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Tips for Rehabilitating an Abused Dog

Rescuing a dog is one of the most kind-hearted things an animal lover can do to help fight the pet overpopulation crisis. There are countless ways to save an animal, whether through a local animal shelter, a breed-specific rescue, or even online classified ads. However, a downside to adopting is that the dog’s past may be completely unknown. Just as with humans, dogs that have past experience with abusive situations, whether verbal or physical, can suffer long after their wounds have healed. Often, an abused dog will show fear, skittishness, and occasionally aggression to seemingly benign stimuli. With plenty of love, patience, and the proper approach, dogs can be rehabilitated beyond their fear and become confident, happy, and trusting individuals.

Observe your dog’s body language

After adopting your dog, keep a close eye on his body language when approaching new people, objects, and animals. If anything or anyone causes your new dog to crouch low to the ground, tuck his tail between his legs, back away quickly, or unexpectedly urinate, then your dog has a submissive fear response to these experiences. The other type of response is fear aggression, which manifests as growling, snarling, erect posture, or raising ears, tail, and fur simultaneously. Watch for patterns and make mental notes. Does your dog behave in one of these ways only towards men? Do people wearing hats bother your dog? Does your dog seem fearful of certain types of objects, such as bats or rakes? Understanding the specific triggers for a fear response is the first step in overcoming the problem.
Approach the desensitization process slowly
If you notice, for instance, your dog is afraid of loud noises, do not immediately flood his senses by taking him to a shooting range. Instead, slowly work towards desensitization. Walk your dog near a busy street, where the traffic noise may be louder than usual. Offer lots of positive reinforcement. An occasionally honk or siren may scare your dog, but eventually he will realize that he is not in harm’s way. After your dog can experience traffic noise without fear, take your dog to a louder location, such as a local dog friendly brewery. At first, stay for only a few minutes and then leave, providing plenty of positive praise. Slowly increase the duration of time spent in loud places. As your dog’s confidence grows, he will become less fearful.

Positive reinforcement is crucial

The most important aspect of rehabilitating an abused dog is positive reinforcement. Offer plenty of treats, praise, pats on the head, etc. for good behavior when facing fears. You want to replace bad experiences with positive ones, so even being in the presence of fearful stimuli should elicit treats. Never punish your dog for being afraid.

When in doubt, seek help from a professional

If slow desensitization is not working for your dog, or he is displaying extreme fear aggression, seek help from a professional dog trainer. Be sure to inquire with the shelter or rescue organization, as they often can offer free or discounted access to a trainer in these types of situations.

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