Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

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 end 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 read, 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.

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.'

About Eileen Anderson

About eileenanddogs: Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. See more at
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3 Responses to Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

  1. Pingback: Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog | Modern dog t...

  2. Nice job Eileen. Thanks for sharing your ideas for specific exercises and the descriptive results. This does work, if people take the time and follow instructions. And patience is not just a virtue…but an essential part of the protocol.

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