A scared dog hiding under a bed.
Hiding is one way to tell you have a scared puppy. Photography ©hidako | Thinkstock.

Socializing Neglected Dogs: What Goes on Behind the Scenes to Make a Mistreated Dog Adoptable

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Pet lovers everywhere would likely agree: Any innocent creature who’s endured difficult circumstances deserves a beautiful life. Sadly, thousands of today’s shelter and rescue pets have experienced some pretty painful situations. Severely neglected dogs or mistreated dogs may have suffered any number of abuses: constant physical restraint or confinement; lack of appropriate nourishment; endless environmental stressors; even outright physical punishment.

Each individual canine may weather the storm a bit differently. Some, unfortunately, learn to fear and/or avoid social contact. Such dogs may become mistrustful, nervous or withdrawn. Some may growl or snap at the slightest provocation; urinate or defecate in terror; even retreat into the shadows.

Potential adopters may not always realize what a given pet has endured — all they see is an adorable face and a tentatively wagging tail. This could be because that particular pooch has benefitted from specialized socialization training, or behavioral intervention. Sometimes, quite a bit takes place behind the scenes to give a deserving dog a second chance at a normal life.

The humans involved in these focused efforts often represent a diverse range of organizations. What they share is a strong, abiding love for canines; combined with a desire to help educate and support responsible pet parents. We asked two of these experts to share a few firsthand observations. Their insights lend a whole new meaning to the term “rescued.”

Meet the Experts Who Work with Neglected or Mistreated Dogs

A scared, sad dog behind a fence or in a cage.
It takes a team of professionals to ensure that neglected dogs are ready to be adopted. Photography ©gaikphotos | Thinkstock.

Melissa Crampton is canine manager at Dogs Deserve Better (DDB), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that helps rehabilitate and socialize severely neglected dogs. Founded in 2002, DDB places special emphasis on those canines who have been persistently chained or penned – largely deprived of regular human companionship.

Crampton explains that specially trained personnel work with most of these canines at DDB headquarters in Smithfield, Virginia. “Our current property was purchased in 2011,” notes Crampton. “It was once the home of Bad Newz Kennels, the dog fighting compound owned by Michael Vick.” DDB’s ongoing labor of love has essentially transformed a place of traumatic despair into the Good Newz Rehabilitation Center.

Steve Frost, KPA CTP, is director of in-home training at A Sound Beginning. He also serves as animal enrichment and behavior manager for Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin, Illinois. Frost doesn’t exclusively focus on pets with a background of abuse, neglect or mistreatment. However, he holds multiple training certifications — and has done more than his share of work with such dogs.

Severely Neglected Dogs — An Unfortunately All Too Common Problem

Dogs Deserve better.
Cyndi of Dogs Deserve Better giving Joshua what he never had before: close contact and some love with humans. Joshua came from the Polk County, Georgia, cruelty case, where 105 dogs were seized off two different properties in the woods. All were secured with heavy 6-foot chains. Photography courtesy Melissa Crampton of Dogs Deserve Better, via Facebook.com/dogsdeservebetter.

Both Crampton and Frost agree that pronounced neglect is a pervasive problem that can affect canine lives in countless ways.

“On an average weekly basis here at DDB, we receive anywhere from 50-70 e-mails and calls regarding animals suffering this degree of neglect,” notes Crampton. “The number tends to increase if there’s a natural disaster, or a dog fighting ring that’s abruptly shut down.”

Frost has witnessed something similar. “In the shelter setting, I’ve encountered many animals with a confirmed history of neglectful mistreatment,” he says. “One of the most common forms we actually see involves lack of proper socialization from a young age.”

Frost explains that this can stem from persistent disregard for an animal’s emotions, and/or chronic exposure to overwhelming stressors during early development. Sadly, he notes, mistreatment in any form often renders the same result: an adult dog who struggles to co-exist in a home environment.

Transforming the Lives of Abused Dogs

A scared dog hiding.
On a positive note, some dogs have truly incredible turnarounds. Photography ©carlonico | Thinkstock.

On the upside, however, both Crampton and Frost have helped to facilitate some fairly remarkable transformations. “Time and again at DDB, we’ve worked with dogs who have been chained with total disregard for their needs,” says Crampton. “Some literally panic when they first encounter any type of open space,” she says. This is one reason why the DDB facility is laid out like an actual house.

