Adopting abused pets takes extra care

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2004

Animal cruelty takes on many forms and can be found virtually everywhere, but fortunately there are laws to protect creatures mistreated by their human care givers.

When laws are effectively enforced, authorities such as animal control officers often succeed in removing the victims of abuse from the people who abused them.

These animals may be put up for adoption from shelters and other rescue groups, but due to the suffering these animals endured, they may take a little more or a lot more, in some cases work than the average pet.

It can be disheartening to rescue an abused dog and expect it to be happy and playful, only to find that the dog hides, will not eat in front of you, runs when you call it, cowers when you try to touch it and generally prefers to be left alone.

Dogs that come from abusive situations can have a variety of behavioral and temperamental problems. It's very difficult to state the best way to overcome these problems since each dog has had its own individual experience. As such, they need their own individual methods for training and socialization based on their specific problems. However, there are a few guidelines to remember that should work with any dog.

The big thing to remember is to never use force. No hitting, scolding or leash yanking. Nonviolent training is the key to addressing problems. Like all dogs, abused dogs need discipline, too, but it's important not to frighten them.

This is a tricky balance to achieve. Dogs that are easily frightened need to be reassured as much as possible with human praise and food rewards but it's important to not encourage or reward fearful behavior.

By far the most common problem of adopting abused animals is overcoming their shyness. This shyness is typically caused by one of two things: physical abuse by humans or under-socialization, particularly at the crucial age between 5 and 12 weeks as puppies.

Initially, eliminating stressful stimulus can combat shyness. Don't force a dog to be around people who frighten it or be in a situation that frightens it. Dogs are often amazing at revealing exactly who and what they are afraid of.

For example, a dog that was physically abused by a dark-haired man with a moustache may never trust people who fit this description. Whereas if the person who rescued the dog was a woman with long blonde hair, the dog may be more prone to trust people who fit this description. As the dog starts to reveal this information, use it to your advantage.

If your dog does trust someone other than you such as your husband, wife, best friend, etc. use that person to build the dog's trust in you and eventually in other people.

Have the person your dog trusts stop by frequently. Have the person be very tactile with you, shaking your hand regularly, smiling and chatting with you while neither of you focus on the dog at all. If your dog sees the person trusts you, then the dog may also grow to trust you. Also, initially have the trusted person put the leash on the dog and hand the leash to you. The dog will recognize the transfer and it will help build trust faster.

Another big problem of adopting abused dogs is they can be difficult to housebreak. Many of these animals have come from deplorable conditions and as such are not familiar with the concept of cleanliness. It will take extra work to housebreak these animals.

Start by setting a routine and sticking to it. Feed, exercise, play and sleep should be at exactly the same time everyday. Dogs are creatures of habit that respond very quickly to routines and set schedules.

Take the dog out periodically throughout the day and as soon as the dog has finished a meal, 10 minutes after drinking, after each play session and as soon as the dog wakes up from a nap.

Never discipline for an accident unless you catch the dog in the act, and even then do so in a nonviolent, nonthreatening way. Remember to redirect their behavior.

If caught in the act, say sternly but don't shout "No." Then pick the dog up and take it straight outside to the potty area. Praise the dog for even standing in the potty area, and doubly so if it urinates or defecates while there.

If you don't catch the dog in the act, don't reprimand it. No matter how much you scold, yell or act upset, your dog will NOT understand why you're angry, and it will only make them more afraid of you. Also, never let a dog see you clean up messes, whether you caught them or not.

Another problem of abused dogs is they may have an eating disorder. Some may have been deprived of food and water for long periods. In extreme cases, some may have had to survive by catching and eating wildlife or other dogs and cats.

It will take time to teach these dogs to eat in front of you and to eat at a normal rate of speed rather than gulping it down and making themselves sick. Feeding several small meals throughout the day or utilizing a feeder on a timer may be necessary.

Destroying shoes, furniture, pillows and other inappropriate items also can be common behavior in dogs that were abused. This often stems from the fear and anxiety of being left alone.

Providing plenty of toys and proper items to chew on can help curb destructive behavior. Chewing is a natural behavior in dogs. It is calming to dogs and it helps alleviate boredom.

Correct a dog for chewing undesirable objects by replacing the item with an acceptable object to chew. Remember to praise the dog when it chews on acceptable objects. Give the dog treats when you leave to make it more of a pleasant experience for them, rather than one they dread. Beef knuckles and other items can occupy a dog's attention for hours while you're away.

Most of these fearful, unsociable and depressed behaviors can be overcome with time, but it's important to remember it requires extraordinary effort and tremendous patience to build up a dog's confidence and earn back its trust.

Remember that many of these problems are common with abused and neglected dogs but certainly aren't representative of all dogs that are adoptable from shelters.

Always talk with shelter employees to find out as much as you can about a dog you're interested in adopting. The people often can be good sources of information when learning about the history, behavior and temperament of dogs in their care. They may even have some tips of their own to make the dogs' acclimation into your home go a little smoother.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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