Learning More About the Canine Victims of Animal Abuse

New research investigates the effects of abuse on domestic dogs.

The effects of abuse on dogs, illustrated by two sad puppies cuddled up together on the street
Photo: GeorgeMPhotography / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The paper, by Franklin D. McMillan (Best Friends Animal Society) et al, looks at the behaviour profiles of 69 dogs with a very strong suspicion of abuse, and compares them to 5,239 pet dogs. The abused dogs scored significantly higher on various problem behaviours including aggression and fear to unfamiliar people and dogs, attachment problems, attention-seeking, and repetitive behaviours. At the same time, there was no single profile that reflected all abused dogs.

The research is an important first step in understanding the effects of abuse on domestic dogs. The scientists say, “Animal abuse is a world-wide problem causing an incalculable degree of animal suffering. A better understanding of the characteristics of abused animals is essential for developing the most effective interventions at every chronological point: before, during (in cases of chronic abuse), and after the abuse occurs.”

Dogs may be affected differently by abuse due to factors such as their personality, the characteristics of the abuse, their age at the time and how long it goes on for. For example a dog that has been injured at close quarters by a human may be more likely to be fearful of other humans than one that has been shot from a distance and did not realize what happened. Emotional neglect is known to be especially harmful to children, and the same may be true for dogs. 

The scientists asked people with dogs “for which a history of abuse is suspected or known” to complete an internet survey. Out of the 1,122 people who responded, 149 cases were selected and the responses examined by a team of 5 experts. Only when at least 4 of the experts agreed that the dog had been abused was it selected for the study. This was to ensure that the evidence of abuse was sufficiently strong.

The descriptions of what was done to the dogs make for heavy reading. They include a Spaniel cross that was “found chained to a cement block in an empty field; when found, had broken leg (at least 2 months old) and broken teeth”; a Labrador Retriever that was “abandoned, beaten and shot in hindquarters and scrotum with a shot gun”; and a Maltese whose owner “kept dog in spare bathroom for 2 months with no window, no fresh air and no company or anyone to play with. [The dog was] suffering from malnutrition.”

Although the dogs in both samples had been rehomed at least once, it is possible the abused dogs had changed homes more and this may have contributed to some of the increased problems. For example, separation anxiety is more common in dogs rehomed via shelters than in those who have always been in the same home throughout their life.

The paper draws parallels between these results and other research which looks at the effects of abuse on children. Attachment problems are known to be more common in children who have suffered abuse, and this study found them to be more common in abused dogs also. 

The authors say, “abused dogs demonstrated higher levels of 12 characteristics; of these characteristics, 8 have been identified as being among the most common behavioral reasons people report for relinquishing their dogs to animal shelters: aggression and fear directed toward unfamiliar humans and dogs, attention-seeking behaviour, hyperactivity, persistent barking, and stereotypic behaviours.”

If the risk factors for abuse are similar to those for animals that are relinquished to shelters, campaigns could be designed to simultaneously prevent both abuse and surrenders. However the data is correlational and so it is not possible to interpret what is a risk factor for abuse and what is the effect of abuse.

The C-BARQ questionnaire was used to assess the dogs’ temperaments. One limitation of the study is that the samples were self-selected and the owners of the abused dogs knew the purpose of the research. The secretive nature of abuse makes it difficult to investigate.

The report ends on an optimistic note. In a follow-up survey of 53 of the dogs, 96% of the new owners said they were “very satisfied” with the adoption of their canine friend. This shows that abused dogs can still be suitable for adoption, and can still develop a satisfying bond with a new owner, despite what they have been through.

This is an important paper because a better understanding of the characteristics of abused dogs will help with rehabilitation and also in designing programs to prevent maltreatment from happening in the first place.

If you have a fearful dog, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

McMillan, F., Duffy, D., Zawistowski, S., & Serpell, J. (2014). Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18 (1), 92-111 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.962230

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