Friday, February 6, 2009

Taming the Wild Beast

By request, the protocol I wrote up for the use of the volunteers who are caring for the 200+ seized English shepherds in Billings, MT, altered for blog form. Operation New Beginnings is not the first time a community has been deluged with a massive influx of essentially feral confiscated dogs. Sadly, I've no expectation that it will be the last.

I sent this along a couple weeks ahead of my visit there. I was guessing at the emotional condition of the dogs, based on previous experience with hoarder/puppymill victims.

I was pretty much spot-on. The Montana dogs are overall more fearful and much less aggressive than I'd expected. This protocol is the right one for the vast majority of them. A few were already pretty social. These are the older dogs, and several of them have been positively identified as individuals that were bought from good breeders as pups. Usually, in hoarder/puppymill raids, it's the oldest dogs that are behaviorally the worst. But that early environment makes such a huge difference, we have seen the exact opposite in Billings.

I did not invent this. It is cobbled together from the experiences of animal trainers and rescue workers in many fields. The oldest reference to something substantially the same I have found was in a book about circus trainers, written in the 19th century. I simply drew the information together into one document, and imposed on my husband and dog to act as models for photographs. I think the photographs really make it, and wish I'd had room to use more in the printed version. Of course I really didn't have a fearful, feral dog to model the postures -- and if I had, I wouldn't have had the days or weeks to capture each stage as it happened. But Moe did very well in simulating what I wanted. He's a pro. (And yes, he has an agent. Sadly, not a lot of casting calls come up in Western PA.)

There are three big challenges for the people implementing it:

1. Most of the dogs are housed in three-dog stalls. The dynamics among the dogs can interfere with one another's taming in many ways. In many of the stalls, there's a door dog, a middle dog, and a corner dog. (This was how it played out at the start of taming; adjustments are being made as the dogs progress or fail to.)

The door dog rushes the door. He then either withdraws, paces, or in some cases, makes overtures to the person who enters.

The middle dog will sometimes back the door dog in the rush, sometimes not. He often spends the rest of the time a human is in the stall pacing or darting from corner to corner. A few will make hesitant overtures.

The corner dog stays in the corner.

Some stalls had three corner dogs.

In some stalls, my colleague Douglas reports, the boldest dog has started overtly suppressing the other two -- guarding the human. This is in some ways heartening -- a mark of progress. But it's also a real hindrance to the taming of the other dogs. We've suggested a number of ways to address this.

2. It's really, really cold. It's hard for the volunteers to sit still for an hour to read. Most are wrapped up in blankets. When I was evaluating the dogs, I would crouch in each stall for five minutes, write my notes, take photos, and then go straight to the next stall. There was one day it was so cold I could not do even that -- being still for five minutes at a time was too much. I was fine if I was up working my muscles.

3. Human nature. This protocol requires patience. One can go weeks with no apparent positive feedback from the animal. Patience is something that must be learned, practiced, drilled almost. It's the most difficult skill to practice. Then it gets harder because of the social environment. The volunteer who is working with a particular stall of dogs sees other handlers whose dogs have come further. Perhaps they are already ready to come out on a leash. His dogs are still in the corner. Why? Am I doing something wrong? Is this protocol not working? Of course the "advanced" dogs are most visible -- the dozens of other stalls that are populated with dogs just like his own are not in front of him. So the handler is tempted to rush. Make eye contact and start cooing. Grab hold of the dog who has just approached and pet him. Put a leash on the dog who has not started to follow yet. But they are not ready -- they need a foundation of trust before they can accept human leadership, and even the mildest coercion in the form of restraint can undercut that. Of course it's possible to restrain these dogs, and sometimes necessary -- a dog must be examined, treated, or moved. But it sets them back.

Anyway, here's the protocol, as it's being used in Billings, re-formatted for the web.

I will send a packet of Brandywine tomato seeds and some other garden goodies to the first person who can identify the three titles that Ken is reading to Moe in the illustrations. You are on your honor not to blow it if I've already told you. Check the comments for others' guesses.


Taming the Wild Beast

A protocol for gaining the trust of feral dogs, puppymill and laboratory stock, junkyard dogs, hoarding survivors, and other unhandled domestic dogs

When unhandled and feral dogs come into rescue and rehabilitation programs, it is counterproductive to treat them as if they were badly-behaved pet dogs, or ordinary abuse and neglect cases. Although these dogs’ genetics are those of domestic animals, their life experiences may be more like those of wild creatures. Before they can be trained, desensitized, socialized and civilized, they must be tamed. A tame animal is not one that refrains from attacking when cornered or restrained -- many wild predators freeze when trapped and handled -- a tame animal is one that voluntarily chooses to approach human beings, and will freely accept and solicit handling. Please keep in mind that “tame” does not equal either trained or safe!

