Although they share a 99 percent genetic match, wolves remain wild, while dogs are domesticated. A feral puppy isn’t a wild animal; he’s simply learned to survive as one. His inherited instincts play a role in his survival. These same instincts also make him want to be part of a family or pack. He can be a part of yours, but the socialization window is short, and your patience must be long.
On average, the socialization period for a puppy is between 4 and 8 weeks of age. His five senses are developed, and this period plays a key role as he is introduced and desensitized to sights and sounds by his mother. Exposure to kind human contact during this period is crucial in order for him to be well adjusted. Some believe this window is open up to 16 weeks of age, and tell stories of older dogs with a bad start in life being rehabilitated. Every circumstance is different. What’s consistent is that a feral requires professional training, and an owner willing to commit in the long term.
A feral puppy is in the same category as a dog that has been abused. Abuse isn’t always pain-inflicted; neglect is a form of abuse. Neglected dogs may be given food and water, yet cruelly left without meaningful human contact. These dogs may not know a harmful touch; however, they don’t know a kind one. Taming a feral puppy requires the same approach as reconditioning a neglected dog, a dog who is scared, insecure and unsure of humans.
A great helper for a feral puppy is a well-adjusted adult dog. This gives him a trusted pack mate, and he will learn by watching. Without another dog, it’s important to remember the puppy is learning from you from a dog’s perspective. It is human nature to train a fearful puppy by getting down to his level with a handful of treats. This is not the best way to help his future behavior. You're thinking like a human, while he isn't. Not only are you down on his insecure level, you are also rewarding bad behavior every time he retreats.
Dogs instinctively follow a hierarchy. This gives them order and security. Establishing yourself as a leader through body language is imperative, because this is the language he reads. Show indifference to him by not making eye contact, or attempting to touch, and a leader would never get down to his level. Showing indifference tells him he is welcomed, since he is not being confronted or chased away. Putting down food says you’re providing. When he gets near enough to sniff, allow him without acknowledging. When he’s comfortable enough to sit nearby, reward his good behavior.
The older the puppy, the lower the odds he can be tamed. But this doesn’t mean a long shot never wins. His general personality, the severity of his early days, and the time devoted to him with professional trainers or behaviorists all play a part. If you see a feral in your neighborhood, unless he’s a young puppy small enough to safely cover with a thick towel and scoop up, do not attempt to capture him. Leave it to those professionally trained. Not only will the dog fight if cornered, but he is also a potential rabies carrier. If you do capture a feral puppy and are willing to work to rehabilitate him, the first step should be a thorough checkup at the vet.
- UMass Amherst: Study May Explain Why Wolves Are Forever Wild, But Dogs Can Be Tamed
- Cannon Veteriary Services: Inherited Traits of Domestic Dogs
- Pet360: Adopting an Abused Dog
- Pet Health Network: Puppy Socialization and the Sensitive Period: When Is It, and Is It Important?
- Dog Training Central: All Puppies Need Socialization
- Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images