Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

tan puppy on a brick walk. She is leaning back and down, and her tail is tucked and her ears are back
Clara the Wild Puppy

When I started this blog, I assumed that I would write a lot about Clara’s training. Clara burst into my life as a 10 week old feral puppy [see note at bottom about feral dogs], and her socialization window was in the process of closing by the time she came to me.

I slipped in that window before it shut and was fully accepted and trusted. But she growled at all other humans, even at that young age. In general, she related to them as a wild animal would, with huge wariness of any movement on their part and no tolerance for their proximity.

I have been working with a wonderful trainer and friend, Lisa, since those early days, playing catch-up on Clara’s socialization.

Contrary to my assumption about the blog, though, I have actually written very little about what we have done, and I have taken almost no videos of that work.

Tan dog with a black muzzle and tail wearing a pink harness. She is lying down and looking up at her handler with a pleased look and relaxed open mouth. Her tail is wagging, clearly even in the still.
Clara on the sidewalk at the mall

Our sessions took all of my awareness to do the job well. Because Clara’s socialization window had closed, we used the technique of desensitization and counterconditioning to address her fears and change her emotional response to humans to a positive one.

This is a tall order with a a dog with a lot of the habits of a wild animal.  Both my trainer and I had to be very vigilant to always keep Clara in the zone where she was happy and comfortable, but getting graduated exposure to humans and our world. This was new to me and difficult. The careful work demanded that we protect her from sudden environmental changes and overly interested humans. It took an immense amount of concentration, and I was often exhausted afterwards. Wielding a camera would have been out of the question.

Not to mention that even with all that effort going into it, video of the actual socialization would generally have been completely undramatic. When things went as they should,  it just looked like a dog hanging out or strolling around, seeing people from various distances, and getting a lot of food. That is what desensitization and counterconditioning look like when the dog is under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The dog can perceive the trigger (the potentially scary thing, in this case, a human) but at a distance or a presentation that in some other way is diluted such that it isn’t scary.

If the dog is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, she will likely look and act uptight in various ways. And if she approaches her threshold for reactive behavior, her fear will become obvious. Our goal was generally to keep her below both of these thresholds, in a space where she was happy and comfortable.

I do so wish that I had video documentation of how far we’ve come. What with all the videos I have shown with her looking like a normal dog in her interactions with me, I know that you readers out there have a very incomplete picture of Clara.

So I dug up some photos. I have never, ever deliberately set Clara up to react, but I do have this set of video stills from the one time ever she was badly scared in my home. Sorry they are mostly blurry. She was on the move.

There, she looks a little more “wild” in those photos, doesn’t she? I’m rather proud that I don’t have any more accidental footage of her reacting, because those reactions were hair-trigger and very easy to provoke. But one of our goals was to keep them from happening and we did very well. Credit goes to my teacher for that.

The Steps To Get There

Here are some of the many gradual steps it took to get Clara to her current comfort level, both outdoors at the shopping center, and inside one store with some kind help from friends.

Many people reported that my post that delineated a desensitization/counterconditioning plan of graduated exposure to crawdads was very helpful to them in understanding the exposure process in DS/CC. You can look at the following lists as a typical “dog version” of such a list. Humans were Clara’s crawdads (actually quite a bit worse than crawdads are for me)!

Note: These lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Every dog and situation is going to call for different actions.

List of Graduated Activities Out and About At the Shopping Center

  • We walked around the parking lot on the periphery of the shopping center. Clara got very high value treats (canned salmon dog food in a tube) at the sight of any human.
  • Clara practiced relaxing on a mat in the parking lot.
  • We ventured into the ends and quiet areas of the (outdoor) mall. Clara’s comfortable distance from humans was about 60 feet at the beginning. Farther if they were in groups or included strollers, wheelchairs, children, or people clothed in an out of the ordinary manner. It was a big deal if she had 5 or 6 sightings in an hour.
  • We sat on a bench in a quiet courtyard playing open bar/closed bar (DS/CC).
  • We worked all of these activities very VERY gradually to closer proximity to humans.
  • Simultaneously we started training some operant behaviors when she was well within her comfort zone. Rather than looking at strangers, looking at me, looking at strangers, looking at me, we taught her to take a look, then give me some more extended eye contact. Not forever, but enough duration to prevent the back and forth thing. Later we added a default down. For about a year, this was her go-to behavior when she saw humans. (It’s hardly necessary anymore.)
  • We started hanging out in busier parts of the shopping center, for instance sitting on a bench outside the enclosed area of an outdoor restaurant watching the people (fenced in people!).
  • We practiced passing people on the sidewalk (still doing classical conditioning).
  • We faded the classical conditioning as she chose other activities she enjoyed, such as sniffing after a person had walked by or exploring.

