All too often we see abused and mistreated dogs at our shelter. Just as often, we see compassionate people embrace, adopt, and make a home for these same dogs, but it’s not an easy road. Adopting an abused dog that has been suffering in a puppy mill, abusive home, or as part of a hoarding experience is long-term commitment requiring patience, perseverance, and a whole lotta love.
Our goal today is lay out some simple steps that you can take if you want to adopt or have adopted an abused dog. We’ll walk through some of the processes of rehabilitation and provide tips on the gentle and kind handling of undersocialized dogs so that you can have success with your own adoption.
Prior to Adoption
Note: We realize that you may have already adopted and abused dog, but you can still benefit from knowing what types of behavior your abused pet will likely have and the deficiencies in training that typical canines receive. So whether you are looking to foster, adopt, or have already taken the plunge, this section will be of value in understanding a little more about your new family member.
Typically, we see dogs that have been born into puppy mills that have spent their entire life in cages, dogs that lived in a hoarding situation amongst multiple pets with no training or socialization, or dogs that have been mistreated by their owners in one fashion or another. All of these situations can cause deep-rooted issues that people adopting an abused dog must fully understand in order to correct.
The biggest problems you will face are mistrust and fear. Either they have had little interaction with caring humans or have been beaten, isolated, or otherwise mistreated by their previous owners. These types of situations lead to trust issues. Your abused dog may fear people, children, open spaces, or loud noises. They may not want to be held or petted, or accept treats from you. You will, undoubtedly, be frustrated by this behavior.
Medical issues are also typical of abused dogs. Initial problems like lack of vaccinations, neutering, etc. will likely be taken care of by the shelter you adopt/foster from, but some abused dogs will have ongoing issues or issues that crop up after leaving the shelter. These include medical issues like abscesses, deformed limbs, healing burns or cuts, auditory or dental problems, or something as simple as heartworm or fleas.
You may also find that your pet has not been potty trained, cannot interact with other animals, has never known a leash, and is unaware of even the most basic of commands. While your abused dog may be full grown, their maturity level is that of a puppy in these regards.
But hope is not lost. Rehabilitation is possible and those committed to improving the lives of an animal in need should not be afraid of adopting an abused dog. As we stated earlier, it will take a high level of patience and kindness, both of which you will need for an extended period of time. And you will often find that you take two steps forward, only to take three steps back on some days. Don’t despair.
Preparing Your Home
Before you learn how to care for your abused dog, it’s wise to collect all the supplies that you will need for his or her arrival. Most items are typical to any new dog you will bring into your home, but some items require an extra effort or cost.
Crate: Even if you don’t think this is necessary, it is. Puppy mills often crate all dogs and that is all they know. While you don’t have to close the door, it is a known quantity for them and can be a safe haven when it all gets too overwhelming. Make sure that the crate is big enough to allow you dog some movement. They will need to stand up and stretch and be able to turn around and find a comfy spot to relax in, so make sure both the height and length of the crate is appropriate. The crate can be metal, plastic or fabric, depending on your need to collapse/move the crate or based on the weather in your area.
Leash: You do not know the strength of your dog and how they will react to a leash. We recommend a chain or cable leash of at least six feet. Don’t go too long, as they are unlikely trained on a leash and you will need to keep them close to you during training.
Harness: It is also wise to start off with a harness. A dog unused to the leash will naturally strain and pull. A harness prevents any injury to their neck and trachea. It will also provide you with more control and is escape-proof (unlike a simple collar and leash).
Collar and ID: You will need a basic collar. Professionals often recommend a Martingale collar. It is made of durable nylon and is made with two loops to keep them from escaping. We find it to be a better alternative to a chain choke collar, which can be frightening especially to abused dogs. ID tags are easily purchased at any pet store and need to contain your address and phone number, in case your pet escapes.
Food and Treats: When adopting an abused dog, it’s likely that your dog will be malnourished, so you will need both dry and canned food and high-value treats (protein-based) to help get them to a more normal weight. Your vet can provide guidelines for feeding and recommendations for specific food.
