Signs of an Abused Dog
See files for Dogs
The internet is rife with new dog abuse stories, whether viral videos on social media or campaigns by animal advocacy groups. We should be rightfully disgusted, but we can often feel angry without knowing what to do about it. While not everyone will protect animals professionally, it is the responsibility of anyone who cares about them to pay attention to signs of animal abuse. Dogs are one of the most abused companion animals, often by people who don't even consider their actions to be abusive. Abuse can take various forms, whether physical or emotional.
At AnimalWised, we look at the signs of an abused dog. In doing so, we can be vigilant when we see signs of neglect, abuse or general mistreatment. We can also help to discern what might be behavioral problems in a dog for another reason and what might be abuse.
1. The dog is easily inhibited
Dogs which have been abused will respond in various ways. For this reason it is important to note that not all dogs suffering abuse will behave in the same way. These signs of abuse in dogs are designed to show you how abuse can manifest itself differently in behaviors of a dog.
The first response a dog may have to abuse is to become easily inhibited. Healthy dogs love to run, jump, play and interact with both companions and their environment. Abused dogs often inhibit these behaviors out of fear, anxiety or confusion. If a dog is abused for expressing its natural inclinations, then they may not want to engage in these behaviors. If they do, they fear they might be punished.
Many dogs will engage in unintentionally destructive behaviors. What humans might see as property damage, dogs simply see as playing with a toy. If the dog is abused physically for doing this, it can wreak havoc on their well-being. This is why rehabilitating abused dogs requires lots of positive mental stimulation. Intelligence games, learning new tricks or simply playing with a ball can help a dog to reconnect with their healthy natural instincts. With heavily abused dogs, learning this behavior takes a progressive approach and it is very important they are not overstimulated too soon.
Simple activities are the best way to start off. We can throw a ball to them, let them chew on some rope or simply try to get them to run alongside us. Use positive reinforcement all the while to help them feel good again.
2. They hide
Sometimes an abused dog will have their behavior inhibited to the point they can no longer stay near people. Any noise or disturbance could represent more trouble for them, so they hide from stimuli. Some dogs will naturally find places for rest, looking for a comfortable place to lie down away from the hustle and bustle of a household. They will not likely be disturbed easily and will move when prompted.
Abused dogs will often hide away from fear. They do not sleep well and will become agitated when people approach. Their body language shows their fear in the form of cowering or shivering. They won't necessarily find somewhere comfortable to sleep either, but will take any place which provides a sense of security. It is for this reason it is common to find abused, neglected and abandoned dogs hiding under houses or similar secluded places. It can be difficult to coax them out as their fear of their abusive guardians has made them scared of everyone.
These situations are difficult and usually require a professional with experience in handling abused dogs. Dogs may need to be removed firmly for their own good as the situations they find themselves in might prove more dangerous. Again, only professionals with experience should do this.
3. Lack of attachment with people
Again, the level and severity of the behavioral problems caused by abuse depends on the individual. Two dogs might sustain the same level of abuse and yet react in different ways. Some may not cower or be visibly frightened by the presence of others. Instead, they simply don't form any sort of attachment to humans. They stay away from them and only approach for their care needs such as food, etc.
Domesticated dogs have a symbiotic relationship to humans. If they are abused, this symbiosis often disappears. They are wary of strangers and will not approach anyone.
4. Physical trauma
One of the most visceral signs of abuse in dogs is physical trauma. As we stated previously, abuse of dogs takes various forms. Passive abuse occurs in the form of neglect. The dog is not given enough stimulation, they are denied access to proper exercise and their interactions with humans are limited. Some forms of abuse are more active. They involve the dog being abused physically whether in the form of hitting or even being engaged in fighting.
Dog fighting is one of the most vicious forms of abuse for any dog. Two or more dogs are pitted against each other and they fight, often until death. While this is a horrible end to any dog's life, the ‘training’ they receive up to this point often involves more abuse. Instead of guiding the dog positively to avoid behavioral problems, aggression is engendered to the point they are unable to live safely in communities. Some people who engage in dog fighting claim they love their dogs, but there is no excuse for this practice. It is one of the worst forms of abuse due to the pain inflicted and general inhumane treatment of the animal.