We also worked on an explicit relax behavior for when there was little going on, for which I reinforced her for putting her head down and relaxing in other ways.

List of Graduated Activities at the Gourmet Dog Treat Store

We also spent time during most sessions working on going into a particular store. This work was going on simultaneously to the outdoor work. Clara and I would first wait about 50 feet away while our trainer went to the store to determine whether the “coast was clear.” We were in a place where we could retreat another 50 feet if I saw that the situation might get too intense. Then we embarked on the following steps.

  • Going to the front door of a dog treat store when there were no people nearby (none!) and getting a cupcake that the owner had placed outside the door for her
  • Standing a little ways back from the front door as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Standing at the front door of the store as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Taking the cupcake from the hand of the store owner as she stuck it out the door (Note: being fed by strangers is not a necessary or recommended step for many dogs, and especially not too early in the process.)
  • Coming into the front of the store for the cupcake, then leaving
  • Coming farther into the store. Getting a cupcake and also exploring.
  • Starting to get cupcakes cut up in pieces (for more iterations and more extended contact), from someone in the store.
  • Spending more time in the store; but retreating to a back room before Clara got uncomfortable if customers came in.
  • Classically conditioning being “approached” by employees (soft body language from the humans, no eye contact).
  • Playing with a toy in the store.
  • Matting in the back of the store (rather than retreating to the back room) when some customers came in. We had to make a snap judgment about people as they came in. Safe or not safe?
  • Playing targeting and petting games with the employees as she got her cupcake.
  • Strolling around the store on her own.


So, those were the steps. What does it look like today?

Earlier in 2014 we hit a milestone in our socialization work. In May 2014,  we were able to start walking freely anywhere in the shopping center. We could walk right by people. They could walk straight at us. Clara  associated their approach with good things, but had gone beyond that. It was more like she started taking them for granted in the ways that socialized dogs might. I stopped giving her food every time we saw one.

I think what made me “get it” that the picture had changed for her was that she actually got less centered on me and started really enjoying the environment. One of her biggest pleasures became checking the pee-mail in the shopping center, with or without a dog buddy. I want to emphasize that this was not stress sniffing. It was sniffing with a purpose; she was happily following scent wherever it took her.

I have put together most of the video footage I have of her socialization process up to this point into a movie. As I mentioned above, there is very very little from the early days; what you will see is practically all I have.

Also,  the camera work is poor. It’s not easy to film a dog while holding a leash and having treats at the ready, particularly in the bright sun where you can’t even see what you have in the frame. I’ve edited out most of the parts where I didn’t even have her in the picture. (I finally realized that this was a situation in which shooting vertically made more sense. I was more likely to be able to get most of the dog and some of her environment!)

Hopefully, the footage gives a tiny window into the results (if not the process) of DS/CC. Once more, credit goes to my teacher. I would not have had the skill on my own to go slowly enough, read the situation well enough, or decide what activities to try next.

If the lack of loose leash walking raises questions in your mind, check out my post When Is It OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara at the Mall: The Movie 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 


You can see what a good time she is having in the video. What is not as apparent are the limitations on the situation. In the interest of transparency, here are some of them.

  • Her comfort level is partly specific to that particular shopping mall, although we recently started going to new locations and she has done great. It has been amazing to watch the classical conditioning generalize to other situations and locations.
  • She is more comfortable when our trainer is there.
  • She is more comfortable when a dog friend is there.
  • She is very curious about people, but she still may be bothered by some assertive (rude) behavior from humans: walking straight at her, locking eyes, saying “Oh, how sweet.”
  • We are starting to work on exposure to leashed dogs. She is not particularly inclined to dog reactivity, but she has almost zero experience meeting leashed dogs because we previously had to completely avoid the humans on the other end of the leash.

There are always more challenges, but I now have a dog whom I can take places and have her be very comfortable. More so than many non-feral animals, since she has had so much experience with such a variety of people and situations.


The last  few months have been among the most exciting in my dog training life. To see Clara walking down a crowded sidewalk, tail wagging, following whatever most interests her, is purely joyful. As it also was recently when we were on a walk in the country and solitary man popped up from over a hill ahead, approached, and stopped to talk to us for a few minutes. Clara stayed relaxed as he approached (his sudden appearance and approach would have have been startling to many dogs), watched him and wagged as he talked to us, and finally lay down on the pavement beside me until we were finished talking. Priceless. I hope you can enjoy this with me.

Related Posts:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* A reader has suggested that a warning about feral dogs and puppies would be appropriate, and I agree. I have never mentioned this. It is a dangerous undertaking to capture and take in a wild dog. There is a bite risk from adult dogs, and a large risk of transmittable diseases, including rabies, from puppies. The risks are to both humans and other dogs in the household.

