In Defense of Feral Dogs

It’s hard to love something that doesn’t love you back. It’s even harder when you try to connect and that connection isn’t reciprocated. In today’s society we are in such a hurry to accumulate connections, that we exclude those that require more effort or patience. We are excluding feral dogs, and for some that means the end of their lives.

Feral dogs are not wild though it may not be easy to determine that from observing them. They avoid human contact, usually sneaking around houses or towns to find food but otherwise fleeing when attention is brought to them. They can be easily mistaken for coyotes, wolves, foxes, coydogs, and coywolves by people who are not familiar with any of these animals. Usually these misidentifications lead to the dog being shot or trapped. Not all feral dogs are harmless however. Some will harass or kill livestock such as chickens, ducks, geese, and sheep.

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Most feral dogs have experienced little to no positive human contact. Similar to feral cats, dogs who do not experience proper socialization with people will be suspicious of them and avoid contact whenever possible. Feral dogs are not just free-roaming. Dogs can live in a feral state restrained on a property or in a home. These dogs received little to no positive engagement with people usually due to hoarding, tethering or penning of the dogs, leaving them with little positive contact.

One of the challenges for feral dogs is that there is little room for them in most modern communities. Homeowners don’t want their garbage dug into, feces on their property, or a strange dog in close proximity to children and other pets even if the dog is not a serious risk to anyone. Feral dogs also have shortened life spans due to disease, poisoning, being mistaken for other canids, or being struck by cars. The life of a feral dog is hard, but is the life of a feral dog brought inside any better?

It is important to remember that feral dogs are still domesticated animals. Feral dogs fall into a very old historical niche that allowed dogs to survive around humans for tens of thousands of years. They are different from street dogs and village dogs found internationally. Usually feral dogs are individuals or a small group of offspring from previously owned dogs. Undersocialized and separated from other populations of dogs, they live in a state of survival, cautious of what is safe and what could harm them. Meanwhile street dogs and village dogs are comfortable drifting in and out of interactions with people, and some, depending on the location, are even “owned”.

If a feral dog isn’t dispatched, it is usually picked up by animal control or a rescue organization with the goal of finding the dog a home. However it is not the goal of every organization. A growing number of organizations advocate that feral dogs do not make good pets and should be euthanized for their own welfare. While a painful stance, these organizations are not inherently wrong. The life of a feral dog plopped into a random suburban household is not always a good one. But I argue that euthanasia should not be the default solution either. A dog trying to survive on its own is not a dog yearning to be released into death. To capture it and euthanize it is simply relieving us of trying to find a more appropriate solution that actually benefits the dog and honors our ancient relationship. We already do this with feral cats, though I am aware that homes for them are still few and far between and cats can be released into neighborhoods with less concern than to do so with a dog.

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Finding a place for feral dogs is challenging. Their name carries with it a cultural taboo. Feral denotes wild, unloving, unsafe, disconnected. Who would want to live with that. The vision of the modern human-dog relationship is supposed to be one of devotion, obedience, and love, the complete opposite of what we think when we picture a feral dog. So to find someone who wishes to simply adopt a roommate, a beating heart and a set of eyes, that will suspiciously watch you, trying to know if you are safe or not, who will likely never snuggle, or lick you, or enjoy being touched, is a tall act.

Sharing a home with a feral dog is a humbling experience. They don’t love you. You are their jailor. And yet, they can grow to like you. They will eventually engage with you and sometimes if young enough when you start, even grow to really like you. This companion/housemate is honest. There is no developmental programming telling this dog to listen to you. Instead you have to earn every ounce of trust, attention, and engagement. To be a friend of a feral dog is to be earned. And perhaps it is a lesson more of us need.

Life with a feral dog is a life free of obligations. They are not obligated to love you and you are not obligated to love them. You are just living together, navigating each other. For many adopters this is very disappointing. Some will try to force the issue, to sad, disappointing, and sometimes bloody results. You can’t force a feral dog and for some this may be infuriating, especially if you are used to controlling your life or those participating in it.

I don’t have an answer for where to fit feral dogs in our world. I know the space is getting smaller. But I urge people to pause and think about the lesson feral dogs teach us. We are building a world of crushing control and obligation that only feeds our mental illnesses. To simply euthanize this problem away is also shirking our responsibility and our critical thought on what we are in fact killing.

I simply argue that there is a place for feral dogs. But it is a place we have to advocate for. The public needs to learn that a dog is not just an animated stuffed toy, brought to earth to love them unconditionally. The story of dogs in all their existences is one that needs to be known and it’s lessons taken to heart. Dogs are greater than we perceive in our normal busy day to day lives. It is in the act of pausing and knowing that we improve our own lives, the lives of our loved ones, and our society as a whole.

If we make room for feral dogs, we make room for each other.