Depending on the dog’s individual temperament and life experience, taming can take a few days or many weeks. During this period, it will normally be necessary to handle the dog for veterinary care, to transport him, etc. Since an untamed animal is very stressed by handling, it is best to keep these first interventions to the minimum required for his health and welfare. At all times, handling must be conducted in a professional, confident, smooth, no-nonsense manner; if a dog’s first significant intimate experiences of human handling includes fumbling, flinching, or openings for him to bite and make a person withdraw, the process of rehabilitation can be significantly complicated.

We recommend that an untamed dog be housed in roomy, clean, quiet, escape-proof quarters from which he need not be moved. If the dog is acclimated to the outdoor environment and circumstances permit, an outdoor run with appropriate shelter is preferable. If that is unavailable or the dog requires more protection, an indoor run or room, such as a dog-proofed garage or basement, is an option. It is unsatisfactory to house the dog in a crate or small cage. A large fenced yard is also unsatisfactory, as it permits too much opportunity for flight and panic.

Taming should be undertaken by one person who can devote time to the project every day. If there are multiple dogs and multiple caretakers, each person should work with the same animal(s) each day.

The key to taming is patience and self-control. It is a boring process. The most frequent source of setback and failure is a lack of impulse control in a human who tries to rush progress, or who overreacts to the dog’s first overtures and frightens it with intrusive enthusiasm.

If the dog is overtly aggressive, protective of his space, and willing to charge a person, this phase begins with the dog tethered on one end of the run. Remember that catching and tethering the dog is stressful and dangerous, and must be done smoothly, confidently, matter-of-factly. A daily dog-rodeo debacle is counterproductive. Ensure that the tethering is both secure and safe for the dog, and sit well out of range.

If the dog is aggressive, do not remove the tether until he no longer threatens; do not corner the tethered dog

Most dogs should be loose in the run. If it is an indoor/outdoor run, close the door so the dog can’t hide inside.

Take a chair into the dog’s run or room. Bring a worthwhile book.

Place the chair near the middle of the run, and against one wall. Orient yourself sideways to the dog if he’s tethered -- do not face him or turn your back to him

Sit in the chair.

Read the book aloud in a normal tone.

Frightened or unsure dogs appreciate, and will try to maintain, a sideways or offset orientation; frontal approaches are threatening in this context.

Don’t look at the dog, move towards the dog, coax the dog, or otherwise pay any attention to the dog. Continue to read in a normal tone and at a normal speed, whether the dog cowers in the corner, paces, approaches, darts and retreats.

Continue for one hour -- longer if you have abundant time -- then stand up and leave the run. If you can’t read aloud for the entire time, just continue reading silently. Take the chair or leave it. Be sure not to stand up suddenly if the dog is approaching you or making overtures.

Continue reading as the dog makes his first tentative overtures.

It may be that “nothing happens” on the first day. The dog may hide, pretend to ignore you, cower in a corner. “Nothing” may happen for weeks with certain dogs. Trust me, something is happening. It’s also possible that the dog will climb into your lap ten minutes after you sit down. This process has to go at the dog’s pace.

Eventually, the dog will begin to show interest. His initial approach may be hesitant. Keep reading! Don’t look up, make eye contact, sweet talk, or reach towards the dog. Just let him check you out.

Let the dog investigate you and gain confidence.
The dog may sniff you, put his head on your knee, paw at you, or rarely mouth you or tug at your clothes. Unless he is doing something that is actually dangerous, ignore him. If he starts getting too fresh with his mouth, stand up and if necessary, step towards him and require him to yield space to you. Don’t yell, threaten, or chase the dog. You have not earned the right to correct him.

When the dog begins making overtures, you may offer a hand for him to investigate. Do not reach towards the dog to “pet” him, and do not reach over his head or in any way loom over him.


Allow the dog to come to your hand from above; just hang it down to your side and continue reading. At this point you may offer some food from your hand; just remember to do it casually; don’t be surprised if the dog grabs the food and darts away, especially if he’s had a life of hunger. Sometimes the presence of food can slow down or stop the taming process, and sometimes it speeds it up a lot -- but grabbing food from a hand and darting away is not the behavior we are seeking. You can try holding a large hard biscuit and letting the dog chew on it while you hold it.