However, even passive neglect can lead to physical signs of abuse. A dog's hygiene is not the same as a cat's. They will self-groom, but not as much as a cat. Depending on their morphology (body shape, etc.), they may not even be able to reach all areas. If the dog is walked or is left outside regularly, they will be subject to the elements. This means damp, rain dirt and exposure to many pathogens. Dogs need brushed to get rid of dead hair and they will need bathed when they get particularly dirty.
If a dog's hygiene is poor, they are susceptible to parasites. The neglect of the dog may even lead to the owner not giving them their vaccinations or deworming treatments, further worsening the situation. When a parasitical infestation takes place, the parasites can burrow in the skin and cause wounds. Bacterial, viral and fungal infections caused due to neglect can lead to dermatitis or other skin problems resulting in open wounds. If you see a dog with patches of fur missing, open wounds or obvious parasites, then it is likely they are suffering abuse in the form of neglect. While it is possible for any dog to get a parasitical infestation, not taking them to a vet and treating the issue is an extension of abuse.
5. Depression and sadness
There is some question of whether dogs can get depressed. While they may not have the same capacity for depression as human beings, they certainly can have their own version of depression. They may sleep more often, not respond to stimuli, stop eating, have slow movements, be unable to show affection and more.
Depression is a common sign of abuse in dogs, but it is important to know that it is not the only cause. A dog may be depressed for various physiological or psychological reasons. It is important to work out the difference before accusing an owner of abuse.
As a sign of abuse in dogs, aggression is a tricky one to discern. Many people have theories about aggression in dogs which wrongly place the blame on a dog's breed. While research is limited, the majority of evidence points toward poor rearing of the dogs by their human guardians. A 2018 study from the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science shows that in more than 80% of fatalities from dog attacks, “the dog was kept isolated from regular positive interaction..., the owner had history of prior mismanagement of dogs, the owner had a history of abuse or neglect of dogs”.
There are other reasons for a dog to become aggressive, often poor socialization being common. However, evidence suggests that an abused dog can certainly show signs of aggression. When the only interaction dogs have with humans is having aggression shown towards them, it is understandable a dog may respond in kinds.
The aggression the dog shows may not be constant. They may seem relatively friendly and docile, especially around their owners. But something can easily trigger aggression. What this trigger may be depends on their experience and the circumstances of their abuse. They might see something they associate with warranting aggression and lash out. Children or other vulnerable individuals have been known to be at the receiving end of this aggression.
No dog deserves to be abused. The result is terrible for both the individual dog and its wider community.
Is it possible to know for certainty that a dog has been abused?
Although a dog may display the above signs of abuse, it is difficult to be completely sure a dog has been abused. The circumstances are unknown to us and we should be cautious if we suspect someone is abusing their dog. This person could be a neighbor, a stranger we see out on the street or even someone closer to home.
Research is limited and we should never jump to conclusions, but there have been some studies which correlate abuse to dogs with their owner's poor mental health. In particular, “[d]epressed men [are] more likely to respond to their dogs' behavior problems aggressively and punitively”. This means if you think someone is abusing their dog, they may not be in a healthy state of mind and confronting them can be dangerous.
Unfortunately, the recourse we have in dealing with suspected abuse of dogs is limited and dependent on the country and region in which you live. There should be some sort of animal welfare body where you can report them. If the abuse is violent and involves criminal activity (such as with dog fighting rings), then you can report them to the police. Doing this will not only maintain your anonymity, but it will prevent you getting into a physical altercation which can threaten your own well-being.
Assuming abuse is dangerous as there are various reasons a dog may be showing signs. For example, someone may have adopted a dog which has previously been abused, but they are trying to rehabilitate them. Reporting them means the relevant authorities can make an inquiry, check licenses and be assured the situation is or is not abusive.
If you have recently adopted a dog which you fear has been abused, you can find some relevant information in our article on how to get a scared dog to trust you.
If you want to read similar articles to Signs of an Abused Dog, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.
1 Steimer, T., The Biology of Fear and Anxiety-Related Behaviors, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, SEP 2002; 4(3): 231–249.
2 Scott, J. P. & Fuller, J. L., Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, 1965