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How to Get a Feral Dog to Trust You

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Dog Behavior By Alisa Healy 8 min read December 1, 2023

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how to gain a feral dog's trust

Ever see a dog walking around alone? Most of us have, but before you try to take in the dog or transport him to a shelter, you need to assess the situation carefully. 

Not all wandering woofers are created equally, and some – such as feral dogs – may be quite suspicious of you. 

Feral dogs are fearful and avoidant of humans, which makes them hesitant to approach or interact with people. It may be possible to gain their trust with time and the right approach, though in most cases it’s likely not advisable.

We’ll explain the basics below, but always consider the risks and exercise caution.

Feral vs Stray vs Free-Ranging: What is a Feral Dog?

defining feral dog

So what exactly is a feral dog? How does one differ from your own dog? You may have heard other terms like stray or free-ranging as well. Let’s clear up what each of these terms means.

  • Free-Ranging Owned Dogs: These dogs are not confined to a home or yard, and are allowed to run loose. They receive food and shelter from an owner or the community.
  • Stray Dogs: A stray dog is one who was owned, but either escaped or was abandoned. Strays are no longer cared for by humans, though are sometimes caught and rehomed.
  • Feral Dogs: These are usually dogs who were not provided with close human interaction at a young age. As a result, they are very fearful of humans. Additionally, some dogs who’re cut off from human contact for a long period of time may develop a fear of humans, thereby making them feral. In both cases, these dogs are unowned and roam freely, but sometimes live near people and scavenge for food.

A dog might fall into more than one of these categories over his lifetime

For example, a stray dog may become feral and begin fearing humans if he becomes cut off from human contact for too long or if he joins a feral group. Or if a free-ranging owned dog wanders too far from their community, he may start being better described as a stray.

The Key Difference Between Feral & Stray Dogs

The defining feature of a feral dog is a strong, persistent fear of humans. He might benefit from the presence of people in the way of leftover food and shelter, but he avoids human interaction.

Should You Get a Feral Dog to Trust You? Is It Safe?

are feral dogs dangerous

The sight of a feral dog might tug at your heartstrings. You imagine him alone, hungry, and vulnerable. You want to help. 

But while you may have the best intentions, it’s critical to consider your safety and whether or not this is an endeavor you should undertake at all.

  • Feral dogs can be dangerous.  They’re likely to become aggressive if they feel threatened by the presence or behavior of a human, even if you mean well. This could result in serious bites, rabies, or even death. You could also pick up diseases, such as mange, parasites, or parvovirus, which can be passed onto your pets at home.
  • Intervening with these dogs raises ethical questions. If you’re considering trying to gain the trust of a feral dog, assess your motivations and the realistic outcomes of your efforts. Feral dogs are very different from pet dogs. They are accustomed to fending for themselves and are terrified of people. Will trying to win him over or tame him really improve his quality of life? Or will it add unnecessary stress to his existence?
  • Contact your local authorities. It’s probably best to not attempt to get a feral dog to trust you. If you’re concerned about one in your area, contact the local authorities, such as animal control. These are professionals who can deal with the situation safely.

Feral dogs are more like wild animals than pets. While you might think that their life would be better with a cushy bed to lay on, meals served in a bowl, and scratches behind the ears, these are foreign concepts to them. 

Even with time and patience, many feral dogs do not thrive in homes as pets.

Besides being very dangerous, your attempts to win a feral dog over might end up creating more distress in his already challenging life. 

It’s usually in the best interest of you and the dog to refrain from trying to gain his trust.

How to Get a Feral Dog to Trust You

trust of a feral dog

If you’ve decided to embark on the journey of gaining a feral dog’s trust, it’s critical to use smart strategies that keep yourself safe. Some folks have been able to successfully tame feral dogs, but the process can take quite a while. The outcome can also vary from dog to dog.