When the dog is coming to you immediately when you sit down, is initiating physical contact with you, is not darting in and scuttling away, does not startle when you move slightly or there is a noise or motion outside the enclosure, it is time to put the book down and start talking calmly to the dog and, when he comes in to you, very gently stroking him under the chin and on the throat. If he offers you his flanks or butt, you can stroke and scratch there, but don’t overreach or touch anywhere he doesn’t invite. Be very mindful of how threatening it is when a person reaches or leans over a dog’s head and back; while the dog will need to be desensitized to these actions later in his socialization and training, now is not the time.

Now put away the chair and encourage the dog to come to you anywhere in the enclosure. Crouch down in a stable position, oriented sideways to the dog. This is another time where it may be useful to offer food to some animals.

If using food, control the food to encourage the dog to stay with you. Don’t threaten with a frontal orientation.
Again, the idea is not to have the dog dart in, grab the booty, and retreat. The dog needs to come and stay, and show social interest in the human.

The goal is social interest from the dog; note how the human is crouched so he can get up quickly and smoothly.
Now begin moving around the enclosure. If the dog bolts from the movement, stop. If he becomes pushy, aggressive, or attempts to control your movement, move into his space and require him to yield the space to you until he is more respectful.

Move confidently -- not aggressively --into a pushy or rude dog and require him to yield space.

Do not loom over the dog or chase him, just require him to yield.

Never loom or chase; you will trigger the dog’s flight or defense response.
But it is more likely that the dog will be somewhat intimidated by your movements. Keep crouching at different spots and quietly encouraging him to approach; this is a good time to teach the dog his name.

The dog is ready to be taken out for leash training when he voluntarily follows a person around his enclosure, and no longer panics or bolts at a moving person.

The same person who did the taming should do the leash training. The best transitional training protocol is a following exercise done with a loose 15’ line; see First Friend Dog Training handout “The Foundation.”

Thanks to my patient models, Ken Chiacchia and Moe. We did not have a genuine wild beast available for photo illustrations; please be aware that Moe’s body language is only a trained simulation of an untamed dog’s possible postures. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in learning to understand and respond to canine language. Do not attempt a taming or training program if you do not have significant handling experience and skills. A “love” of dogs or ownership of many pets is not sufficient qualification for working with untamed or aggressive dogs. If you cause a dog to bite you with mishandling, it is the dog who carries the stigma. This protocol is derived from the experiences of security dog handlers, exotic animal trainers, professional dog trainers and dog rescue workers.

Copyright 2008. Heather Houlahan. First Friend Dog Training.

EDITED: If you would like a PDF copy of this protocol suitable for printing out, please email me at houlahan AT zoominternet DOT net and I will send it to you. Permission is granted to reproduce as long as credit is given.


  1. Sports Illustrated Dec 29,2008 issue

    Redemption by N. Winograd

    Man Meets Dog K. Lorenz

    Great protocol!

  2. HH, the talk over on pet connection was losing focus.

    Where do I look to find and review trainers with philosophies similar/like yours? Specifically, published performance/achievement and education bio's?

    The protocol you posted here falls in line with my personal thoughts on communicating with animals. I do not have experience, and am not sure I want to do more than be more effective in communicating with our dogs and the dogs and people in my flyball team.

    To this end, I think something of an internship would help.

    Now, to find someone 'round here...


  3. Sports Illustrated - the cover with Michael Vick's dogs

    by Nathan Winograd

    Man Meets Dog (a personal old favorite of mine)
    by Konrad Lorenz

    Elaine W.

  4. DQ'd due to previous discussions I'll stay quiet except to thank you for posting this. I'm sure a lot of people will find it helpful. Great job!

  5. It is impossible to overstate the patience the Taming Protocol requires. Some dogs will progress quickly. Others more slowly. The temptation to rush ahead, to "keep up with the Joness'", is almost overwhelming. What seems to help avoid that temptation is to keep the goal in mind.

    The goal of the taming protocol is a dog that chooses to solicit attention from humans he knows and trusts. Until the dog chooses to approach you and solicit your attention almost immediately on your entry, the dog is not tame.

    The goal is not to touch the dog, or collar the dog, or leash the dog, or take the dog for a walk. It is possible to do all of these things with many dogs that are still terrified of humans. Doing so only reinforces in the dog's mind that humans are scary, the opposite of what you want.

    Work with your dog, not your neighbor's dog, your trainer's dog, or some dog you saw on TV. Attend to your dog's needs. The gratification when he does solicit your attention is overwhelming.


  6. darnit, I got in to find the books had already been ID'd. :P (And I was all thinking the third one would trip people up. :P)

    May I print this protocol out for taking to a local shelter here in TX that deals with a lot of ferals? (Ferris- about a third of their dogs are feral or feral-ish.) It's much more clear than mine (and has pictures).

