Working as a trainer and a dog rescuer, I’ve seen and heard about some awful things that have been done to dogs. Some of them, which I won’t mention here, will haunt me forever. We hear about horrible abuse often, and it never fails to grip our hearts. However, there’s an equally dark side to the story of dog abuse or neglect that is rarely mentioned.
Here’s the problem: once a dog becomes adopted, they begin the healing process. However, that process can only go as far as the new owner allows it to.
There’s no denying that horrible past experiences can influence a dog (or a person, for that matter) for the rest of his life. We understand from advances in neurological development that early experiences have a profound effect on the physical development of the brain. Impoverished environments during early development will result in a brain that does not develop normal neural connections and a body that does not process stress hormones normally (this is why socialization, including early puppy classes, is so important). Furthermore, new research hints that dogs and other animals can likely develop a form of PTSD with many of the exact same symptoms that humans suffering from the condition report.
All that said, improvement is almost always possible. A dog who spent his first 5 years in a tiny cage in a dark barn at some puppy mill may never be as much of a well-adjusted pet as he would have been if he’d had a better start. However, that’s not to say he can’t make great strides towards becoming more comfortable, or even have a very high quality of life in a new home. With advances in behavior modification, medication, and environmental manipulation, we can now treat anxiety or aggression issues that would have been a death sentence years ago.
There’s one thing that holds many of these dogs back, and it may surprise you.
It’s not their past.
It’s not their physical abnormalities.
It’s not even their owner’s level of competence at training.
It’s their story.
As far as we know, dogs don’t tell stories to themselves. However, people do. We do it all the time, and many adopters of dogs from bad situations do it to such an extent as to sabotage their dog’s progress.
Here’s the thing: your dog does not spend every minute of every day remembering the horrible thing that happened to him. He’s trying to move on. He is in a good place now. You need to move on too.
The best thing you can do for a rescued dog with a horrible past is to look to the future. Celebrate his progress. Celebrate where he is now. Celebrate the fact that he will never again have to endure hunger, cold, unsanitary conditions, or physical abuse.
Instead of seeing the story, see the dog. Provide rules and structure. Provide a set routine. Provide training.
There’s a lot of evidence that genetic potential has a large influence on a dog’s ability to make progress. You won’t know what your dog can achieve until you try. Listen to him, stay within his limits, and do not put him in situations where he struggles. Learn to read him, and work closely with a professional. Put his best interests first. Stop making excuses. If you find yourself apologizing for poor behavior using your dog’s story as an excuse, stop! Look to the dog you have in front of you right now. Read the page in front of you at this moment, not ancient history that happened weeks, months, or years ago.
Your dog’s story didn’t end when you rescued him. It’s still being written, and you’re one of the authors. Write a great ending to his tale.