Mental effects of abuse on a dog

Written by theresa bettmann
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Mental effects of abuse on a dog
Although not all dogs in shelters were previously abused, the shelter experience can also have lasting mental and behavioural effects. (Homeless dog in Kennel image by dinahr from

In the U.S., millions of dogs are abused, neglected or abandoned for a variety of reasons each year. Some get a second chance and are adopted from rescue facilities or shelters. According the Humane Society of the United States, as many as 6 to 8 million pets are placed in shelters each year, and as many as 3 to 4 million are euthanized. Rehabilitating the abused dog is critical, but abuse can have long-lasting mental implications and behavioural outcomes.

Types of Abuse

Abuse of a dog happens by physical means, neglect or both. Withholding necessary medical care, water, food or shelter are all examples of basic neglect. Physical abuse occurs by inflicting physical discomfort or injury in some way. Some physical forms of abuse include hitting, beating or excessive yelling, as well as social isolation, premature weaning or confining to inappropriately sized cages for excessive periods.

Symptoms of Abuse

Abuse, especially long-term abuse, causes many mental or behavioural changes in a dog. Dogs that have been abused may exhibit symptoms like submissive urinating, hand-shyness, cowering, mistrust, social withdrawal, depression or even aggression. Separation anxiety often becomes a problem once attachment develops with a new owner, as the dog desperately fears being separated from that person. Dogs may even develop compulsive tendencies like excessive licking, digging, barking or any normal behaviour acted out to the extreme.

Mental Rehabilitation

Patience and nurturing are critical when attempting to rehabilitate an abused dog. The longer the abuse lasted, and the older the dog, the worse the mental affects can be. It is important to take things slowly and have realistic expectations, as the abused dog may not ever fully readapt. Many conditions are successfully handled by simple basic training. Techniques with fewer "hands-on" methods that use treats and positive rewards generally work the best. Socialisation, which is familiarising a dog to its environment, may help to alleviate some anxieties.

Safe Haven

Rehabilitators can incorporate crate training into the healing process to allow the abused dog to have a "den" or safe-haven to retreat to while allowing it to progressively acclimate to the larger world. "Denning" is a natural wolf instinct that translates to the crate in domestic dogs Also, dogs that have been caged as part of their abuse may actually respond better to crate training, as they tend to feel insecure in open spaces. An appropriate crate size is large enough for the dog to stand, turn and lie down comfortably.


It is important to work closely with a veterinarian, dog trainer or animal behaviourist while rehabilitating an abused dog. Some problems are easily remedied, while others can pose dangerous outcomes like aggression. Aggressive behaviours are often linked to fear, so it is imperative to work through that fear in an appropriate manner.

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