Feral dogs are dogs that have either grown up in the wild or have had no positive human contact. Some were born to stray dogs. Some were born in puppy mills or other neglected conditions.
And some are escapees from abusive homes.
However they became feral, this lack of socialization makes us and our environment a huge source of fear for them. Helping a rescued feral dog adjust to domestic life is a challenge that requires courage, patience and restraint, and a ton of persistence.
The good news, however, is that it can be done.
Help a feral dog to adjust by using reward-based training exclusively. It has been shown to create greater trust and optimism in dogs reinforce the dog-trainer bond. The latter is extremely important with rescued ferals because these dogs have never had positive associations with humans before.
Dogs are social animals at heart and have an 11,000-year history of adaptation to life with humans. The first thing to remember in socializing a feral is that despite those millennia of domestic ancestry no dog can speak Hooman.
Instead, you have to learn Dog.
From getting a newly-rescued feral dog to calm down in your presence, to building a trusting relationship with you to teaching it acceptable manners, you will need to know how to read a dog’s body language and moods, learn to understand its fears and issues from a dog’s point of view and learn what motivates it to get results.
Understand Dog Fear Signals
While most of us are familiar with dog happy signals – tail wagging, play bowing, the doggy smile – we’re usually familiar with only the most obvious fear signals like cowering.
To work with a rescued feral, you’ll have to learn to read its subtler cues so you can adjust your approaches to its state.
The last thing you want to do with a rescued feral is to push it into its crisis mode, when the only actions it considers are fight, flight, or abject submission.
Yes, even that last one is bad because it means the dog is absolutely terrified of you, which can undo any previous progress and make its adjustment harder.
|DOG||It’s Saying This|
|Pacing restlessly up and down||“I’m kinda nervous.”|
|Sniffing the ground in reaction to your presence, looking away||“I’m no threat to you, don’t threaten me please.”|
|Licking lips, looking away, body turned sideways to you, tail down, yawning||“You’re making me nervous. Give me space, please.”|
|Body crouched, eyes wide, shrinking away||“I feel threatened.”|
|Body crouched, eyes wide, barking||“I’m feeling really threatened!”|
|Shrinking away, forepaw lifted||“I’m scared and getting ready to flee!”|
|Vigorous shake||“I’m trying to forget my stress.”|
|Ears laid back, teeth bared, growling||“Back off!”|
|Head down, killer stare, body tensed||“I’m going to attack!”|
|Frozen, lying down or crouching, unresponsive||“I can’t take this anymore, I’m just shutting down until you go away/the bad thing stops.”|
How to Get a Feral Dog to Trust You
Because feral dogs have no positive associations with humans, and often have negative ones, the first and most challenging step in socializing a feral is getting it into a calm and trusting state.
You have to convince the dog that first, you’re not a threat, and second, that your presence is a good thing.
Unlike properly socialized pets, you cannot calm a rescued feral by word or touch. Instead, you have to demonstrate over some time that you’re no threat and that you’re a source of pleasant experiences especially food.
Use a Non-Threatening Approach
Your initial approaches to the dog should demonstrate non-threatening behaviors. Observe the dog carefully for behaviors showing anxiety, fear, or aggression. Take it slowly, and let the dog accept you on its own terms. If you see its ears go back, take a few steps back.
- Do not look the dog in the eye. Do not stand towering over the dog. These feel threatening, as in a dog or wolf pack they are marks of dominating, threatening behavior.
- Approach on a curve instead of a straight line, keeping your eyes averted.
- Take a low sitting posture with the dog to your side or back. In dog language, this is a non-confrontational stance that says ‘Peace.’
- Don’t talk to the dog at first or try to get close. Just let the dog get used to your presence. Give it space if it shows avoidance or aggressive behavior.
- When the dog has calmed down, try offering food. Newly-rescued ferals may not see kibble as food, so you may want to try offering a boneless piece of chicken or a hotdog, which will smell tempting to the dog.
- You can also try offering your hand to sniff when the dog has calmed down. Sniffing is the first greeting gesture in dog language, so if you can get to this point you know the dog has started to accept you.
- Move slowly and speak softly. Sudden movements and noises can spark fear.