I do not recommend that an individual take these risks. I was ignorant, and my dogs and I were very lucky.

32 thoughts on “Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

  1. Eileen what an amazing transformation!! I am truly happy for you and Sara. There is something that one cannot put into words when you have helped an animal to cross over from fear and insecurity into balance and confidence. Perhaps pure joy would fit.

    1. Joy it is, Gwen. I am SO glad you can see what happened with my dog, and so appreciate your comment.

  2. Very well done Eileen. I am curious about one thing; how did you end up with a feral puppy? Was it on purpose? Sadly we see many of these dogs in our school and they are often sold to well meaning people by rescues who don’t understand the signs of fear in the dogs they remove from dumps, beaches and third world countries. I have had about fifty Clara’s through my hands over the past five years, and the families are invariably surprised that their puppy isn’t normal after an eight week puppy class, or even after living in the family for years.

    1. There was a feral litter in a woodsy area in my neighborhood. I had seen the four pups once before and knew roughly where the dam was keeping them. Someone was feeding her. Two of the pups were marked like Clara, the others black and rust (roughly like a Dobe) One night one of my dogs barked in the yard like a maniac, and I found one puppy outside my fence. I couldn’t catch her. She snarled when I came closer. I went back in the house to get baby food, then came out again and she was now in my front yard. Same thing. Avoidance, snarling. Wouldn’t come near the food, even when I set it down. I was standing by my front door with it open, taking a video (I was going to show my friend how I couldn’t lure the puppy). One of my dogs barked in the front room of the house, and Clara skulked on by me and into the house. She went straight for my friendly dogs (I kept one away!) and accepted me within the night.

      I was shocked to the gills the next day when she was still wild with every other human. But by that time she was mine. She had no other future.

      Thanks for the comment. The problem of ferals is a sad one. Many people, even if willing, would not be able to arrange their lives to give one a happy home. And they are just so perplexing. They *look* like dogs. But act like something else….

  3. You & Clara make it look so easy, but I know it wasn’t. She looks like quite the happy shopper. Having another person to help with the training process is critical. I think we could have progressed much faster if we had someone to help who really understood what was required of them. You have done a fantastic job with Clara, you both have reason to celebrate. It’s amazing what we can learn from these dogs.

    1. Thanks, Marjorie. I knew the rudiments of DS/CC, but no way would I have gone slowly enough on my own, nor would I have been able to read her well enough, or known which of many “next steps” to take. I’m very grateful to my teacher. Clara and I were both lucky!

    1. Thank you, Brenda. I have practically had tears in my eyes on some of our outings recently. Still can hardly believe it.

  4. I relate to this very much. Our Cane Corso was clearly not socialized properly. Because he was picked up by the dogcatcher during adolescence we can only deduce likely scenarios for his early life. The veterinary behavioralist thinks probably he was raised in a cage in a breeding operation and then dumped. We had a first bad experience with a trainer that exacerbated emergent behavioral issues and ended up with a large dog with big, sharp teeth who was extremely reactive to strangers (I.e. everyone except me and my husband). Through a long rehabilitation process, we have made lots of progress, and he is starting to accept strangers near him and acquaintances int he house, but it has been a long road and required a lot of compromises in how we live. I blog about our experience at I started the blog at the height of the aggression when I needed a psychological outlet.

    Great work with Clara!

  5. I happened on this forum when looking for any guidance for our puppy. I see everything you are doing and we are doing the same. We just have to be give her more time. We got her when she was 10 weeks – raised in the wild. Found by miners in Kentucky – so the story goes, after her other sibs and mother were killed by coyotes. She is definitely my daughters dog. Will do anything she asks within reason. She is still fearful of humans but if offered will take treats from their hands if our daughter is present. Loves other dogs without fear. She is still standoffish with my husband and me. She is food driven so will take treats from our hand. She will not let us touch her though. She comes when called – even us. Our daughter has her in training and works with her every day. We would just like her to get into our laps for a pet now and then. Time will tell. We are hopeful – she has a forever home regardless.

    1. Hi Judith! Cool that you are caring for a formerly feral dog. If you are on Facebook, you might consider taking a look at the Fearful Dogs group: . One thing that is pretty widely accepted is that if a dog is reluctant to have contact with a person, giving the dog treats won’t necessarily help them get more comfortable. Sometimes they get drawn in past their comfort zone. When my dog Clara meets a new person, _I_ give her treats. She associates new people with good things happening and can explore them at her own speed.

      Love your attitude towards your daughter’s dog. We can learn a lot from these special ones.

  6. I really appreciate your words. I have a nine year old feral rescue and our journey has been so inspiring since the fourth month of her life. Learning about Penny’s needs has been invaluable in my training of other dogs and assisting their owners.

