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Was Your Dog Really Abused?

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

"My dog is a rescue dog. He's scared of men and kids and loud voices, so he was probably abused."

dog in shelter

Abused or not? In my experience, people are far too quick at labeling animals as "abused" simply because they're in a shelter or because the dog has temperament flaws or behavior problems.

Trainers and behavioral consultants hear this all the time. It's common for dog lovers to diagnose abuse whenever a dog is fearful or aggressive or doesn't like certain people.

People who have suffered some form of abuse themselves are the quickest to label dogs as such. By and large, these people grossly overestimate their ability to recognize symptoms of abuse in dogs.

Of course there are dogs out there who have suffered physical abuse, even horrific mutilations. But it's much more likely that if abuse occurred at all, it was mental  or psychological  rather than physical.

In other words, it isn't so much what DID happen to the dog... but rather, what DIDN'T happen (but should have).

For example, it's up to the dog's breeder to provide good genetics. It's up to the dog's owners (past and current) to provide proper socialization and calm leadership. If any of these is done poorly, the resulting dog can look very much like one who was physically beaten.

How can bad socialization/leadership/genetics look like abuse?

  1. Lack of socialization. When a dog isn't taken out into the world, during his formative months, to see lots of new things, he is less likely to be confident about the world. Such a dog often reacts with suspiciousness, fearfulness, or aggression because he doesn't have the foundational confidence that would have been instilled by proper socialization.

    So lack of socialization is a perfectly plausible reason for why a dog acts fearfully or aggressively.

  2. Lack of leadership. When a dog encounters something in the world that makes him feel concerned, his leader needs to immediately step in and show the dog how to behave in that situation. No nervous woofing allowed. No barking or lunging allowed. Loose leash required. Calmness required. If the owner doesn't provide that firm guidance and direction, the dog might react instinctively – the classic fight or flight  response.

    So lack of leadership is a perfectly plausible reason for why a dog acts fearfully or aggressively.

  3. And then there are bad genes. Dogs can inherit what we call "weak nerves" or hyper-reactivity to normal sights, sounds, and movements. These dogs are quick to startle or flinch. Some cower, or shiver and shake, when they see or hear something that other dogs handle with confidence. Unfortunately, genetic  temperament issues can be both persistent and resistant, because you can't change the genes the dog inherited.

    So inheriting genes for a poor temperament is a perfectly plausible reason for why a dog acts fearfully or aggressively.

Now, don't misunderstand... everything in the list above IS  psychologically and emotionally harmful. The dog's ability to live comfortably in the world, coping with new places and situations without stress, is damaged when people fail to provide good genetics, leadership, and/or socialization.

But physical  abuse is less common than you might think. So there's no need to cling to speculation that your dog "must have been struck or beaten" as an excuse for his aggression or fearfulness. There are plenty of other, more common, causes.

And at this point, the cause doesn't even matter.

Dogs aren't into psychoanalysis. So your feeling sorrowful about your dog's (real or imagined) past doesn't help him at all. His past is over. Move forward. Let him know, with consistent rewards and corrective techniques, which behaviors you want and which behaviors are unacceptable.

Calm leadership  is what your pup wants and needs, no matter what his age, no matter what his breed, no matter what his "back story" is.

Establishing crystal-clear behavioral guidelines ("yes" and "no") and backing those up with calm, consistent leadership is exactly how you show your pup that you love him... whether he comes from the best breeder in the world, or from the worst abusive hell-hole. The road forward is exactly the same.

My book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important – the most important thing – in your puppy’s life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.