Build Trust by Feeding
To start a rescued feral learning to trust humans, start by teaching it that you’re a reliable source of food. This starts the dog associating you, then other people, with good experiences.
This method is adapted from here.
- Observe the dog with and without the presence of other dogs, and see which condition makes it calmer. Some dogs react well to having canine company, but some don’t. If the presence of other dogs helps, use it. If other dogs however make the rescued feral fearful or aggressive, confine it completely away from them while you’re working on its trust.
- Start feeding the dog on a regular schedule. This establishes that you are a source of food, and also establishes a psychologically reassuring routine for the dog. Remove the bowl and uneaten food when mealtime is over so the dog learns to expect food only at the designated time.
- Let the dog adjust to your presence as it eats. Start by letting it eat with you in sight but not too near, then closer until you’re in the pen or near to the crate, then when you’re right next to him. Beware of food-guarding behaviors, as some individuals and breeds can become aggressive when they believe you’re competing for their food or threatening them while they eat.
- Once the dog can eat calmly when you’re next to it, try offering food from your hand. Be patient, very fearful or traumatized dogs may take a while to build up the confidence level needed to take food from a human hand.
- When the dog consistently allows you to hand-feed it, try petting it. Touch it only in non-threatening areas such as the sides of his body and head, but don’t try for the top of his head or body.
- When the dog is happy to let you pet it, you can start introducing it to other people. Let the other members of your family start bringing the dog food, then work up to hand-feeding, then petting.
You can also use food to desensitize the dog to the objects, places, and situations of domestic life such as leashes, brushes, a new crate or pen, baths, and so on.
Remember that your feral dog will find a lot of everyday objects and situations strange and therefore frightening, so always be prepared to give it a calming treat when needed.
Hang Out with the Dog
To help the rescued feral get used to and accept your presence and the sights, sounds, and smells of your home as normal, keep it near you as you go about your day.
Place its pen or crate in your kitchen or living room and just let it stay there as you go about your routines without talking to it or demanding its attention.
Once it’s comfortable with this, try tethering the dog on a long leash indoors. Have a supply of treats handy with which to reward domesticating behaviors such as looking at you or approaching you, or showing welcoming gestures like wagging its tail or making a play bow.
Let Your Other Dogs Help
If you have other dogs and the feral dog reacts positively to them, you can also try letting the feral hang out with them.
Well-socialized dogs can act as role-model packmates, teaching the feral how domestic dogs should live through their play and their interactions with people.
If the rescued feral accepts other dogs, they can make the process of socializing so much faster and easier.
Use Reward-Based Training Only
Scientific studies have begun to show that the use of punishment and negative reinforcement, such as putting pressure on a dog to sit down or using choke collars, tends to be counterproductive and have unwanted side effects such as aggravating dog aggressiveness and weakening the bond with the owner.
Remember that with a feral dog, the burden is on you to prove to it that humans are good. Use of punishment or negative reinforcement can make the dog fear you to the point that it becomes unresponsive or aggressive, or motivate it to escape. Instead, you want to build a relationship where the dog sees you as a source of security.
Use Food as Reward
While we may reward our pets with a mix of reinforcements from food to praise and pats, a rescued feral will understand and be motivated by food alone at first.
It doesn’t value human contact yet, so praises and petting or hugging are meaningless to it in the early stages.
To use food-based reward training more effectively:
- Use a meat or strongly meat-flavored treats. Dogs being carnivores will always be more attracted to meat than any other food. Moreover, a rescued feral may not recognize kibble as food early in its rehabilitation.
- Train the dog while it’s hungry.
- Train the dog only when and where it feels secure. When a dog is in crisis mode, it ceases to be motivated by food or anything else save for its fear. If training is interrupted by something that scares the dog, take a break and calm it down before resuming.
- Use small portions. This keeps the dog from getting full early in a training session and so weakening its motivation to get more food.
- Reward immediately after the dog shows the desired behavior. This helps it realize the association between the reward and the behavior. For example, if you have to bring the dog to the table to get its treats after getting it to come to you on call, it may associate the treat with approaching the table instead of approaching you.
