January 15, 2021

Lessons from a Feral Dog


by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma


It all began on a cold, dark February evening in 2013. A dog so terrified that he was unable to move was carried into my home by his transporter, and set down on the rug in my hallway. Charlie arrived as my latest foster, but the combination of his extreme fear issues and the bond that swiftly developed between us, tenuous though it was at first, led to him becoming my latest adopted dog just two weeks from that date.

Lessons from a Feral Dog was originally the working title for my book which was published as Charlie, the Dog Who Came in From the Wild (Hubble & Hattie, 2015). Prior to his arrival, the only information I had about Charlie was that he was on his way over from Romania with no-one to take him in, and that his left eye had been removed. Little did I know at that time that Charlie would become my greatest challenge and teacher; that he would put to the test all my experience and knowledge as a behaviourist; and that the rehabilitation of this fearful feral dog, my ‘wild soul’, as I called him, would lead to one of the great love affairs of my life, and would help to change the lives of many other dogs all around the world through his story.

Charlie and Lenny in the wild

Domestic life was a huge challenge for Charlie for quite some time. I soon discovered from his rescuer in Romania that he had been sighted in fields over a 20 month period, with another dog, and that he was captured after suffering a serious eye injury. Charlie was very different to the street dogs who are free-ranging but accustomed to the presence of humans and traffic. His nature was feral, and to understand this it’s important to explore what that means.

Usually we use the term ‘feral’ to describe a dog who has lived in a home, or in close proximity to people (an ‘owned’ dog), but who has been abandoned, or strayed, and has no choice but to fend for himself in order to survive. Yet there are many feral dogs, like Charlie, who are born to free-ranging mothers, away from humans; who have no experience of domestic life, and whose lack of experiences of living indoors among people during the critical puppy period means that they haven’t developed the coping skills that our home-bred dogs have for the onslaught of sounds, smells, sights and objects that home-bred dogs accept as part of life. To be kept in an enclosed room; to hear voices close by; the sounds of electricity buzzing through the wires in walls; exposure to vacuum cleaners; fridges humming; cutlery clattering; washing machines whirring and shuddering; phones ringing; music playing; the doorbell; the printer; air fresheners; perfume; furniture; all of these are unfamiliar and very scary to a dog used to the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world that was his previous home.

Feral dogs find their loss of freedom and autonomy difficult to adjust to. Their brains are wired slightly differently because their only exposure is to the life of the wild. Fearfulness towards humans, usually exhibited through avoidance, is common, and we know through scientific research that a fearful mother will give birth to fearful pups; it’s a combination of genetics and biochemistry.

Soon after Charlie came to us, I contacted scientist Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, because I could find no research papers on the domestication/socialisation of feral dogs and I felt it would help me to help Charlie if I understood his background better. Marc told me this was because nothing had yet been written, that the first study into this was currently taking place in Milan, Italy, with a feral dog called Parsifal whose behaviour was very similar to Charlie’s. He sent me some papers about the feralization of domestic dogs, which was working from the opposite perspective but which helped to expand my understanding considerably. Subjects such as conspecific scavenging, social organisation, oestrous and mating habits, temporal resources, and roaming range provided an inner picture of how Charlie had most likely lived before his capture. Ultimately, Marc wrote a beautiful Foreword for my book about Charlie.

Charlie needed a great deal of help to learn to adjust to his new life. I used the Simpatico method that is the basis for the courses at my global college, The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour. This employs science-based, force-free, compassionate methods that take a dog-centred approach, and that look for the causes of behaviours and the emotions that drive responses. I made sure that no pressure was put on Charlie to interact with us or with the visitors who we gradually introduced to our home. He had previously made all of his choices – where to go, which dogs he socialised with, where and when to rest, when to hunt or scavenge. These choices were removed after his capture. He couldn’t escape his new environment. He had to learn to accept wearing a collar, lead and harness. His meals were offered at times that I chose, as were his exercise times once he learned to cope with the terrifying sights and sounds of the road that lead to the field by our house. I ensured that some choices were always available to him. Physical contact was made at his invitation only. Beds were scattered throughout the house so that he could choose where to sleep. Charlie soon had a very fixed idea of where he felt most comfortable eating, so his food bowl was always placed in that spot. He never did choose to drink indoors, though water was freely available; instead, he preferred to have a bowl out in the garden. These choices were minor, compared with how he had lived before, but they contributed to his sense of wellbeing.

