Adopting an Abused Dog

Have you ever considered adopting a dog that you knew had been abused, but felt you might be getting in over your head? Here’s all you need to know about rehabilitating an abused dog to be a great family pet.

Make sure you have your eyes open & know your limits

You may naively think that all an abused dog needs is your love, and he or she will turn right around to act like a normal dog as soon as you show that you are trustworthy. In a dog who escaped his abuser at a very young age, this may indeed be the case. But with most abused dogs, the process is much more complex and time-consuming.

Abused and neglected dogs may have all sorts of fears and behaviors that may not ever be extinguished. Success in matching the dog with your family may simply be a matter of what you are willing to put up with. For example, a dog who was starved by a previous owner may have food hoarding issues or may overeat. If that’s something you can easily put up with, you may have a match made in heaven. However, if you don’t deal well with diarrhea and vomiting, a compulsive overeater may not be for you, or you will have to learn the skills necessary to prevent the behavior.

Preventing behaviors borne of abuse and neglect requires time, patience, and creativity. Using the overeating dog as an example, you may need to feed the dog by hand, one piece of kibble at a time for the rest of the dog’s life. Doing so will slow down the rate at which the dog eats, which can prevent digestive problems. However, this requires that you take time out of your busy life to provide special care at mealtimes.

Provided you only have one dog with special needs, you may not have a problem with providing this special care. However, if you have a menagerie of animals, kids, and other strays at your house, this may be more than you can handle.

There’s no shame in turning down a rescue dog if you know you can’t help the animal. Arguably, it hurts more than helps the dog if you try to provide the necessary care and then find out you cannot do so, resulting in the dog being moved yet again.

Ask lots of questions

Before you agree to take home a dog with a history of abuse, make sure to spend some time with whoever has been raising the dog. If there is a foster family or a particular shelter volunteer who has spent some time with the dog, find out what they have tried and what the results have been for any behavior problems the dog may have.

For example, a dog who has been hit with a leash repeatedly over a period of time may not be so wild about taking walks on a leash. Simply knowing about the form of abuse suffered by the dog will go a long way toward dealing with the problem, but if you also know that the foster family is working on off-leash obedience, you can continue the lessons so that the dog never again has to be on a leash. You might also realize that you will have to transport the dog in a crate to vet appointments and other destinations, which can figure into the budget you will have to set aside for this particular animal.

Other dogs may have issues with being timid, particularly around strangers. When you first meet the dog, you may assume that the dog runs and hides from you because of something specific about you, such as your gender or your choice of clothing. However, when you ask questions, you might learn that the dog is scared of all new people, but warms up after a visit or two. This might prompt you to take a second look at a dog that you might otherwise have written off as unsuitable.

Conversely, you might fall in love with a dog and be tempted to take him or her home without questions. You might bond terrifically with this dog at the shelter, but when you get the animal into your home, you might find out that this is a dog who should never be around small children. Ask questions of the foster family or shelter volunteers that are specific to your situation. Find out if the dog does well around cats, wildlife, wild children, or whatever residents you have in your home before you agree to bring the dog home. This is a key safety measure as well as a compatibility issue, as scared dogs may tend to bite.

Find out if the shelter or rescue volunteers know anything about the circumstances of the dog’s abuse. If the dog was abused by an Asian teenager, for example, bringing the animal home to your Asian teenager probably won’t be a good idea. If the abuse was suffered at the hands of a white woman who always wore a housedress, you might want to consider how much time you spend in a housedress if you are a white woman. Even though your dog will be able to tell that you are a different person by virtue of your scent, some memories are deeply ingrained, particularly when they are coupled to pain. Your dog may react first, without taking the time to make that differentiation.

Sad lonely dog
Restoring an abused dog's faith in humans is a critical part of rehabilitation.

Restoring Trust of Humans

Your key task in rehabilitating an abused dog is to establish trust. The only way to do this is to consistently meet your dog’s need for physical comfort, food, shelter, water, and companionship. Try to establish a routine so your dog knows that food will be given daily on a certain, dependable schedule, that water will be plentiful and fresh, and that play time will be provided every day.

Although dogs don’t have a great sense of time, you can tie certain events to caregiving times. For example, if you wake to an alarm clock, you may want to feed the dog soon after that annoying noise stops. He or she will come to expect to be fed every time the alarm is heard. If you work outside the home, you might feed the dog right after you get home in the afternoon. Building the dog’s schedule around these recognizable cues will help the dog learn that there is order in the world.