Also, depending on the dog, you may need puppy pads, dog or baby gates to close off rooms, and an exercise pen. We also recommend a few simple toys, like a ball and a chew toy, and a comfortable bed that can be used inside the crate or out in the open.
Bringing Your Dog Home
Now we get into the meat of how to care for an abused dog. The dog rehabilitation process may be intensive, depending on the state of your dog. They may be terribly skittish, afraid of everything, aggressive with you or other pets, and in need of potty training.
They may experience panic attacks and try to escape. All of this is typical behavior of dogs that have been mistreated. This is when the real work begins and you will need all the patience, perseverance, and love that you can spare. Adopting an abused dog comes with plenty of work, but it’s well worth it in the end.
Your first act of kindness will be to get them comfortable in their new surroundings. Do not give them the run of the house. Introduce them to one room, which contains the crate, water, food, toys and their bed. Try and keep the noise level low, stay in their presences, and use soothing tones to communicate with your new pet. Have paper towels at the ready for accidents.
When they are ready, allow them a bit more free reign of the house. Introduce them to the yard. Everything should be done slowly. Do not force them to move about or explore if they are not ready.
Establish a routine in the first few days after adopting your new dog. This includes feeding times and outdoor potty breaks. Do not attempt to leash or harness them or go for a walk. Let them get used to their new surroundings.
Once your dog has settled in, it will most likely require training. Every dog is different, but here are some of the issues that you may encounter and how to address them.
Remember, adopting an abused dog means starting with rehabilitation process. Their faults are not their own, but are a result of their previous owner. Bad habits can be broken and new habits can be formed with repetition, patience, perseverance, and love. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
Biting: This behavior is usually a result of fear. They may snap when touched or when you near their food bowls. Resist the urge to chastise them or raise your voice. Assess what made them snap or bite and make adjustments in the way that you approach them. If you find that they are aggressive, you can wear falconry or welding gloves when handling or picking up your dog; while it won’t prevent them from biting, it will prevent you from being hurt. Adopting an abused dog comes with plenty of surprises, but over time they will learn to trust you and biting will not be an issue.
Potty Training: We could write a whole book on this subject, but we’ll try to keep it short and sweet. If your dog is not potty trained, you can use an exercise pen and puppy pads (indoors or out). Every few hours, you will need to place them in the pen until the deed is done. Be consistent. For more guidance, see our article on “How to Potty Train a Puppy.” While your dog may be full grown, their behavior is not, so the same rules apply to them as to puppies.
Leash Training: Leash training may seem fairly straightforward, but remember that adopting an abused dog means that your pet may be unused to being on any kind of lead. You will need to slowly introduce both the harness and the leash to them. Once your dog is comfortable with you (and no longer bites), start by putting the harness on each day. Once they are used to that process, add the leash and walk around the house or the yard with them. As they get more familiar with you and the leash, then you can venture out into the neighborhood for short walks. If your dog needs additional training, you can investigate classes at your local rec center, through the ASPCA, or find private lessons. Just remember that your abused dog will need to be socialized around other animals if it is a group class.
Barking: This is an annoying trait that you will want to nip in the bud as soon as you are comfortable doing so. There are a number of reasons that your dog barks excessively. It could be attention-seeking, compulsive, territorial or in response to certain sights or sounds. It’s best to determine why they are barking, which will in turn help you to eliminate the habit. Read our blog, “How to Get Your Dog to Stop Barking: & Training Tricks and Tips,” for methods that you can use to deter the barking.
All of these training regimens need to occur after your newly adopted dog has settled in and become comfortable with you and their routine. For the first few weeks you may get very little training done. It will be all about desensitizing them to their surrounding and building their confidence.
This will require a quieter household, lots of soothing tones, plenty of petting and love. Make sure you protect your pet from anything that is fearful to them. Introduce other pets and strangers slowly and for short periods of time. He or she will eventually adapt, albeit at a pace that is slower than you probably want. But remember that they have suffered months, if not years, of abuse. That will take some undoing.
We applaud you on your efforts to make the world a better place and provide a loving home for an animal in need. Adopting an abused dog requires special care, but the result is beyond worthwhile!