    1. Jess: me too. It’s quite a journey, isn’t it? I appreciate your comment.

  7. Eileen, Thanks for this story. I live in a rural area where there are a lot of abandoned and discarded dogs. I am curently trying to socialize and train 3 feral dogs I am fostering for the local humane society. A female, who was probably a pet once, and her two 1-year-old feral born offspring. It started in January when the adult showed up on my porch starving. She was obviously nursing and just skin, bones and teats. I started putting food out and then the two older pups showed up, then a boyfriend (he was obviously someone’s recent pet and got adopted easily) and then a set of three younger pups. One I was able to find a home for, one died and the third I worked with and she was adopted at six months old. That left the mother and her two older “pups.” From observing the young set of pups, I noticed the mother had taught all her pups to hide from humans. It took me four months before I could touch the smallest of the oldest pair of pups. They now clamor for my attention and are learning house manners. I don’t think they will ever lose some of the survival behaviors. The adult female still goes hunting for mice and voles everyday. I tried to adopt her out, but she climbed a 5-foot fence to go hunting everyday and after I left she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. You have a lot of good information on this blog. My most pressing problem is the go crazy aggression the pups show to any unknown dog. The adult goes into a low growl that frightens even big dogs away. I have a lot of work to do before they can be adopted. I am wondering if you have any infromation on using harnesses vs collars on feral dogs. I have been trying harnesses because they are terrified of anything constrictive around the neck. The harnesses are not ideal as they are able to slip out by pulling back. (not to mention the harnesses they have chewed through. They chew them off each other if I leave them on.) Thanks again.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Wow, I am so impressed with the work you are doing with the dogs that find their way to you. When I was a kid we lived in an area in the country where dogs were dumped a lot. So sad.

      Those survival behaviors are amazing. My Clara could climb, jump, and scramble way past the ability one usually sees in a roly poly puppy. She jumped off my deck (12 feet) to get to the side of the house were I was when still a baby.

      About the harnesses–that makes it extra tough that they chew them off each other. But for basic harness or collar introduction, you can use desensitization and counterconditioning. This video shows it done with a muzzle, but you can transfer the process to a harness or even a collar easily:

      For resources about the aggression towards other dogs, you can check out the following:

      The Facebook groups both discuss the use of desensitization and counterconditioning for fear and aggression, and the CARE site lays out the protocol.

      Good luck, and bless you for the work you are doing with the dogs that are lucky enough to come your way.


  8. Hi! I am very frustrated with my dog. I love her very much. I believe she was feral and lived on the streets for a year. I rescued her from the shelter a year and a half ago. At that time they estimated her age to be a year old which makes her about two and a half years old. She is very untrusting of EVERYTHING ESPECIALLY PEOPLE. I’ve had her a year and a half and she still doesn’t trust me. The problem I’m having is that she will not come inside the house except at night. She has nowhere to get out of the rain and I have tried for several hours to coax her inside. She is not enticed by food. I even tried hot dogs and nothing works. I am unable to catch her. She will sit in the middle of the yard in a rainstorm looking at the door wanting inside but when I open the door she will maybe come to the door but will not come inside. She acts like she wants to come in but will turn around and walk back into the middle of the yard. I also need to bring her inside when service people come to fix my house. I am terrified of her getting out of the yard because she will never come to me and I will not be able to catch her. However when she does come inside she will lay next to me while I watch television. I have thought about buying a dog house for her and just leaving her outside all of the time. The problem is that I don’t know if she will be afraid to use it. I rescued her for me to have a companion and I want her to be in the house with me some of the time. When it’s a nice day I have no problem with her being outside most of the day but I need to be able to bring her inside. I have even had to cancel a veterinary appointment because I was unable to catch her to bring her. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Teresa,

      So sorry things are this difficult with your dog. First, if you can possibly afford a trainer or behaviorist who works with fearful dogs, that would be best. I can get you some resources on finding a good one if that would help. Second, if you are on Facebook, go to the Fearful Dogs group. It is public and you can view all posts. If you want to join to post yourself, you need to watch a webinar ($10) which is extremely worthwhile. It alone can help you get on the right track. That group, run by Debbie Jacobs, is full of people who are working with dogs as difficult as yours may be. Debbie also has a website, It’s full of info, and she also does phone/Skype consults I’m pretty sure. Good luck! I hope this helps.

  9. My name is Derek Cotton. I own a business called The Grateful Dogs. I specialize in socializing and training dogs and cats. Recently I have started working with many of these feral/pariah dogs and I found your article very helpful and have shared your story with many of my clients to help show them the type of commitment required to rehabilitate their animals. Thank you, and well done! You should be very proud of yourself.

    1. Thanks Derek! I’m glad the article is being put to good use! All credit for our success goes to my teacher, but thank you!

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