5 min read


Can Dogs Remember Abuse?



5 min read


Can Dogs Remember Abuse?


The statistics on animal abuse are staggering. The abuses of dogs can range from dogfights to neglect to physically and emotionally abusive treatment. According to the Animal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASCPA, approximately 1.5 million dogs are rescued from abuse and neglect each year. 

Animal shelters and rescues work to place all animals in homes that can provide them with care, socialization and safety. Currently, about one-fourth of all dogs in homes are adopted from animal rescue centers. Whether you are the owner of a dog who had been abused, contemplating the adoption of a rescued dog, or just a dog lover, you may have questions about the psychological effects of the abuse on the dog and the memories your dog may have of the mistreatment.


Signs of Physical and Emotional Abuse in Dogs

The signs of abuse may vary based on whether the abuse was physical or emotional. The signs of physical abuse are more apparent because the scars are visible. The emotional abuse takes its toll on the behavior patterns and responses of your dog. Signs of abuse and neglect are found in a number of maladaptive behavior patterns. Dogs may have food aggression, aggression toward people or animals, separation anxiety, and fear responses.

The body language of an abused dog is characterized by signs the dog is fearful, aggressive, unpredictable, or anxious. Your dog's body language will send signals that he is in distress and that he is protecting himself. You may find your dog growling, snapping at people, showing teeth, staring, or guarding his food if he is aggressive. 

Your fearful dog will hide and avoid people. A dog that was neglected as a puppy may have separation anxiety will cry and destroy things when you are not home. Fearful behavior may also involve cowering.

There are a number of signs that your dog has been traumatized and abused. The signs you see will vary based on what your dog experienced and the age of your dog when he was traumatized. Your dog may hide to protect himself. 

Signs of your dog remembering abuse may occur when you do something simple, like raise your hand or use a tone of a former owner and find your dog growling or attacking you. Dogs that were neglected as puppies will have separation anxiety and will demonstrate behavior problems when you leave. You may have dog that is fearful, easily startled and unpredictable. You may find that your dog does not trust people and it is difficult to have your dog groomed or to introduce your dog to new people.

Body Language

Below are some signs that abused dogs often exhibit:

  • Growling
  • Staring
  • Guarding
  • Shaking
  • Cowering

Other Signs

These are a few more signs that abused pooches may display:

  • Unpredictable Aggression
  • Showing Their Teeth
  • Not Allowing Touch
  • Hiding And Avoiding Other Animals Or People
  • Crying When Left Alone
  • Aversion To Specific Objects, People, Or Sounds

The History of Dog Abuse


How can anyone mistreat another living being? Most people are not unkind. They respect life and treat man and animal with respect. There are those, however, who do not share these values of respect for life. They are physically and emotionally abusive. These behaviors have been called the Animal-Cruelty Syndrome. 

Animal-Cruelty Syndrome is a form of conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder in which a person abuses animals and people. The abuse of animals often begins in persons with the conduct disorder at the age of eight, when they impose cruelties on pets and animals. Studies have established that persons who are cruel to animals are also inclined to demonstrate criminal behaviors. 

It is only recently that there has evolved a nationwide response to crimes against animals. In 1990, only six states had felony criminal provisions for animal mistreatment. Today, 46 states have these laws and the Animal Cruelty Prevention Society or ASCPA has units available to help investigate these crimes. 

Law enforcement and behaviorists are learning that animal cruelty is a signal of pathology in the person who is committing the crime. The link between animal cruelty and abuses to humans has become so recognized that social service agencies are now training workers to identify signs of abuse that a person may be expressing across the species in the home. 

Just as domestic violence and child abuse are under-reported, there is also under-reporting of animal mistreatment. Research on abusive homes has found that there is a high turnover of pets - they run away, are discarded, or die. Because dogs are eager to please, they often tolerate abuse and will try to remain loyal. There are studies of women in abusive relationships who stay to protect the dog from the abusive spouse. 

What is tragic is that children who grow up in homes in which their pets are abused will repress their feelings of kindness toward the animals and may later become, themselves, abusive toward animals. The efforts of humane societies, law enforcement and the larger communities protecting the rights of animals, children, and persons living in violence are critical in providing education, protection and hope for the future.

The Science Behind Dog Abuse


The effects of physical abuse have become more apparent and are studied more than the effects of neglect and psychological abuse. Your dog cannot tell you what he remembers. His memories are different than human memories. Dogs do not have episodic memories. They do not remember specific events. This trait makes them pretty special when they are eager to see you when you just saw them ten minutes earlier.

There is evidence, however, that dogs do have long-term memory. Dogs will demonstrate the ability to remember where food has been stored. There are the stories of dogs who were lost and able to find their ways home. Dogs will remember the owners with whom they bonded as puppies. We see evidence of this in the videos of a pet's reactions when their owner returns from the military. 

Experts believe that dogs will remember extremely positive and extremely negative events. A dog will avoid something that frightens him for his lifetime. Memory decay refers to memories that fade over time. There is not enough research on animal memory to know if early and extreme impressions will be as strong over time or fade. 

We do know, however, that dogs continue to learn. For animals who have been abused, the severe and prolonged suffering they endured may be something they can learn to overcome given enough time and the right kind of training. 

While we do not know exactly what your dog recalls from his abuse, we do see evidence of those memories in the dog's maladaptive behaviors. These mistreated animals are showing responses to the abuse that are conditioned. The conditioning of these erratic and dysfunctional behavior patterns is what endures and what we identify as their memories of the abuse. 

Studies have demonstrated that the effects of emotional abuse are more enduring than physical abuse. The universal response to abuse is one of mistrust, social withdrawal, physical inactivity, and depression.

Training a Formerly-Abused Dog


Dogs who have been abused have behavior problems that are the most common reasons they are relinquished to animal shelters and have difficulty staying in their home placements. These behavior problems include aggression and fear directed toward unfamiliar humans and dogs, attention-seeking behaviour, hyperactivity, persistent barking, and stereotypic behaviours. With patience and training, there is hope you can overcome these problems but it will take time and you will need help from a trainer.

An abused dog needs to have his health needs attended to and to feel safe. Establish safe places in the home where your dog can go when he wants to be alone. Establish routines for feeding and a place where feeding will occur. Protect your dog from what he fears. Use a calm voice. 

When introducing your dog to new situations, make it a gradual introduction and ensure a positive outcome. Sit in a room with your dog so that he can grow comfortable being with you. If your dog has separation anxiety, arrange things your dog can do when you are away. Do not make your dog work for rewards, treats or play. Work with a trainer to learn how to use clicker training and other signals with your dog. 

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Safety Tips for Abused Dogs

  1. Provide your dog with physical needs to be healthy.
  2. Establish a place in your home that his safe space.
  3. Teach your dog to accept the leash to keep him and others safe.

Written by a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 02/14/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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