How to Train an Abused Dog: 8 Ways to Turn Their Weakness into Strength

abused dog lying on floor
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Many pets that are in shelters and rescue facilities have lived through abuse. This abuse may have been physical assault, neglect, or excessive restraining and caging. Most rescue animals are suffering from trauma—leading them to be distrustful, depressed, and reserved. We commend you for extending a helping hand and striving to help them heal. Now, let us help you by providing a comprehensive guide on how to train an abused dog.

We’ve got tips and tricks that can help you be sure of your approach instead of always worrying that you’re making things worse. Of course, it’ll still be challenging in the beginning. However, once your dog becomes acquainted with you and develops trust, they’ll see what it feels like to be loved and open up to you.

In this article, we’re going to teach you how to identify an abused dog and how to train an abused dog so that they will become a loyal, lifelong companion. If you’re looking to adopt an abused dog from a rescue shelter, know that you’re doing a life-changing act not just for the dog, but also for you.

Was Your Adopted Pet Abused?

dogs in cage of dog shelter

In some cases, the rescue shelter may not have information about the prior history of the animal available for you. However, just because you don’t know the exact form of abuse that happened to the dog, doesn’t mean you can’t spot the signs of a previously abused animal.

There are some clear signs that you need to look out for when determining if your adopted dog was previously abused. The signs can differ depending on the form of abuse which was carried out. For example, if a dog was left alone during their youth, they may develop a severe case of separation anxiety. Nevertheless, here are some general signs of abuse:

  • Highly withdrawn from other animals or humans

  • Isolating themselves in outdoor and open spaces

  • Fearful of minor sounds

  • May react in an overly aggressive manner

  • Reacts fearfully when being petted

  • Sits in the corner of a room or in a hiding place

  • Unwilling to explore their environment

  • Severe cowering when being disciplined

  • Highly distrustful, keeps a distance between themselves and people at all times

  • Depressed behavior

  • Jumpy with sudden movements

Now that you know the signs, you’ll be able to read their behavior and determine if there was prior abuse or not. Not all dogs from rescue shelters are abused, but a majority are.

Tips to Train an Abused Dog

Now that you’re aware of the signs of abuse, it’s time to learn how to train an abused dog. The training is slightly different than for those that have never been abused. You’ll need to have patience and an open heart, but with time, you’ll notice your dog changing for the better.

Tip #1: Give Them Time to Adjust

scared dog crawling

If you’ve just rescued a dog from the shelter, you can imagine how much of a shock this is for them. One minute, they’re caged in a shelter and the next, they’re in their new home with all the luxuries of life. Do expect your dog to be afraid and upset with this change—positive as it may be—because it’s a huge transition for them.

If you see them acting fearful, give them space and leave them alone to explore the environment. If you don’t want to leave them alone, you can keep them company, but make sure to give them enough space. Make sure that you have a sleeping pillow and some food and water available. It could take hours or days for them to start exploring the space, but you need to let them adapt at their own pace.

Tip #2: Be Calm

If you’re near them, avoid making any sudden movements, such as turning the TV on too loud or staring at them. Sudden movements are typically known to frighten abused dogs and bring back previous traumatic memories. You need to provide them with a quiet and calming environment as they’re already scared enough as it is. Your goal is to show them that this is a safe space—one that they can relax in.

Tip #3: Let Them Get Used to Non-Hostile Human Presence

black dog nose sniffing

If a person abused them, chances are, they’re not big fans of people. Can you blame them? They may avoid being in your presence at first. You will want to slowly acclimate the dog to being around you step by step.

Remember, this will take time. Work on it slowly—allowing them to get more comfortable around you. Then you can move closer and closer to them until you’re sitting next to the dog. Let them sniff you and try to avoid hugging them until they’re completely relaxed. The goal is to allow them some space so that they will become comfortable with you at their own pace.

You need to spend a lot of alone time with your dog since they’re usually highly distrustful of people. Refrain from introducing them to people who are not living with you and your dog. This will be overwhelming for them and make them frazzled.

Focus on developing a trusting relationship between you and your dog before getting them acquainted with outsiders. If you have other people living with you, allow them some alone time with your dog so they will gradually get used to each other’s presence.

Tip #4: Feed Your Dog Top-Quality Food

dog eating high quality food

Most dog abusers do not feed their pets enough. Thus, many abused dogs are malnourished or deficient in many important vitamins and minerals. Invest in high-quality dog food to help counter the damage that was done by a poor diet. Remember, once your dog starts feeling good on the inside, you’ll see the changes on the outside as well.

