Maya Rae McCallum MISAP 

Helping dogs and people stay together


You’ve seen the pictures, you feel sorry for the dog, you want to give him/her a better life. That is a perfectly normal compassionate human response when faced with dogs and puppies living hard and dangerous existences on the streets; unwanted, hungry and alone. We want to help. Of course we do – we are dog-loving humans who rightly believe that all animals deserve safety and peace. So you choose your dog via several visits to the shelter or by way of pictures and perhaps short videos if coming from overseas.

An adopter might place their requirements thus:

  • The dog should not grow too large
  • The dog should be friendly towards people and good with children
  • The dog should be friendly towards other animals
  • The dog should never show any form of aggression
  • The dog should be completely house-trained

Some potential adopters go further and add:

  • The dog should be able to be left alone without destroying furniture
  • The dog should be trained in obedience
  • The dog should walk well on the leash
  • The dog should never run away
  • The dog should protect property and people if required but should still be friendly

What a list to pin on the tail of a poor soul coming from a wild, aversive, lonely existence where most of his days are spent trying to survive. I would go so far as to suggest that anyone with this list of requirements would be better off buying a cuddly dog toy!

It is unlikely that dog coming from rescue can fulfil

even half of the above requirements

Please remember that dogs, feral in particular, have within their DNA the innate drive to survive, protect and defend (resources and territories) and the importance of these will change depending upon what is happening at the time eg if a dog has just eaten the survival instinct (food resource) may be less important than protection (keeping others away from the remainder of this resource). 

Dogs coming in from a feral background must be

micro-managed in the home for the safety of

others and themselves

If your rescue dog remains reactive to any type of trigger (not always red zone) this means he has not been taught to look to the handler as  not only leader but the giver of all good things - in other words dogs learn if they want a resource (food, toys, human attention etc) it is the handler who provides these things. When this understood then a dog will be less likely to go in search of these things himself and enjoy his place in the pack.

Consider this: dogs (other than out-and-out aggressive dominants which make up a very small percentage of canines although it does exist)  generally do not seek to be leader of the pack. In the feral world a pack without a leader cannot survive so in the absence of a definable leader (in the dogs eyes) means he will step up and take on the role himself simply because he sees a 'job vacancy'. 

Think about the life of the canine leader in the wild, it is fraught with danger every hour of every day. He is responsible for the survival of not only himself but every member of the pack. On the plus side the leader will have the best food and shelter but he pays dearly for these advantages. Whenever they go out on the hunt it is the leader who is most likely to be hurt and if he is seriously wounded his life in the pack is over. He has younger, fitter would-be leaders  snapping at his heels and watching his every move, he has the responsibility of allocating resources including food for those unable to hunt eg nursing mothers and puppies. The life of a feral dog is unimaginably hard and for the leader who has a pack relying on him, it is harder still.  Many ferals become renegades and lone hunters for this reason but the drive to see off whatever is perceived as a threat remains.

That being said, where is the safest place? The middle of the pack. The happiest dogs are those in the middle. There they are given instruction (training) in hunting expeditions and their part therein, they are assured enough food when the hunt has been successful and if it is not they know the leader is hungry right along with them. The decision of where to live, how to create the best shelter, how to recognise and avoid threats and dangers whilst keeping the pack safe rests with the leader and the transition from the feral world to life in a domesticated environment (sometimes in another country) can prove extremely challenging.

You see it is not enough to simply rescue a dog. We have to teach him a different way of being   so that he adjusts to his new environment. How to do we know a dog is acclimatised? He has understood that the handler is his leader now and he/she can and does provide all resources and protects him from danger (remember that real or perceived threats are the same in the canine mind).  Until this happens a dog will consistently fall back on the established pattern of behaviour which has kept him alive the whole of his life. This is true of all rescued dogs, not just those from abroad.

After a few weeks familiarisation time, is imperative that boundary work, using positive reinforcement techniques, be trained in. The dog must see and respect you as handler,  mum/dad, friend, giver of all good things and ultimately the leader who keeps him safe (so he doesn’t have to do so himself) and he can be guided towards what behaviours are required. For this to occur successfully you may wish to enlist the aid of a behavioural management trainer who will assess, advise and guide you through a bespoke process of helping your dog. If your dog is fairly balanced but requires leashwork and socialisation he may do well in a group class setting.

Finally, please understand the above explanation has no bearing on the alpha pack theory, debunked many decades ago.