How can I help an unsocialized stray dog make friends?

Dear Sinéad and Siouxsie:
I need help. I have a wonderful cat which we all love very much, but we have a problem. We are feeding a stray dog who is not socialized and has been here for months. No matter what we do, he is very wary. We were hoping to socialize him to get him a home, not here. That's what puss says--not here. We cannot figure out why the dog will not make friends with us or our neighbors who also feed him. We must find a way to get him a home, as the dog pound has already been out looking for him and set a trap. Of course, he won't go in it. That's good. But his time is running out and he is so sweet, we would like to find him a home. He is outside in the cold weather and you cannot entice him in. Any thoughts or help you can offer will be deeply appreciated.

Thank you!
Joyce

Sinéad: Well, Joyce, there are two reasons we can think of why a dog would be wary of humans.

Siouxsie: First, he may have been abused by humans at some point in his past.

Sinéad: Second, he could have been born a stray dog and therefore be "feral," or not socialized to humans.

Siouxsie: Either one of these reasons will cause a dog to react to you and your neighbors as this dog does. However, one is easier to remedy than the other.

Sinéad: If the dog was abused during the first 12 weeks of his life--his critical socialization period--he may eventually learn to trust humans. But it will take a lot of patience on the part of the humans who retrain him.

Siouxsie: Like humans who were abused or who survived combat or disasters, dogs can get post-traumatic stress symptoms. If something triggers the dog's abuse reaction, he may regress back to his wild state for any time from a few minutes to months.

Sinéad: It's a risky proposition for a human to take on retraining a dog who was abused, particularly if the dog is large and strong. Post-traumatic reactions can include violent behavior such as biting, growling, or attacking, and any human who takes on rehabilitating an abused animal should be aware that they are taking this chance.

Siouxsie: Families with children should think very carefully about adopting a dog who was abused. Children can provoke strong fear reactions in dogs because it's the nature of children to be playful and rough-and-tumble. Most of the time, children mean no harm, but the dog won't know that. He'll react as if he's being threatened.

Sinéad: While it's true that the vast majority of dogs who came from abusive situations do become wonderful family pets who wouldn't hurt a fly, dogs who are very sensitive or who were at a very impressionable stage in their lives when the abuse happened may not be so lucky.

Siouxsie: An abused dog's case is not hopeless. Not by a long shot. But anyone who plans to give a home to a dog who needs psychological and social rehabilitation needs to understand the commitment they're making and the risks they're taking.

Sinéad: If the dog is feral, he never saw or interacted with humans during his critical socialization period. Feral dogs will most likely never properly socialize with humans and their behavior will be unpredictable. They may look like sweet domestic pups, but they are really wild animals, and people should no more approach a wild dog than they should a wild bear or coyote.

Siouxsie: Speaking of coyotes, we should mention here that dogs can breed with other wild canids such as wolves and coyotes. Although this sometimes happens by accident, some people actually try to breed wolf-hybrid and coyote-hybrid dogs.

Sinéad: We think this is a very bad idea for a number of reasons. First, wild-hybrid dogs retain more of the wild behavior of their wolf or coyote parents. This makes them a bad match for living with humans.

Siouxsie: Second, wolf hybrid dogs--and probably coyote hybrid dogs, too--cannot be successfully vaccinated against rabies.

Sinéad: Since rabies is present all over the United States, and it is an incurable and inevitably fatal diseaase, this is a serious problem. Many states and towns have laws forbidding people to own wolf hybrid dogs for this very reason.

Siouxsie: Wild dogs will react in a wild manner if they are threatened. That means they will attack and/or bite if they feel frightened enough to do so. That makes wild dogs a public health threat.

Sinéad: It confuses us that you think it's a bad thing that the "dog pound" is trying to catch this dog. If this dog is brought to a shelter, he will be fed and nursed back to health, and he will be screened by a behaviorist, who will figure out whether this dog can learn to trust humans again.

Siouxsie: If this dog is untrainable or feral, he will be humanely euthanized. Some people refuse to bring animals to a shelter for this reason. They're afraid that the shelter will "just kill them." But frankly, there are some animals that should be euthanized. Animals that are clearly suffering from pain and disease and don't have a good quality of life outlook should have their suffering ended.

Sinéad: Animals whose behavior is unpredictable and potentially violent around people or other animals should also be euthanized. This reduces the public health hazard of a wild and possibly diseased animal causing harm to people. It's also more humane to euthanize an animal than to let it freeze and starve to death.

Siouxsie: It is true that most shelters in large population areas will euthanize animals if they are not adopted after a certain number of days. But it's the only way that these shelters can ethically deal with the unending flood of stray animals coming through their doors every day.

Sinéad: No shelter workers like to euthanize perfectly healthy animals--or even sick ones! People don't work at shelters for the money. They do it because they love animals. And they are genuinely trying to do their best for the creatures in their care under circumstances that are sometimes very difficult. Many shelter workers in large metropolitan areas learn to try and understand that it's more humane to euthanize an animal than to let it live on the streets or in squalid, overcrowded circumstances.

Siouxsie: Mama says it would break her heart if she had to euthanize animals as part of her job, and she says it takes a lot of strength and courage to love and care for an animal that you know you're going to have to put down if it isn't adopted after a certain number of days.

Sinéad: If you are adamant about not letting this dog be euthanized under any circumstances, maybe you and your neighbors can entice the dog into a humane trap, find a no-kill animal shelter in your area, and take him there. If you can't get the dog into the trap, perhaps staff members from the shelter or the local humane society can capture him with control poles and deliver him to the no-kill facility.

Siouxsie: The organization Save Our Strays has a comprehensive list of no-kill animal shelters in the United States at their website. We saw that there are quite a few in North Carolina, so you should be able to find one in your area.

Sinéad: Shelter Search is another website that helps people connect with no-kill animal shelters in their area. However, their list isn't as comprehensive as the one at Save Our Strays.

Siouxsie: Good luck, Joyce. And we hope that you and your neighbors will try to understand that the dog pound people are doing what they believe is best.

Sinéad: We know it's been a while since you wrote your letter--we had a pile of others that we had to answer first--so please let us know what's going on with the dog now.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.