  7. Oops, and should have added - the PM foster that made me fall in love with collies (and today thinks he's Lassie :P) was brought around using essentially the same protocol (he had some handling that we didn't get to take as slowly as that and got xanax'd and shaved down twice (matts and giant spikey burr removal the first time; maintenance the second time since he couldn't be handled to groom him) over the 6 months it took before he would solicit any sort of physical contact. He came out of the cage in 2004 and is today a mostly normal dog, although he still refuses to sleep indoors.

  8. I could really use something like a pdf of this to give to our shelter director. We don't get many real feral dogs, but I suspect staff, with good intentions, pushes some too fast, with the result that they don't score well on their evaluation.

    There's a rescue safety net, but why mess them up further when patience and, as you so rightly call it, impulse control could maybe make things better?

    I always love a chance to do a little consciousness raising. And this post taught me some very useful things.

  9. Ack, it loaded before I'd signed it.

  10. Ah, Hornblower took all the sport out of it!

    I've edited the original post; anyone who would like a copy of the original PDF -- which I like better because I could do more flexible layout than I can on blogger -- please drop me an email and I will gladly send it. It prints out very nicely.

    houlahan AT zoominternet DOT net

  11. Eli, drop me an email and I might be able to hook you up.

    Two professional organizations to start with:

  12. Thank you for explaining this in a way that I can understand. Every time I think I know something about dogs, I find out I don't, really. And what I keep learning is about patience, not dominance, and watching and listening and learning from the dog.

  13. Brandywine tomatoes are totally overrated. Pruden's Purple (a Brandywine ancestor) is a much better pink tomato for PA.


  14. How exciting. Another controversy!

  15. Heather, I have a question regarding the protocol.

    I am partial to flat-crowned, wide-brimmed Stetson crushers. I have found though, that this makes some dogs uneasy. When around these dogs, I remove it. (Somehow my shiny bald spot seems less threatening.)

    I noticed your human model wearing an IACP ball cap, pushed back slightly. (So I started reviewing trainers, there, too.)

    Regarding hats, posture, and attitude when around untamed or unsure dogs, do you employ hard and fast headgear rules, or take it one at a time?


  16. Excellent question Eli.

    Ken is wearing a cap because it's bloody cold outside, and because I did not think of it when I set up the shoot. Of course Moe was not going to react to the cap. (I should mention that the "outtakes" from this shoot are quite amusing -- mostly Moe assaulting Ken because "Dad is acting silly, he must want me to leap into his lap.")

    When I went to Montana, I left my brimmed Filson hat at home, and also did not bring my favorite warm fleece hat with the "Viking" horns on the sides, which is much-beloved by my friends, but might have seemed odd to both the dogs and all the new people I was meeting.

    I figured either one might be a problem for these super-shy dogs.

    But I did wear a basic beanie-type fleece cap when it was bloody damned cold. (I mostly lucked out with the weather while I was there.)

    In general I'd just advise to avoid extremes (big floppy hats, ski masks, hats with beer holders) and also minimize change in your clothing from day to day.

    If a particular dog reacts to some item of clothing, or seems like he may be doing so, get rid of it for the taming period. He can learn to deal with such things later.

  17. This was so interesting to read as someone who has really just started reading about dog behavior, training, etc. I can't even imagine the patience involved, but neither can I imagine the reward when you feel that head in your lap the first time. Thank you!

  18. Maybe I'm being thick here but how was the owner handling these dogs for such things as routine grooming, vet care, etc? Is it a case of the dogs being accustomed to only one person or do we even know how they behaved around the owner?

  19. Handle? Grooming? Vet?

    What are these strange words you speak?

  20. Pretty much the same protocol that I used when I adopted my mustang and burro. I read Winnie the Pooh tho. In a San Diego spring, not a Billings winter. I am not worthy!

  21. I have just begun to foster two American Eskimo Dogs that were removed from the Kennewick, WA puppy mill. I had no idea what I was in for. These poor dogs. I have been looking for information such as you've given. THANK YOU!
    I had no idea where to start!

