Despite the UK’s reputation as a nation of dog lovers, a significant number of dogs are neglected and/or physically abused every year, due to a variety of factors including an inadequate understanding of how to care for a dog, frustration or anger at perceived failings in the dog and sometimes, simple outright cruelty.
A dog that has been abused differs significantly from a dog that has been treated properly in terms of their behaviour, responses to people and pretty much every other element of their lives. Even one incident or a short period of being treated poorly can cause significant psychological damage to a dog, which can take years to correct or resolve.
There are a great many reasons to recommend learning to recognise the signs of a dog that has been abused-such as if you are considering rehoming such a dog, seeking to get to the bottom of an adopted dog’s strange behaviour and of course, knowing when a dog owned by someone else is potentially being mistreated so that you can report it.
In this article, we will examine some of the warning markers or indications that a dog has been or is being abused, in order to provide a primer into identifying potential problems. Read on to learn more.
A regular dog that has been properly treated all of their life will have a strong bond with their families, and look to them for reassurance and direction in unusual or potential scary situations. However, a dog that has been hurt and mistreated will fear people, and this is rarely limited to just the person or persons that abused them.
Such a dog will tend to keep well away from people if possible, such as by staying on the far side of the room or cage and being reluctant to come to people or even pass them in close quarters. They will also tend to startle easily and overreact to seemingly innocuous incidents such as loud noises and sudden movements.
The fear responses that develop in an abused dog are not limited to interactions with people either-the dog is likely to be generally nervous and fearful of many common situations and occurrences, whether they involve direct contact with people or not.
A dog that has been abused will generally spend most of their life in the aftermath unless or until they are taught to trust people again trying to avoid harm and further threats, and this can manifest in a wide variety of ways.
Abused dogs tend to display high levels of submissive behaviour to people on the whole, such as by avoiding eye contact, staying out of the way, not wishing to come when called or encouraged to come to you, and generally making themselves as small, quiet and innocuous as possible.
They may find or create a bolthole, such as a small, enclosed space like you may have behind or under a chair or sofa, and prefer to hide themselves away rather than interacting with people.
A dog that behaves in this way is essentially displaying a learned response to trauma-a form of PTSD, essentially. Those that handle or own such a dog without knowing the history of abuse may potentially write the dog off as unintelligent, one-dimensional or lacking in a real personality as a result.
A dog that has been abused before may also be more prone to aggression, which is wholly created in an attempt to avoid future pain or harm. This does not occur in all dogs that have been abused, but can present in a significant number of them, which is why rehoming a dog that has been abused can be so challenging. Rehoming shelters that seek to rehome dogs that have suffered past abuse often have to spend a significant amount of time-sometimes measured in months-working with the dog to ascertain the full extent of their responses, and working to recondition them.
The home selected for a dog that has been abused must also be chosen very carefully, for the safety of both the dog and their new owners.
Defensive aggression can include growling, snapping, resource guarding and apparently unprovoked flashpoints of aggression, such as if you are standing over the dog or gesticulate in their direction quickly or nearby, which may cause the dog to suddenly lunge and snap, as they perceive a threat. To many people who have never had experience of an abused dog and how this can affect them, such incidents are viewed as having occurred out of nowhere, and are often wrongly chalked up to the dog being unpredictable or aggressive.
This form of aggression is entirely predictable and understandable if you understand the behaviour of an abused dog, which is why rehoming abused dogs is done so carefully-and of course, why some dogs will never be able to be rehomed successfully after abuse.
If you know someone nearby whose dog displays markers of this type, it is important that you do not jump to the conclusion that the dog is being abused-much as a thin dog is not necessarily being deprived of food.
A dog that acts in these various ways may have been abused in the past-sometimes years in the past-and the person that you see them with now may be the only person that they trust or are beginning to develop tentative bonds with.
If you have any concerns about a dog or the way that someone is treating their dog, it is important to report them to the RSPCA and the police in order for them to investigate-but do what you can to find out about the dog’s owner and situation first (without risking your own safety) before making assumptions. After all, if you made the amazing commitment to rehome or care for a dog that had previously been abused, you would not want other people to jump to conclusions about you!