The Story Of Abuse

By Sean O’Shea

We’ve all heard about or have had dogs that have had a negative past. Perhaps they were neglected, perhaps they were chained to a tree, perhaps they were starved, perhaps they were yelled at or hit for perceived

infractions. As dog lovers this can be a hard one to wrap our heads around, and an even harder one to let go of.

I’ve seen many, many owners who have become so invested in their dog’s story of abuse that it’s taken on a life of its own. It becomes a very big part of the dog (and the owner). And it often colors and informs all of the ways the owner interacts with the dog.

Because of the abuse story, the owner wants to avoid the dog ever experiencing anything unpleasant. They want to protect the dog from the world. They want to ensure the pain is done.

This often looks like: babying the dog; coddling the dog; being overly permissive with the dog; refusing to share rules, structure, or discipline with the dog; spoiling the dog; being overly affectionate with the dog; being overly emotional with the dog etc.

And while I get and appreciate the motivation behind these choices, the truth is that more dogs have been harmed long-term by all of the above actions than they have by abuse.

Abuse happens and once the dog is removed from the situation, the abuse is over. Yes there can be issues to work through – perhaps challenging ones – but it’s the mindset of owners who can’t let go of the abuse story (and thus are unable or unwilling to share what the dog truly needs) who lock the dog into a lifetime of abuse by way of neglect. Neglect of the dog’s true needs.

Yes, even dogs who have had terribly negative experiences still need structure, rules, guidance, and accountability. Well actually, here’s the real truth, they usually need these things even more than other dogs. Their world’s have been so devoid of what they need that they are often a mess. And the best gift you can give a struggling, confused, overwhelmed, and frightened dog is not more of the same – the best gift you can give them is the deliverance from those painful states.

The game changer emotionally for owners is to start to look at dogs with these stories and realize that the real pain, the ongoing, long-term pain of abuse, is caused and perpetuated much more by us not being able to move forward than it is the actual abuse itself. And that by moving forward, and by treating the dog like a normal dog, with normal needs – of structure, leadership, rules, and accountability – you actually take the first step towards removing the pain, the first step towards a love (and motivation) that can heal, rather than harm.

Beliefs and stories are powerful. They affect our thoughts and choices and actions. So be sure the story you’re telling yourself and others about your dog is one that serves him or her. A story that helps them recover and thrive, rather than remain stuck in the muck of the past.

P.S. On a personal note, I’ve seen far more dogs harmed by a lack of training and healthy lifestyle with their owner than I have all the abuse cases combined.

P.S.S. And just to be clear, the only reason I didn’t include love and affection in my prescribed suggestions for helping troubled dogs, is because that’s the easy part. The part that comes natural. And it’s the the one aspect I never seem to have to coach folks on doing more of. Always less and more selectively. šŸ™‚


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  1. Beth said:

    Thank you for this excellent post. I admit I was a bit too lax at first when we adopted our rescue GSD last year. He had had a tough life with a lot of changes, and had spent some time chained outside a trailer in the winter in a cold part of the country. I felt so sorry for him and wanted to take things slow and easy. The slow part was the right idea, the easy part was not. Thankfully we found a great trainer in our area who told me the coddling wasn’t helping. In the year we’ve had him, he has become a new dog thanks to a LOT of consistency, structure, boundaries (a word he hates), excellent training, lots of exercise, and of course, lots of love. While I wish I’d read this a year ago, I’m not sure I would have been ready to hear it. I shared it on my FB page in hopes that others with rescues will take it to heart.

  2. ablewebs said:

    Sean, there’s something I’ve been meaning to share with you and Laura. My rescue dog, Lucy, has benefited so much from more structure and better guidance. Raising the level on the e-collar correction has ended her leash reactivity once and for all. I am ecstatic about that… but other things have changed, too. She is less obsessed with having to see me every moment. She now spends more time in her beloved crate (where she can’t see me unless I go in the bedroom). She is far more relaxed when I’m getting ready to take her for a walk. She finds a spot and lies there calmly. Before, she was underfoot all the time. After watching your videos, I started using the “place” command to keep her out of my way, but now I don’t have to; she does it herself! She used to pace a lot when she was anxious (e.g., recognizing that I was going out without her). I started using the “place” command for that, too, and she hasn’t paced in weeks… even when she’s not in “place.” She is more attentive to me on our walks, as well. I didn’t think Lucy could get any better after the leash reactivity went away, but she did! She wasn’t a highly-strung dog before, but she had some anxiety, for sure. Now she’s much more laid back. That’s got to be good for her mental, emotional and physical health. I know it is for mine. I just wish more people realized how important structure, boundaries and limitations are for a dog’s well-being… and for the owner’s well-being, too. Your methods work! Everyone can have the dog of their dreams. And with the e-collar, that dream can come true sooner rather than later.

  3. So so true. This is why so many rescue groups tell adopters to not train the dog using certain tools. No prong collars! No e-collars! A choker chain? No way! By the time people come to me for training they are so misinformed and say right off, I’m not using a crate or this type of training. However I just need my dog to stop x y z behaviors.
    It’s maddening. you can see all the posts from rescues with the dog and it’s sad story. How it needs a loving home. They get people who buy into the story from the beginning.
    This again goes right back to keeping a dog mentally healthy and happy. What people need is instruction. You should make a manual with the Ten Commandments do’s and don’t’s. And some of the articles on rules boundaries. Etc….I have a class that runs 6 weeks. I repeat and repeat all this to people because each week they mention the dogs past for the reason he did something. The people take time to change their thinking. They are feeling and not thinking. If you want your dogs behavior to change, change yours. ( MG) .

    • Jaquelyn Warbis said:

      Kathy, you’ve said it well. I see rescues that prohibit prong collars and one local pit bull rescue put’s a harness on every dog. I train with a prong and never a harness. When we meet with prospective adopters and they say how they are going to get a harness, we explain that a harness was designed for pulling so that will not solve the problem and that the placement puts the dog in front, creating more chances for reaction. We always explain that a prong works well because the dog will “self correct” and not to yank on it. Since they are already familiar with the prong, they do self correct. Many of our shelter dogs come in with horrific back stories, which we do tell, but we don’t list them as “ready for adoption” until we’ve moved them beyond their past. Often we just say “they’re not soup yet” but will be soon. Some adopters say they won’t use a crate, because they think it’s cruel or they hate to see a dog in a kennel. That is where we encourage it and explain that we use them so the dog has their “quiet place” and that they actually enjoy it. Some minds change, some don’t.

  4. Beth Moody said:

    My dog had been horribly abused when we got him. He spent his first year with us confusef about what he should be doing at our house. He started to relax amd began to smile ( a lot) when we applied balanced training to us all.

  5. Excellent information. Thank you very much for all your bang on insight and advice, Sean. šŸ˜‰

  6. tuffy said:

    well said-and Ć  propos for ‘mother’s day’, believe it or not!

  7. sam ivy said:

    Dogs are influenced by our behaviour. If we relax they relax. Once an abused dog has settled into a new home, they will reveal their personality to us. It would be such a shame to think that they could escape from an abuser only to gain psychological issues from their new owner. The last thing you’d want is for a rescue dog to feel like it can only be safe when you are in the same room and this could cause separation anxiety.

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