Behavioral problems

Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: July 8, 2024
Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical

See files for Dogs

Despite the many animal rights organizations across the world standing up to protect dogs, animal abuse against canines is still pervasive. We only need look at the many videos on social media showing dog rescues for dogs that have been abandoned, neglected or severely abused. When we see a dog in need of rescue, it is important to know whether they have been abused. Abused dogs can be very scared or even aggressive, so looking for signs they have been abused will help keep the dog and ourselves safe. If we have adopted or even purchased a dog, it is equally important to know if they have been abused so we can amend our care accordingly.

At AnimalWised, we look at the signs of an abused dog to help determine whether a dog has suffered at the hands of humans. 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 a result of emotional or physical animal cruelty.

You may also be interested in: Helping an Abused Dog Feel Calm and Trust Again
  1. They are not acting like a dog
  2. Hiding
  3. Lack of attachment with people
  4. Physical trauma
  5. Poor hygiene
  6. Tucking their tail between their legs
  7. Urinating everywhere
  8. Depression and sadness
  9. Weight loss or weight gain
  10. Aggression
  11. Signs of a dog being sexually abused
  12. Is it possible to know for certainty that a dog has been abused?
See more >>

They are not acting like a dog

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 emotional and physical animal cruelty can manifest itself differently in behaviors of a dog.

The first response a dog may have to animal cruelty 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 behave like a normal dog, 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. Dog intelligence games, learning new tricks or simply playing with a ball can help them 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 for dogs as you do so to help them feel like a happy dog.

Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical - They are not acting like a dog


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.

Dogs that have suffered emotional or physical animal cruelty 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.

Lack of attachment with people

The level and severity of the behavioral problem in dogs caused by abuse depends on the individual animal. 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 or being let outside.

Domesticated dogs have a symbiotic relationship to humans. If they experience animal cruelty, this symbiosis often disappears. They are wary of strangers and will not approach anyone.

Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical - Lack of attachment with people

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 animal cruelty 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 animal cruelty. 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.

Poor hygiene

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 felines. Depending on their morphology (body shape, etc.), they may not even be able to reach all areas. If the dog is left outside for prolonged periods, 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 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 animal cruelty.

Tucking their tail between their legs

When a dog tucks their tail between their legs, is is a sign of submission. The dog is frightened or fearful, not being able to understand their situation. This is a common sign of emotional or physical abuse in dogs, especially when approached by a human. They do not want to be harmed and their fear their tail will give a sign which provokes further abuse.

It is possible a dog will tuck their tail between their legs for other reasons, but it is important to consider animal cruelty. If it happens when they see something which confuses them or gives them a valid reason to be scared, it is a normal response to environmental stimuli. If they do it all the time for apparently no reason, it is a sign of a behavioral problem and poor socialization. The underlying cause of these behavior problems may be abuse.

Urinating everywhere

Similarly to tucking their tail between their legs, does may pee themselves out of fear. This is a sign of severe abuse since the dog is simply unable to control themselves when around other people. It is often the case that a dog is abused because the owner does not look after them properly, ignoring their toilet training. When the dog pees in the house, the abuser may strike them, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Learn how to stop a dog peeing inside the house at night.

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 animal cruelty 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 emotional or physical abuse.

Weight loss or weight gain

As we see above, depression is a common result of a dog receiving abuse. This can manifest itself in many ways, but apathy and lethargy are common. In these cases, the dog doesn't want to do anything, even the things they would normally enjoy. This can result in them losing weight because they refuse to eat anymore.

It is also possible the dog has developed disordered eating as a result of the abuse. In these cases, the previous owner may has used as a form of abuse by taking it away from them or taunting them with it. In this way, the dog develops problems with eating and may lose weight. It is also possible they will overeat as a result of the abuse, especially if they have food insecurity. In these cases, the dog may become overweight or obese.

Check out our article on homemade food for weight loss in dogs and the dog weight chart that comes with it. This way you can tell if your dog is underweight or overweight.

Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical - Weight loss or weight gain


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 and the owner had a history of abuse or neglect of dogs[1].

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.

Signs of a dog being sexually abused

Sexual abuse in dogs is fortunately rare, but it does occur on occasion. Although it is an uncomfortable subject, it is vital we notify the relevant authorities if we believe a dog is being sexually abused. In most cases, a person abusing a dog in this way will be caught in the act. When a dog is abused in such a way, they may show some combination of the signs of an abused dog that we have already shared. In addition, we may observe:

  • Frequent licking of privates or anus: this is a result of trauma they experience.
  • Loss of fur or abrasions: wounds to sensitive areas may be the reason the dog keeps licking themselves. If the trauma is significant, they may even lose fur.
  • Recurrent vaginal inflammation: this occurs in female dogs that have been sexually abused.
  • Anal inflammation: can occur in males or females.
  • Foreign objects in stool or GI tract: these can be a result of forced penetration with an object.

If we are aware of a dog being abused sexually, we need to contact the police. You should not confront the individual yourself due to possible unstable behavior. If you suspect your own dog has been subject to sexual abuse, you need to take them to a veterinarian for examination and further guidance.

Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical - Signs of a dog being sexually abused

Is it possible to know for certainty that a dog has been abused?

Although a dog may display the above signs of animal cruelty, 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, men who are depressed are more likely to respond to their dogs' behavior problems aggressively and punitively[2]. This means if you think someone is abusing their dog emotionally or physically, 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 both 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 or sexual abuse), 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 the above 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 want to read similar articles to Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.


1. Farhoody, P., Mallawaarachchi, I., Tarwater, P. M., Serpell, J. A., Duffy, D. L., & Zink, C. (2018). Aggression toward Familiar People, Strangers, and Conspecifics in Gonadectomized and Intact Dogs. Frontiers in veterinary science, 5, 18.

2. Dodman, N. H., Brown, D. C., & Serpell, J. A. (2018). Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. PloS one, 13(2), e0192846.


1. Steimer T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.

2. Scott, J. P. (1964). Genetics and the development of social behavior in dogs. American zoologist, 4, 161–168.

3. Beirne, P., & Lynch, M. J. (2023). The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Animal Cruelty Data. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 12(2).

Write a comment
Add an image
Click to attach a photo related to your comment
What did you think of this article?
I live in an apartment complex on the second floor. My neighbor above me just got a German Shepard puppy. When my neighbor got him the first week the pup cried every four hours. I rarely would see him take the pup outside to do his business. I believe he is just having him do his business on puppy mats. One day I did observe him walk his dog and tried to put him on the grass, but his pup just walked back on the sidewalk. Now in the mornings I hear him chasing the dog and the dog crying and running from him. I hear all the rumbling and the dog yelping and crying. This was happening practically every morning and occasionally during the afternoon. One night the pup was crying from 8:00 p.m. till 4:30 a.m. I could hear him trying to get out of his crate. Then around 6:30 a.m. I hear my neighbor abusing him and the pup crying again running from him. Just recently I heard the pup crying from 4:30 a.m. till 6:00 a.m. from what I suspect from being abused. I have recorded the noise on my cell phone since I hear it clearly above me. One time while my neighbor was chasing the dog I heard him fall down right above me. I have made a complaint to the apartment staff before and after this last incident. My concern also is this pup does not get to excercise and to be able to run around and do his business outdoors like most dogs should. I don't think he should have this dog and the dog deserves a better owner and life.
My roommate, who i believe is mentally disturbed, keeps her 4 year old beagle mix locked up in her small bedroom all day long. I know this because I am retired and am home most of the day. She just lost her job and told me she could not afford dog food, so I bought her a large bag of dry dog food. We had to have the apartment treated for fleas also, and she had to pay for it. I think she has the dog defecating in her bathroom, but she does take the dog outside at night occasionally, only when she goes to Taco Bell for food. This is what I find disturbing: I hear the dog whimpering or crying at night, like she is in pain. This occurs quite often, and I am wondering if my roommate is abusing the dog. She recently put socks on her dog, because it is hot outside; however, she hardly takes the dog outside, and only at night. So, I thought this was strange. Also, my roommate has a past of "cutting herself". This is why I think she could be abusing or doing something to hurt the dog. I already called to do a welfare check on the dog, and they didn't see anything wrong with the dog; the officer just looked at the dog. However, I still think something is being done to that dog at night; why else would she whimper and cry like that?
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Debbie,

We don't know the exact circumstances here, but have you tried speaking to your roommate? Having a history of mental illness does not mean she is a dog abuser, but she could be struggling to look after her household (including her dog) for many reasons. You should not go on the offensive, but if you speak to her openly and in a non-judgmental way, you may find the answers to your question.
Rebecca Swem
My neighbor is known for being abusive to his ex girlfriend and children.
And now he lives alone with his new puppy he abuses.he kicks her all the time and never walks her. he puts her in the back yard at night to run around but she feels scared and confused. ive gone out there once to be with her. She remembered me and couldnt stop loving me and excitedly whimpering. she was trying to rummage through my trash bag, as if she were really hungry. i here her yelping every day as he takes her out cuz he kicks her i was told by another neighbor who watches him. ii feel helpless but i cant ignore this abuse.
Report to animal/abuse control services. Call the local humane society.
I can read a dogs behavior and I have been spending some time away from home I thought I could trust my roommate but here recently we had a storm come through and I was practicing in the storm shelter on what to do in a tornado he comes up and down stairs all day because we have a deck when practicing he acted as if he had been locked down in this shelter and just recently he became broken out in a rash I brush him daily and he is well loved by me recently he has become very clench even when I pet him and I heard him yelp when he was in the kitchen with my roommate I believe he wines because he is being beaten in the head I see signs of abuse from him I think the only thing that helps is I love him the entire time I’m with him he recently just stopped chasing the ball and he hyperventilating I wish I could call the doggie police and report him
Administrador AnimalWised

This is animal abuse and you need to remove the dog from their abuser. Find a different home for them if you cannot live anywhere else.
1 of 5
Signs of an Abused Dog - Emotional and Physical