Feral vs Stray

One of the main questions I get is, “How hard is it to rehabilitate stray and feral dogs?”First, it is important to define “feral.” I have heard the words “stray” and “feral” used interchangeably, but let me be clear, there is a big difference between the two terms.

A feral animal is one that is untamed or wild. Think of a feral dog as one that was born in the wild, not unlike a wolf or a bear. Feral dogs have never had contact with humans, or if they have, they have learned that humans are just a part of their environment. They do not depend on humans, and have no need for them as they have learned to become self-sufficient and adaptive to our world, not unlike other wild animals. Even if humans do provide their food source, they do not make the association as they see a person’s porch, yard, bowl of food placed out or trash can as just another part of their environment.

Feral dogs typically have excellent dog skills and are confident with being a dog. They are not always afraid of humans, but will often stay away from them as, again, humans are not powerful to them or are not part of their pack. You will often find feral dogs with one or more other dogs or even as a family. Like any other wild animal, feral dogs are not always aggressive, but will protect themselves if confronted. They are extremely intelligent in regards to survival; they are very adaptive and know no other way of life. Feral dogs acclimate to their surroundings, and take advantage of what is put in front of them. These dogs do not depend on humans, and are simply a part of the culture and environment.

The United States has a much smaller feral dog population, however, they do exist. These feral dogs are often born in the “wild” and have never had human contact. Feral dogs do not typically live as long as their domesticated counterparts, however, they also do not necessarily lead unfulfilled lives. This is because they live as any other wild creature, and do not know the life of a domesticated pet dog. I know it is difficult to look at a dog as you would a deer, fox or even a bear, but that is the mentality a feral dog has. A truly feral dog should be approached with caution.

There are thousands of strays with the inability to care for themselves. This is because these dogs have had to depend on humans at some point in their lives. Strays have at one point had contact or some socialization with humans and other dogs. Whether or not these dogs trust humans depends on the interaction they had with humans before they became stray. Strays may have been raised with humans for months or even years, and may have become stray due to natural disaster, neglect and abandonment by their human, becoming lost or any other reason. Many will try to adapt to their environment but in reality their lives are much shorter than a feral dog only because they do not have the survival skills that feral dogs have. Many strays also have a lack of socialization with other dogs, and may have poor dog language skills that would allow them to join a feral pack especially bait dogs. Strays are typically more fearful than feral dogs, and are more likely to show symptoms of fear such as snapping, biting and avoidance. Some strays have a different mentality when it comes to humans. They have jumped in people’s cars, eagerly approached any human or even to decide that your yard is their new area. Their behavioral issues depend on their previous experiences. As soon as these dogs are introduced to their new foster or adopted home, training must take place to build a trustworthy relationship between a stray and humans.

If a stray is exhibiting fear and confidence issues, they benefit the most from having a leader that can positively introduce them to the domesticated world that they are now living in. They do not benefit from being babied, enabled or by having their fear based behaviors rewarded.

Both stray and feral dogs find some behaviors threatening at first until you have built the proper relationship with them.

• Eye contact can be dangerous

• Do not turn your back to them

• Do not back them into a corner

• Do not chase them

• Do not invade their space, let them come to you

Things to do to build the proper relationship with a stray or feral dog

• Be a positive leader

• Make the occasional sound with your mouth to get their attention

• Keep treats in your pocket so you can reward them the moment they exhibit a desired behavior

• Teach them things, this builds confidence

Remember that we cannot ask feral and stray dogs to mentally grow if we do not give them the opportunity to do so. Celebrate the small accomplishments, those lead to big accomplishments!

Please do not hesitate to contact me with your questions or concerns. Being a certified canine master trainer, dog behaviorist, and dog behavior modification specialist, my main priority is dogs.

Thank you all of rescuers, adopters, volunteers and fosters for saving so many of these dogs lives. You make the world a better place!

Sarah Gill

Total K9 Focus


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