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.
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Signs of Physical and Emotional Abuse in Dogs
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.
- 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
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
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
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.
How to React to a Dog that Was Abused
Speak in a calm voice.
Gradually introduce your dog to new situations.
Establish safe places in the home for the dog.
Protect your dog from feared stimuli.
Safety Tips for Abused Dogs
Provide your dog with physical needs to be healthy.
Establish a place in your home that his safe space.
Teach your dog to accept the leash to keep him and others safe.