“Much of our early work often involves simple home-training,” says Crampton. “Over weeks, sometimes months, we get these dogs used to stairs. We help them feel comfortable in large rooms. We help them overcome fear of everyday noises most people take for granted, such as home appliances. We crate-train them, so they learn that smaller spaces can represent safety and security.”

Highly anxious dogs often get paired with other canines to help build their confidence. Once they become sufficiently comfortable, Crampton says they’re allowed to go on their very first “Freedom Run” in the fenced open yard. She describes each dog’s unrestrained joy as something incredible to behold.

Success Stories

One of Ponder's first runs being off the chain. Ponder was another off-the-chain rescue from the Polk County, Georgia, cruelty case.
One of Ponder’s first runs being off the chain. Ponder was another off-the-chain rescue from the Polk County, Georgia, cruelty case. Photography courtesy Melissa Crampton of Dogs Deserve Better, via Facebook.com/dogsdeservebetter.

Crampton recalls Elvi, the lone survivor of a residence where 21 dead canines were found in cages amidst dog fighting paraphernalia. Elvi had not necessarily been involved in the fighting, but was nonetheless petrified of everything.

Re-socialization initially involved giving Elvi her own separate room to decompress; then a secure open crate as her “safe area.” Volunteers spent weeks sitting quietly in Elvi’s presence, waiting for her to make the first move. “This little 35-pound girl would eventually come up, sniff your face, then mold herself perfectly into your lap,” recalls Crampton.

As Elvi gradually grew more settled with daily human contact, her caregivers tried introducing another dog. Pittie mix Turbo had been kept on the end of a short chain day and night, for nearly five years. But Elvi’s increasing confidence began rubbing off on Turbo. He progressively “learned” to play in her presence; while Elvi emerged even further from her own shell.

Next, Elvi met the highly anxious Ollie. Initially, Ollie completely ignored Elvi. But she began nurturing him — offering kisses, coaxing him to romp around. “They steadily became best friends,” says Crampton. “All the while, we watched Elvi blossom into a very special dog who went on to help reassure and heal other dogs.”

Frost remembers Kobe, a middle-aged Toy Poodle mix who came to a shelter with clear signs of neglect: horribly matted fur, plus severe ocular issues that wound up requiring daily eye drops. “Unfortunately, this little 20-pound dog quickly became aggressive in response to his medication,” recounts Frost. “His reaction was so pronounced that we became quite concerned about his adoptability and quality of life.”

In cooperation with a caring foster family, Frost taught Kobe to be an active, willing participant in his own daily care. “Over time, we used positive reinforcement that gradually trained Kobe to rest his chin on our knee in preparation for his eye drops,” explains Frost. “Whenever Kobe decided to lift his chin, the training session stopped. We were reassuring him that if he felt uncomfortable, he didn’t need to resort to violence. He could simply get up and walk away.” The eventual result? Kobe’s foster mom was so impressed with his progress that she adopted him herself.

Thinking of Adopting a Dog Who Previously Experienced Neglect or Cruelty? Great! But Keep This in Mind.

A scared, sad dog behind bars, maybe in a cage.
Here’s what you need to know about adopting a dog who previously experienced any sort of abuse. Photography ©AwaylGl | Thinkstock.

What’s the best way to determine if a dog you’re planning to adopt has required specialized socialization or behavioral intervention to become “adoption-ready?” First and foremost, ask. Shelters sometimes provide this insight on certain dogs. Second, remember that many of these animals are well worth considering. “One thing that makes dogs such wonderful companions is their resilience,” emphasizes Frost. “With the right care and socialization, they can absolutely thrive in a loving, caring home that provides for their needs.”

As an adoptive pet parent, proper preparation should include connecting with a qualified trainer or behaviorist. These professionals can help you learn to consider things from the dog’s perspective. “Initially, many of these pets may need extra time to decompress, adapt and learn about the adopter’s lifestyle,” observes Crampton. “If they seem to need space, let them observe from the sidelines.”

Both Crampton and Frost also emphasize that structure and direction are key. “It’s important, yet sometimes very hard, for adopters to understand that they should not overly coddle this type of canine,” Crampton explains. She notes that sympathetic humans will sometimes repeatedly indulge unwanted behaviors; unintentionally leading the dog to perceive himself as ruling the roost. Learning positive behavioral strategies from a skilled trainer can help your new pet understand his role from the outset.