My first task was to teach him that I was worthy of his trust, and I did this though speaking softly, moving slowly, and giving him space to make his own decisions whether to interact. I offered food and water by hand during the first 24 hours, because he was frightened of the food and water bowls at first. I offered him alternatives to being subjected to attention from guests by asking them to throw liver treats away from them as they came indoors, so that Charlie could retreat to eat those while our guests came into the living room. He could then join us, or go into the garden.

At first he followed me everywhere at a distance, crawling on his belly and peeking anxiously around corners to see what I was doing. He howled, wolf-like, when the phone rang, when I used my printer, and when he heard dogs passing by on their way to the woods. His point of reference was Skye, my deerhound mix lurcher, who was six years old when Charlie arrived and had already been a calm, wise guide and mentor to many sad and frightened foster dogs and three elderly adopted greyhounds. Skye gave Charlie confidence, and the first time I saw them play together it brought tears of joy to my eyes.

I learned so much from Charlie. Trust has, to me, always been the vital foundation for any relationship, regardless of species, and trust must be earned and is a fragile gift. The least change would send Charlie into a state of panic, and I had to become constantly aware of what I was silently communicating through my body language and actions in order to avoid spooking him. There were many setbacks, and at times it felt as we took two steps forward and one backwards, but Charlie’s wellbeing was my responsibility, and patience, consistency and a calm demeanour eventually won through. I felt privileged when Charlie first clambered shyly onto the sofa to rest against me, and, later, when he overcame his fear of the stairs and came to sleep against my legs at the bottom of my bed every night.

Charlie displayed comic talents once his confidence in us grew. He would steal socks at any opportunity and run around, tail high, performing a triumphant dance. He would race around me in the garden, a huge tongue-lolling grin on his face, then engage Skye in a game of leap frog – with Skye, being tallest, leaping over Charlie’s back while Charlie ran beneath Skye’s belly. We laughed a lot. He slowly accepted the presence of other dogs, and made numerous friends. He charmed visitors with his antics and his sweet way of resting a paw in their laps.

Charlie passed away on the 27th April 2015, at the veterinary hospital where he went for an MRI scan after several weeks of being unwell. His loss was a terrible blow, and I still miss him deeply. My wild soul, my feral boy, was a shining light in my life.

Many street dogs and feral dogs are now being imported and sent to homes who are often not prepared for the challenges posed by the arrival of a dog who is scared and exhausted from the long journey overseas, and is in the throes of immense culture shock. Some dogs settle in very well; others struggle to cope with the immense change and need a great deal of help; some never do learn to fully adjust. As I mentioned in my book about Charlie, it’s important that we remain aware of, and true to, the definition of ‘rescue’, which is about giving a dog a better, happier life. It’s vital that prospective adopters are made aware that their new dog from overseas will most likely need a great deal of understanding, time, patience, and perseverance, as well as love. With this aim, I gave a presentation as a webinar entitled “Adopting a Street Dog”, that can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nb6ZuEJwyE&t=1021s.


About the author

Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is founder and principal of The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour (https://www.theiscp.com), founder of The Dog Welfare Alliance (https://www.dogwelfarealliance.com), co-chair of The Association of INTODogs (https://www.intodogs.org), and represents INTODogs within the Animal Behaviour & Training Council (https://www.abtcouncil.org.uk). She is the author of 33 books, the latest being The ‘Supposedly’ Enlightened Person’s Guide to Raising a Dog, co-written with Kac Young. Her article How to Acclimatize a Foreign Rescue Dog can be found at https://nickbenger.com/how-to-acclimatize-foreign-rescue-dog/

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