Since working with feral dogs, I stored up a lot of patience and apply it daily. I watch for tiny increments of progress and consider those my measurement of success. I ensure that the dog learns to associate humans with good things, things like gradual exposure to quiet human activity, avoid scary situations and adjust my behaviour to help the dog feel as safe as possible with me.
Then I start with positive training if possible. Feral dogs need lots of patience, consistency, routines, etc. Formal training can become possible as the fear subsides, or most of the fear.
I decided to take a chance on fearful Buddy because he started to trust me and will not run away but stayed with me when I’m with him. He is still fearful of sudden hand movements, so I started to shape the ‘sit ‘command with him. Every small movement he made toward a sit, I marked it with a soft “yes” and rewarded him. During the shaping process I implemented the verbal cue “sit”. It tested my patience to the extremes…. day after day for months of “Buddy sit” I admit I was at times frustrated and felt like a failure as a trainer. I felt like I want to stop trying because a fearful dog like Buddy is just not trainable. Teaching the “sit” command is usually quite simple, as dogs tend to sit naturally, but fearful Buddy is always ready to bolt when something is threatening to him.
So, I just dug deeper into my patience “bag” and went on with the training. I think I said “sit Buddy” thousands of times. About to give up one day, suddenly, out of the blue, after a verbal command, his backside went down on the ground with one front leg in the air. There and then I witnessed the most beautiful “sit” in a dog, ever! Nothing could describe my joy and until today he still gives me that cute “sit” when I ask him to!
I got brave and decided to shape a “down” behaviour with him. This took so much longer!
One day after feeling depressed as it was not working, I told him: “O Buddy, lets just leave it. If you don’t want to “down”, then don’t, its ok”, and as I started to leave, “viola” there he went slowly in a perfect down! I was ecstatic again!!!!!!! The best feeling in the world! To make sure I did not imagine it, I asked him for more and got 7 downs that day!
Until this day I believe he knew from the first day, exactly what I wanted from him, he just wanted to give me a hard time! Little Rascal!! Today he can sit, down, do nose work with foreign objects (he was always scared of it), sniffs out treats in a snuffle mat and I even do tracking with him in his run.
Fearful dogs are scared, but not dumb! Training them may take longer, but the rewards are tremendous! As long as you make sure your dog understands what you expect from him/her and are consistent with your actions and reactions and quick with the rewards, you are on the road to success!!
By Susan, Caregiver