Tip #5: Create Fond Memories and Avoid Triggering Your Dog

man petting a dog

Your goal is to build a positive relationship with your dog. The only way to do this is by creating fond memories together. Your dog doesn’t know what love is. All they know is what it’s like to be abused. Therefore, you need to show them what it’s like to feel loved.

Pet them, walk them, and give them treats. Show them as much love as you want. They’re not used to it, so they may shy away at first. However, in the process, you’ll build a strong and loving relationship with your dog.

Just make sure you choose activities which do not trigger memories of their previous abuse. For example, if your dog doesn’t like to play, then don’t play. If they simply like to watch the TV with you on the couch, do that.

Some triggers may seem silly, but for your dog, they were scary and traumatic. You need to know what the general triggers are and find the ones which are linked to your dog. For example, if your dog becomes fearful when you’re yelling, this is a trigger, and it means you need to lower your voice.

Here are some general triggers which are usually seen with abused dogs.

  • Sudden movements or gestures

  • Raising your voice on either them or other people

  • Raising your hand (in a striking motion)

  • Touching the dog in an area which was abused (such as the upper head)

  • Using objects which they were abused with, such as baseball bats

  • Saying a word or a phrase which was used by the abusive owner

Tip #6: Give Them a Routine to Live By

You need to create a routine he can adapt to. For example, every day you walk him in the morning, then you let him eat, take a nap, go for a pee break, go for a walk later in the evening, and one more pee break before bed. If you repeat this routine, your dog will become adjusted and comfortable. Dogs enjoy routine; it’s a pattern which they can follow.

Tip #7: Positive Reinforcement, Not Negative Punishment

walking a dog on leash

They’re going to have a couple of accidents here and there. Maybe they’ll pee on the carpet or knock a glass over, but you cannot punish them for it. Yelling or hitting your dog will be a trigger for your dog to act fearfully or aggressively.

If you notice that they’ve made a mess, clean it up quickly and remove the smell so that they don’t go back to that spot. Punishing them for accidents will not help them in understanding that what they did was wrong. If they’re in the middle of an accident, rather than yelling at them, distract them by making a noise to get their attention. Make sure the noise you make isn’t a trigger, so, use a calm tone. Then, take them outside where they’ll be able to finish.

On top of that, you need to provide positive reinforcement using treats to train them. If they go pee outside, reward them. For every positive act they do, you need to reward them. It’s the only way they’ll know how to behave properly. Also, make sure that you praise them with positive phrases in a happy tone of voice. This will help in teaching them not to be afraid of you.

Tip #8: Don’t Get Discouraged

You have to remember that the life they had before you was hard. It was filled with hate and fear—that’s all they know. So, it will take them time to adjust to this new lifestyle. It’s new for them and something they have never experienced before, so they’re distrustful of your motives.

If you feel that it’s taking too long, you can consult an expert such as the vet or a dog trainer, but most of the time, you’ll just have to keep trying and be patient. Everyone needs time to adapt to their new environment. Don’t give up as you will see a change; it just takes time.

Wrap Up

man and dog holding hands

Though many of us are animal lovers, not everyone carries the same affection towards pets. You may be thinking: How could anyone abuse their pet? These are our friends—companions that stay by our side through the good and the bad. Unfortunately, there are people that don’t share these thoughts and are focused only on inflicting pain upon others.

Many good Samaritans take the necessary step in reporting animal abuse. But what happens to the animals once they’re rescued? Well, this is when kind-hearted people like you come in.

Adopting a dog from the shelter is a commendable and beautiful act of kindness. However, usually, dogs from rescue shelters have had troubling pasts filled with abuse, hate, and fear. Of course, they were saved from the abuse. However, afterward, they were forced to spend time alone in a shelter—which is lonely and upsetting for many dogs. However, now your newly adopted dog has a loving place to call home. They will learn to appreciate what you’ve done for them; they just need time to process it.

Though training an abused dog is challenging, it’s extremely rewarding. Yes, it will take time, and your dog may be resistant in the beginning. However, by giving your dog space and time to adjust, you’ll see them slowly becoming more comfortable with their new environment.

Every dog is different, and every dog has their own story and past. Thus, the recovery time will vary. But this doesn’t mean you should get discouraged. What you need to focus on is making sure you provide your dog with a loving and safe home.

Now that you know how to identify an abused dog and how to train an abused dog, hopefully, you’ll be able to use these tips when it comes to helping your newly adopted dog adjust to his newly-found home, so that the two of you can become best buds that will be there for each other no matter what.

Are you living with a previously abused dog? Please write in the comment section below about how you trained your dog and what the process was like! We’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions to help other owners with their previously abused dogs.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.