Sunday, June 19, 2011

Socializing Feral Dogs pt. 3

I don’t use food initially because a dog that becomes a food whore is more apt to lose it when stress/fear overcomes the desire for food. Getting accustomed to me without fear just feels like a stronger foundation. I bring food in 3rd phase because I want the food to diminish the reaction to crazy human moving.

By the time we get to phase III, the feral dog should be relatively calm in your presence and interested in what you’re doing with the friendly dog. Back pedaling should cause the feral to follow the friendly dog.

With Blondie, a semi-feral Puerto Rican street dog and Bonita, Blondie’s feral daughter, I would play the good morning game in which I bent at the waist telling Blondie, “Good morning”, while thumping her sides. She was my friendly facilitator with Bonita.

Blondie followed my back pedaling and cheery voice, Bonita followed her. They both liked the game with tails wagging. When Bonita noticed the game change, she went to her safe distance to think it over.

With the next morning came; no retreat, soon I thumped Bonita for the first time. She shot across the floor like she had been touched by a red hot poker. When she reached her safety zone, she turned and glared at me. Clearly, I had violated her trust. I will never forget the seething look into my eyes.

By violating the rules of our relationship, I established that she expected me to behave in a certain way. She didn’t fear me; she was mad at me. I always loved her spirit.

My qoal in phase II is not to touch the dog, but to get the feral comfortable with stupid human movement. Sooner or later something always happens so the hands fly up into the air or we slap our side in laughter.

Social dogs need to be child safe, so the human Bonita trusted most became a child. I threw my hands in the air, saying weeee. Startled, she retreated behind her mother. The dogs were about fifteen feet away when I did this. They both looked; I tossed them dog cookies. Soon my idiotic behavior meant treats are coming.

I chose to save the treats for this; instead of using them from the beginning. At this point, I started having friends come over to give treats to the dogs. None of my friends throw their hands in the air and act nutty like I do, so the dogs accepted them even taking treats from some hands.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should have used treats sooner. I didn’t because I thought of show dogs I’d seen turning down freeze dried liver. I mean; where do you go from there?


  1. Yes, I've seen many-many people over use treats. I do often use them from the beginning, but not many nor often. With any dog the first step is building up attending and directing behavior, some of which you've described in other words. With any dog, whatever method accomplishes this is what you do. There have been some feral dogs I had to start with only treats, but used them to teach other behavior that could then be prompted without more treats.

  2. Gerry, Thanks for your comment. Where is it that you work with feral dogs? Interested in learning more of what you have to say. Thanks!

    1. Tricia, I mainly work with problem dogs at shelter. Those who have little chance for adoption and where they don't have the staff resources to help them. I've worked with ferals, but most shelters won't take them in, and some have policies that restrict what can be done, and I only take those where others have failed as some ferals do come around very quickly. With ferals, abused dogs and some hoarder dogs the initial stages are always much slower than others. While I see many people try to establish a formula or recipe that has worked for them, I mostly take their failures. My overall approach is Cynopraxic and the prime rule is "The Dog is Always Right". When and how I use food, play, petting and other approaches depends entirely on the dog's responses. That means that no single article in a blog can describe this approach. So, should you have used treats sooner? Yes with some, no with others. For this, ask the dog.

      The same applies to your use of a second dog as a facilitator. With some that will help, but with others not at all. Whenever possible, pack-oriented rehabilitation is often more successful. Look at Heart & Soul ( Sanctuary and their Giant Doghouse.

      For those reasons, I don't class ferals apart from the others. Timewise, I've found the hardest cases of all are the high-apathy hoarder dogs, since fear is always much easier to overcome than apathy.

      I moved into this area last year and started with new shelters. If I look at fear-aggression and the dogs I've met in the past year, no two cases were the same. With one dog the shelter warned me about right at the start, I simply made six separate and very brief visits to outside his run one afternoon, then he stopped growling and lifted a paw to invite me in and we've been friends since, with no further issues. With another similar one who has bitten many, his interest was walks, and I walked him for several weeks before ever touching him. With both of these, however, their behavior with me doesn't transfer to other people and only a few others can handle them. Without taking them out of the shelter and training to allow new learned behavior to displace their current behavior, they will stay the same until such time is available.

    2. (continuing)

      Another type of case is a high-anxiety (often a hoarder) dog. I recall a true feral some time ago who took nearly 3 weeks before I could get him to approach me on the other side of a dog door, but that gave the opening for progress. This type of hoarder dog, however, is harder than any feral dog I've ever seen. Her aversion to human contact is phobic, and she simply cannot control it, under any conditions, no matter what. I've walked her several times a weeks for about six months, but I am the only person who knows how. As in many phobic cases, she does not relate to any individual person, but to the specific approach. Non-approach training will work, which is how I (or anybody who knows this) can easily leash and walk her as she has learned that sequence.

      Looking at a dog like this will break your standard approach (or any other). All that you said was reasonable, and most will work with many dogs. Besides movement and touch, I'd suggest adding many other small and similar items. What if you yell, jump, blow a whistle, clap your hands, stamp your foot. As you mentioned yelling "weeee" with your hands up, I suspect you are already doing all this. One possible suggestion on that, however: If the dog is very scared at your action, start it softly and only while the dog is already engaged in a familiar activity. Your getting them used to human movement and noises before approach is a very good (and safer) idea. While it will help, remember that your body language will still be quite different from that of a human child.

      As with many others, this particular hoarder dog is waiting on a list. Only once I can bring her home can I start phobic counter-conditioning and that will take weeks. In the meantime, other dogs are brought out and helped much faster. This is the largest no-kill shelter in NM (, with a very high adoption rate. Over time, however, any such shelter will slowly accumulate problem dogs, and that is where I focus.

      Training people, of course, is a far more difficult challenge, and more of them are prone to bite:-)