Stray Dogs


There is currently no specific regulation of dog rescues, rehoming organisations or sanctuaries.

In lieu of a specific regulatory framework rescues are subject to an (often confusing) array of legal provisions.

There is also no settled or accepted definition of what it means to rescue, rehabilitate or re-home dogs. ‘Rescue’ encompasses such a wide range of activities, from those coordinating home-from-home rehoming, to those operating multi-site rescue centres. Scotland is the only UK jurisdiction to licence rescues/sanctuaries and organisations who engage in rehoming activities.

This guide is therefore intended to help navigate the legal duties on individuals or organisations who hold themselves out to the public to receive vulnerable dogs on a regular basis, with a view to rehabilitating and either rehoming, or providing long-term care. It provides an outline of legal duties applicable to rescue and rehoming organisations operating in Northern Ireland. Rescues based in Northern Ireland but operating outside of this jurisdiction may need to pay attention to regulation in the other jurisdictions in which they operate.

Stray dogs:

If a stray dog is abandoned at your premises or bought in by a member of the public it is important to try to contact the owner of a dog that seems to be a stray. Check their collar and or scan for a microchip for the owner’s contact details if it is safe to do so. If you cannot identify the owner, you can take care of the dog (by detaining it if necessary) while you contact the local government district authority who will either then arrange for the dog to be collected by the dog warden or, if your organisation holds a stray dog contract, discuss arrangements for the dog to remain in your care.

Rescues may tender with local government districts for a contract to take in stray dogs. Ownership of the dog will pass to the local government district which seized the dog after 5 days, after which point they can sign ownership of the dog over to you/your organisation.

Once you are the owner of the dog you can legally rehome them.

Remember that the law treats dogs as property, so you cannot simply keep a stray without following the steps above. If you do so, you might be charged with theft. The Dog Warden will be able to provide further advice.

The Law:

Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 (as amended).

See also: Animal Welfare Leaflet.pdf (