- Reward even small successes and concessions. For example, if you’re teaching a dog to look at you, be prepared to reward even a brief glance at you.
- Withhold reward when the dog does something you don’t want. This has been shown to be more effective than scolding or punishing the dog. For example, if the dog is lunging after a squirrel instead of sitting down, show the reward but don’t give it until the dog sits down.
- Make sure there’s a clear signal associated with the behavior you want, and a clear signal the dog did correctly, such as saying “Great!” or “Good dog!” The latter gives the dog immediate confirmation of your approval and teaches the association of praise with food, paving the way to using praise alone when needed.
- Capture and reinforce desired behaviors. When the dog does something you want on its own, such as coming to you, say the associated command word and reward it.
How to Leash Train a Feral Dog
No animal likes being restrained. For a dog that’s learned to live as a wild animal, being restrained is even more frightening and potentially traumatic.
Rescued ferals often react explosively to being leashed, so this is a vital part of training that cannot be rushed. While some advocate using choke or prong collars to speed up the process, doing so is likely to be counterproductive in the long run.
Leash training a feral dog is much like leash training a human-raised puppy but will require more time and patience. Introduce the leash slowly, taking multiple sessions if you have to. Begin with accustoming the dog to a drag leash, then to a long leash that lets it roam and play until it’s ready to do a leashed walk.
To leash train a rescued feral, try the following approaches:
- Use a harness instead of a collar. It’s more comfortable and less scary for the dog.
- Introduce the leash and desensitize the dog to it first using food rewards. Present the leash to the dog and let them sniff it, then give the dog a treat. This sets the dog up to expect positive experiences with the leash.
- Once the dog is desensitized to the leash, clip it on and let the dog go about as usual dragging the leash.
- If the dog tries to chew on the leash, say No and reward them for stopping. Remember not to use punishment! Keep rewarding them when they stop chewing, until they learn the treats come only when they don’t engage in the unwanted behavior.
- Take a few steps away from the dog and call it to you while the leash is on. Reward it for coming to you.
- Try walking the dog on the leash indoors or in your yard. Use treats to motivate them into walking with you instead of pulling on the leash. If the dog pulls on the leash, stop and have it come to you; reward it when it comes to you.
- Keep the initial leash sessions short, gradually making them longer.
- Be generous with rewards so the dog stops associating the leash with negative things like its fear of being restrained, and learns to associate the leash with positive experiences instead.
- When the dog no longer minds the leash, you can start trying leashed walks outside. If the dog tends to be hostile or strongly reactive to other people or dogs, attach a muzzle. Clip the leash to your belt so the dog can’t get away from you.
How Long Does it Take to Domesticate a Feral Dog
Every feral dog has its own unique personality and history; some may have lived wild all their lives, and some may have a history of human neglect or abuse. This means it will take different individuals different times to learn and adjust to life with humans. Be patient and persistent, and take things at your adopted dog’s own pace.
Feral dogs will often have multiple issues that make domesticated life challenging for them and their new families.
Each may have its own deepest fear of something due to past trauma. A dog that was beaten by a man may have problems trusting any human male for a while.
Some feral dogs may learn to trust and bond pretty quickly with their trainer or adopter, but take a long time to get over the fear of being in places with lots of people.
You will have to deal with each of these issues in turn and to do this without exerting a counterproductive amount of pressure on the dog will take time.
Remember that once a dog’s mind has entered that crisis state of fight-flee-or-shut down, it can’t learn anything. Make sure the dog feels secure as you train it, and give it chances to relax whenever it enters a crisis state.
Progress is often in tiny increments, and expect some back-sliding. Constant positive reinforcement is needed to set desired behaviors as habits.
Don’t let frustration tempt you into yelling at or punishing the dog; it simply doesn’t understand why it’s being punished, and the negative experience can undo a lot of your progress.
For a great example of the patience, persistence, and technique used to re-socialize a feral dog, watch this new series of Youtube videos by trainer Zak George.
For a nicely detailed case study of successfully socializing a feral dog, read Zoom, Zoom: Lessons Learned from a Semi-Feral Dog by child psychologist and positive therapy dog trainer Rise VanFleet, Ph.D.
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