  • Make yourself non-threatening. Use non-confrontational body language to help communicate that you’re not as scary as the doggo may think. Turn to the side rather than facing him head-on. Avoid direct eye contact or staring (direct eye contact can make dogs nervous). Be quiet and move slowly. Make yourself a boring part of the environment, instead of trying to coax him into approaching you.
  • Keep your distance. Stray, feral, and other kinds of unowned dogs have a larger flight zone (a “bubble” of safety dogs will keep between themselves and a potential threat). When you move too close and invade the flight zone, the dog will flee. By respecting a feral dog’s bubble, you can demonstrate you’re a trustworthy person.
  • Let the dog approach you. While you may be tempted to close the gap between you and the dog, this will likely spook him. Instead, allow the dog to move closer to you if and when he feels ready. Letting the approach be the dog’s choice can help lower his stress.
  • Bring some snacks. Food can help a feral dog build a positive association with your presence. Feral dogs aren’t typically picky, so even a high-quality kibble will probably pique his interest. Set the dog food down, and then retreat to a safe distance where he can observe you while enjoying some goodies. Once you’ve established some trust, you could also toss chunks of food to him. Don’t use the food to lure him toward you, as that can backfire.
  • Keep your hands to yourself. Avoid reaching a hand out for the dog to sniff, as this can scare him and potentially trigger a bite. Additionally, do not pet a feral dog. Physical affection from a human is a foreign concept. While some of these dogs may grow fond of being petted over time, many never really enjoy it.
  • Tune into signs of illness or aggression. If you notice any signs of rabies, such as drooling, foaming at the mouth, disorientation, a staggering gait, growling, or snapping, leave immediately and notify animal control. Similarly, if the dog is displaying aggressive behavior such as barking, baring teeth, lunging, or rushing up, you should leave right away.

Let the dog set the pace of your attempt to gain his trust. If you routinely scare him with well-intentioned actions in hopes of showing him you’re a good person, it will only reinforce his fear and slow the process.

Above all, be safe. Don’t put yourself at risk for the potential of winning over a feral dog.

If you’re interested in befriending a dog, check out your local animal shelter. You may find fulfillment in volunteering with dogs who need extra TLC, or in adopting one into your family.

First thing’s first: Before you approach any unfamiliar dog, be sure you know how to read a dog’s body language.

Getting a Feral Dog to Trust You: FAQ

feral dog trust

Still have questions about gaining the trust of an unfamiliar floof? We’ll try to help by answering some of the most common questions people have.

How long does it take for a stray dog to trust you?

This can depend on the dog and how long he’s been a stray. It could take  anywhere from a few seconds to days or even weeks to gain a stray dog’s trust. As a general rule, the longer a dog has been loose, the more wary and fearful he becomes, making it harder to gain his trust or catch him.

How long does it take a feral dog to trust you?

Feral dogs generally take much longer to win over than strays. It may take months to years for a feral pup to truly trust you. Even then, the extent of his trust in you can be limited. For example, he may be comfortable laying next to you, but not being touched. Some will never trust humans, despite your best efforts.

Can a feral dog become a house pet?

A very small number of feral dogs have successfully become house pets, but it’s not common nor advisable. Not only does it put you, your family, and your community at risk, but these kinds of pooches generally do not make enjoyable pets. They may be shy, skittish or even aggressive throughout their lifetime as a pet.

Are feral dogs dangerous?

Yes, these dogs can be dangerous. If they feel threatened by a person, they may react aggressively. These kinds of canines have killed adults and children, as well as pet dogs and other animals. Most of them keep to themselves, but they do pose a risk, especially if provoked.

   

Gaining the trust of a feral four-footer is not an easy task. By following the tips we’ve shared and sprinkling in a ton of patience, you may be able to develop a level of trust with a one.

However, before you embark on this endeavor, first really question if it’s safe or responsible to do so in the first place. Consider the safety risks to both you, your community, and your other pets. Also, rely on the expertise of professionals, such as animal control, to intervene when needed.

Do you have unowned dogs in your area? Have you ever tried gaining their trust? Or are you just thinking about getting started with the trust-building process?

Tell us all about it and ask any questions in the comments!

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Written by

Alisa Healy

Alisa is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and Licenced Family Dog Mediator (LFDM-T). She is the owner and trainer of Dog Forward Training, where she specializes in helping people raise puppies to be awesome adventure companions. Alisa has learned a lot about animal behavior through working with shelter dogs and training a variety of species at a wildlife rescue. She and her husband currently live in the Chicago suburbs with two pups, who are the best agility teammates and hiking pals she could ask for.

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