    Debbie Sandoval,
    Yakima, WA

  22. Great to find this kind of info for helping folks with fearful dogs.

  23. I live on a Reservation and have two feral dogs that come inside, eat, sleep, etc. This has been going on for several months. One of them is starting to let me pet her. I got a collar on her once too but she bucked so wildly it was useless. The male, about a year old, is making progress more slowly as he was even more afraid of humans. The first time he came inside I had to leave the door open for an hour if not longer. He is about a year old. His mother (a third dog) is completely people friendly, and I am fostering her for adoption. She sets a good example for the other two, but it is still such an incredibly long and difficult road. I'm not sure what the end result will be. I spend several hours in the evening with these dogs. I have a trap, rented from the humane society, sitting in my living room. I periodically try to trap one of the feral dogs to get him/her neutered/spayed. But they are so smart they step over the place where they are supposed to step to close the door. I try many other "tricks" as well... But they have figured out it is a trap and will barely enter it at all now. I also fear the trap would traumatize them and set back their progress. On the other hand, they really need to be fixed. Maybe I should forget the trap and focus more on getting a leash on them AND getting them to walk with the leash on. Maybe I should be a little more pro-active in that way. These guys' futures are at stake. The dogs around here starve and freeze to death. It is so sad.
    Cheryl Zeman
    Navajo Reservation, New Mexico

    1. I just rescued a feral/fearful pit from a woods near heavy traffic in Marietta, GA. This took me almost 4 months. He was very shy and fast and trap-smart. I tracked him, I wooed him. Nothing doing. The closest I could get was about 30 feet. Then, I watched an episode of Pit Bulls and Parolees where the set up a pen with chainlink sections held together with strong zip-ties. I had a fence guy build me a 10'x10' 6' high enclosure with a latch that shut securely. The latch is fool-proof and opens in 2-parts. I do not know what to call the latch, but will find out and post again with the proper name. We rigged a line from the door of the pen up over 2 tree limbs so that the gate could be shut by pulling on the line. I sat in my car for 3 nights to be sure that not only would he go into the pen, but that he would also go in while my car was there. On THE night, I had backup. I also had his fav stinky bait - catfood and sardines. I spiked it with ace (tranquilizer from the vet.) One guy in the passenger seat and one behind me. In he went after 2 hours of waiting, and BOOM, we shut the gate. We let him calm down and I went in with a fireplace screen for protection, duty gloves, and several pairs of Highland piper's socks, just in case. Once the screen was between him and me, the guys came in with an airline kennel. I got him on a leash pole ( not choke stick) and shoved him in. He is in my basement in a big pen and doing better every day. I hope this helps you as your dogs don't seem to want to get in the trap either.

  24. Thank you for this article. I am currently working with the last of a litter of feral puppies. 5 of them became tame over time, and I have one holdout. I will be starting a more structured plan with her based on these protocols. Thanks!

  25. Thank you so much for this useful info! The photos really help! I adopted a feral 1-year old corner dog (Husky-mix) about a month ago, and although she's progressed a great deal since we first met her a month ago, she still has a ways to go. She does great w/those in her "pack", but she's a nervous wreck around strangers and is still quite aloof. Patience is the word.

  26. I forgot that I'd already read this post and made a little comment back in July. Well, it hasn't quite been a year and Sasha (feral Husky-mix) has come leaps & bounds. So much so that I'm in the process of adopting another feral dog (Copper) that was in her litter. Now Sasha attacks me w/kisses, snuggles w/me on the couch, sleeps w/me on the bed, engages w/strangers (females usually, but males too sometimes!), takes in the scenery when in the car (sans crate), and walks around my apartment complex w/me w/out a leash (where there are no cars)! I can't thank you enough for this article! It was helpful when I first adopted Sasha & it's helpful now that I'm working w/Copper. Sasha & I have been visiting him every Sunday morning for the past couple of months; and we seemed to have hit a plateau until I laid down in his pen last week. Your post reminded me about key behaviors to keep in mind. Thanks again.

  27. Does anyone have an idea how to get two half feral wolf dogs, m and f littermates to a vet? We do not want to trap and traumatize and create a big setback.(if trapping were even possible-finding a large enough trap would be a challenge). The process described above is similar to how we (myself and daughter) have gotten them to a point they allow petting, but otherwise very shy, skittish, and living outdoors in our backyard (rescue story is another post). They are 120 and 85 lbs, 10 mo old, very bonded, and mating will become an issue. I cannot imagine how to get them fixed, unless they were anethesized, which one of us who could touch them could perhaps do by injection? I keep hearing that oral sedative is too risky, in that it could be either too much or too little to do the job. Thanks,
    Nancy so Cal

  28. So useful. Wish i had found this a year ago when got my feral pup. At one point i had a trained (sit, down, stay and leash) puppy that i couldnt pet or approach outdoors. It was months before i could walk up to and pet him without him bolting or nipping. Now he is simply an odd dog rather than wild but still acts like a feral with strangers. He goes to classes twice a week and is well socilized despite all his performances. One upside is he loves going to the vet and bounces all over people there, until he gets put on table then he nips anyone who pokes at him.


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