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Living With a Feral Dog

By Lisa Tenzin-Dolma

My book Charlie, the Dog Who Came in from the Wild came out through Hubble & Hattie publishers in August 2015. I was interviewed on Talk Radio Europe about the book, life with Charlie, and the difference between feral dogs, street dogs and home-born dogs. You can listen to the interview here.

Dog with one eye

Street dogs are used to the presence of people. Some are born on the streets and learn to associate humans with food (and sometimes abuse). Others, who were abandoned, often follow people in the hope of finding the comfort of a new home. Life with a feral dog, especially one who was born in the wild, is very different to life with a street and home-bred dog. The combination of genetics, a constant struggle for survival, and little or no opportunity to experience close proximity with humans makes these dogs extremely fearful when faced with anything unfamiliar. Feral dogs mark out clearly defined territory, and defend this strenuously, because their survival depends on acquiring and protecting resources – food, shelter, and the safety that is gained through being with their chosen companions. They don’t tolerate strangers, and they need careful introductions before they will accept additions to the group. Unlike home-bred dogs and street dogs they’re not promiscuous when in season, and prefer to mate with dogs who are familiar to them; whether from their group or another group in the locality. Their range is small compared with that of wolves, and they prefer to stay within their territorial boundaries. The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the limbic system in the middle of the brain, is far more active in feral dogs than in non-feral dogs. The amygdala governs the heightened emotional states, such as fear and anger. It sends information to other areas of the cortex that spark off the freeze, flight, fight response through a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This makes feral dogs far more hyper-alert and reactive than other dogs.

Until recently no research had been carried out into the socialisation in a home (we can’t really call this ‘domestication’, because even feral dogs are classed as a domesticated species because of their past heritage) of a true feral dog. The only research had been into the feralisation of domestic dogs – how dogs become feral after being abandoned or lost, and have to learn to fend for themselves. Currently a study is being carried out in Turin, Italy, with a dog called Parsifal – the first of its kind. Scientist Marc Bekoff, who wrote the beautiful foreword to my book, sent me the papers he had co-written with Thomas Daniels about the feralisation of domestic dogs, their range, mating habits and way of life. These were to prove invaluable, as they helped me to understand what Charlie’s life must have been like before he was captured and sent to us. The insights I gained from these papers meant that I could more easily look at everything that was happening in Charlie’s life from his perspective, rather than from the perspective of a home-bred dog, or even of dogs who hadn’t grown up in a home environment, such as the ex-racing Greyhounds I had previously fostered and adopted.

So what was it like to live with Charlie? In the book I describe the first eighteen months of his time with us. During the first few months he was extremely fearful. Anything unfamiliar (sounds, scents, objects, people) sent him into a state of panic that was painful to witness. I had to do a great deal of work on earning his trust, and Skye, my Deerhound mix, helped immensely by taking on the role of Charlie’s mentor and constantly demonstrating how safe he felt with us. Hard-won trust was easily lost, and we had many setbacks. Yet the periods of recovery from these became shorter over time, and Charlie learned to enjoy life in a home. He bonded very strongly with my daughter, Amber, and I, and with Skye, but it took time and careful work to help him learn to socialise with other people and dogs and he needed to be protected from unwanted attention. A lot of work was necessary for his severe aggression issues, too, for several months. I had to make many changes to my lifestyle, and I wrote about these in the book, along with how we negotiated these changes and how Charlie gradually learned to cope with broader horizons.

The dog who emerged, once many of his fears had been overcome, was a mischievous, fun-loving, happy soul who had learned to enjoy life, despite the restraints that domestic life placed on him. And make no mistake – to bring a feral dog into a home is no different from placing any free-ranging wild creature in captivity. Charlie’s behaviours and responses were more wolf-like than dog-like for quite some time, and his wild nature was never completely suppressed. It manifested as ferocious loyalty, intense antagonism in the presence of unfamiliar stimuli, den-digging and howling sessions. Charlie’s dog nature, when it eventually surfaced, was extraordinarily affectionate, playful and loving.

The bond between Charlie and I was extraordinary. I loved him deeply for who he was, a wild soul transplanted to an alien environment, and there was never any question of trying to change his wild nature. To be party to Charlie’s transformation from feral to family dog was an honor and privilege that I will hold forever in my heart as one of the most powerful, special, and beautiful experiences of my life.


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