Until you have established that you are to be trusted, you may get little else done with your dog. He or she certainly won’t want to work on training or on resolving behavior problems if the animal doesn’t know you will be forthcoming in providing the basics of food, shelter, and water.

Specific Care Needed

Depending on the nature of your dog’s abuse or neglect, there are a wide variety of special resources that may be needed. Make sure you have the means to provide veterinary care, behavioral help, or other required “extras”.

For example, if your rescue dog spent his young life outdoors, you may have to start over with housebreaking. What’s more, you may have to spend extra time teaching the lesson because it may well be that the reason the dog was left outside was because of early accidents that may have been punished inappropriately, thus adding to the dog’s problems. Early beatings due to housebreaking accidents may cause the dog (either emotionally or physically) to never be able to master the skill. Are you prepared to deal with that? Do you have a means to keep your dog in certain areas of your home where clean-up is not such a big deal?

A dog who is physically abused may need follow-up care for the rest of his or her life. You may have to deal with mobility issues, infections, special skin care, or respiratory therapy for many years to come. Even though you may be able to resolve any mental health issues through patience and loving kindness, the physical issues may linger throughout the dog’s life.

Some specific behavioral issues

Dogs who have been abused are often afraid to play because their normal play activities may have been cause for punishment in their old homes. Be prepared to spend plenty of time simply playing with your new family member to show them it’s okay to run and chew on appropriate toys. Be sure to reward the dog, both for spending time playing with you and for initiating play activities on his or her own.

Neglected dogs may not see the value in having a human friend at first. You might want to spend the first few days just being in the same room with your dog and talking softly to the animal. Let the dog initiate contact with you, rather than rushing and forcing the dog to act like you think he or she should. Don’t stare at the dog, as this can be seen as an effort at intimidation. Once the dog has shown some interest in getting to be friends, you may start initiating some contact. When you do so, approach the dog from the side rather than head-on, presenting less of a challenge.

Dogs who have been beaten are often head shy, ducking whenever you reach out to begin petting them. Try presenting your hand in front of and below the dog’s face, far enough from the animal to be seen around the snout. Keep your hand in a very loose fist to protect your fingers from bites while not presenting a hand that looks threatening. Once the dog begins to sniff at your hand, turn it palm up and gently massage the dog’s throat and chest. Avoid starting encounters with the top of the dog’s head because he cannot see your hand and will wonder what you are going to do.

Positive training methods

It should be obvious, but you must never, never, never hit an abused dog. Your training methods must include love, treats, and attention if you hope to make any progress at all with your new family member. It will take a little time to see results, which is why patience is the most important quality for an adoptive family to possess.

Focus on what your dog does right, then worry about what he or she does wrong. Praise the living daylights out of your dog for doing the things you want to see, and use prevention and redirection to curb undesirable behaviors. For example, if your new dog thinks that shoes are the best chew toys ever, your primary defense should be to make sure all shoes are put away where the dog cannot get to them.

If you do forget to close the mudroom door and your dog gets a shoe, count to ten before you take any action. Hopefully, during this time you will remember that the dog is expecting you to punish him, and when you do, you will erase all of the progress you have made. Instead of taking the shoe back & smacking the dog with it, try presenting the dog with an appropriate chew toy and spending a little time playing tug. Praise the dog for playing with the “right” toy, and don’t make a big deal about the shoe.

Using a crate

All dogs need a safe place to call their own, but the need is especially intense in a dog who has been abused or neglected. Unless your dog’s abuse history includes being locked in a crate interminably, he or she may appreciate some quiet time in a suitable kennel. Make sure the kennel is much larger than the dog so the animal won’t feel cornered.

Place the cage in the same room where you will be for awhile with the door open, and allow the dog to decide when it is time to come out and visit. He or she may want to stay in the “den” for quite awhile as you sit quietly nearby, until curiosity takes over. You can encourage the dog to come out by using treats or toys, but make sure it is the dog’s idea to leave the kennel.

Leave the empty kennel’s door open and make sure it is accessible to your dog when things get overwhelming. Take it as a sign to slow down your acclimation program if your dog is spending lots of time in the kennel. Let rehab continue at your dog’s pace rather than at whatever speed you consider “normal.”

Bottom line, rehabilitating an abused or neglected dog is hard work, requiring patience and creativity. The rewards may be slow in coming, but they are well worth it, both for you and for the dog.

For more information on adopting an abused animal, check out Animal Sheltering’s Fact Sheet on Adopting an Abused Animal: What You Should Know.

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