shelters happily work with rescue groups because it relieves overcrowding. In exchange, rescue groups set up adoption fairs and actively seek pet lovers to adopt.
Your stray is already at an advantage because you can provide valuable information to prospective owners about its personality, age and demeanor around other people and pets. All of these details can help this animal find a home more quickly.
Under Lulu's guidance, Honey also learned a few tricks such as how to pour on the charm during rescue fairs. The photo of Honey that I took after her first bath was the one that sealed the deal for her future owner.
Thanks to that white dog with a heart-shaped patch on her side, I now travel everywhere with a leash, bottled water and a few dog treats in my car ... just in case life gets in the way. I encourage you to do the same. The next leg of your journey will never be the same.
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