“Socialization strategies based on positive reinforcement can help even severely neglected animals,” asserts Frost. “I’ve seen these canines go from being perceived as an unwanted nuisance to the treasure of an entire family.” Crampton adds that she also enjoys “watching adopters change their way of thinking, learning ways to do right by a canine who deserves a second chance.”

Viewed from these specialized perspectives, focused socialization can give many homeless canines the caring structure and guidance they need to become cherished lifetime companions.

Tell us: Did any of your dogs come from situations where they experienced neglect, cruelty or abuse? What are their stories? How did you socialize a previously mistreated dog?

Read more about dog adoption on Dogster.com:

7 thoughts on “Socializing Neglected Dogs: What Goes on Behind the Scenes to Make a Mistreated Dog Adoptable”

  1. Ronda Singletary

    I just rescued a pup yesterday. Very sad . A mother with 4 little ones posted on Facebook, I immediately replied, she stated she was got long hours of the day like 6:30am til 8 or 9 pm and the pup stayed in a kennel. Its so sad , when I met her in a public park to meet the pup she never lifted her head and its Florida and very warm already and she had half her body wrapped in a blanket???????? She handed her to me and a dirty water bowl. We parted I told her I would give this pup the very best life . Oh I did ask if pup had any of her shots or had been fixed, she replied shots yes fixed no . So I asked papers or tags for her shots , oh ill have to find them she stated. Well I get home and find out this poor mistreated pup is in heat ! She now has a clean kennel , clean water bowl , good grade of food clean blanket and leash and harness. Got her some underwear for dogs in heat but I've not put them on her , she is so scared. Last night was first for us together, what a night she had upset tummy and even puked . I never fussed . Clean her up . Now today a little better , her tail is wagging and I got her to come out the kennel as I sit on the floor talking to her . We have been outside many times today I have to pick her up gently. We walked around slowly, it seems she has never had a leash. She has peed out side but no poop since the upset set tummy during the night . I've promised her ill love her unconditional give her a wonderful life at the beach with me . I told her she is going to help my broken heart as well , I had a Maltese BAILEY for 17 years 💔 . Its been 3 years without him . Im retired from Publix and plan on loving this pup and giving her the opportunity to love me back . Im not even sure what kind of mixed bread she is but it doesn't matter. I know its going to be slow going but I have plenty of time . Thanks for listening.
    Ronda Singletary in sunny Florida

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  4. I have worked with many abused dogs, several that t were aggressive. Surprising. Luckily, I was never fearful, although I worked predominantly with pits: they recognize that I had great warmth for them and readily came with me and loaded up with me. Amazingly, they were joyous to have their own kennels and turned out in groups into the yard for excercise time, and time with me.

    I worked with other groups on adoption days to learn as much as I could about training techniques and what I could do if a fight broke out, etc. The only time I had trouble was if my 100 pound pit got out who was territorial, of two the female adoptees got out in the wrong group.

    It’s important to give these dogs as much touch as possible when you have them as well as structure: they are just like kids. And they deserve all the love you can give them

  5. I adopted a previously abused dog 3 years ago – she was flown in straight from the streets of Ukraine, without training or even a good place to stay at all.
    She panicked when I picked her up at the airport and was scared of both my other dog (a Prague Ratter – hardly scary) and myself. She didn’t come out of her crate, so I gave her a few treats inside the crate and took her to the car inside the crate and drove her home.
    Once there, I essentially forced her out of the crate (she wouldn’t come out even if offered treats, but she certainly had to pee…) and she reluctantly agreed to join my other dog and me on a walk – but every time she heard any noise at all (a car going by, a mooing cow – anything), she’d try to hide under bushes and not come out for a long time.

    She made progress quickly though – over the next few weeks, she’d go into hiding a lot (hiding in the bushes when outside and under a bed in my guest bedroom when at home), but started trusting me a little more (less resistance when trying to put her on a leash to go outside with every day), and occasionally allowing me to pet her after I fed her or when coming back from a walk.

    After 3 weeks I thought she was at a point where I could try letting her off the leash – she decided to play with my other dog and came back afterwards.

    She’d also start sleeping closer to my other dog and myself – at first, she moved from under the guest bed to under my bed, and at one point, she decided to jump up and sleep on the bed with us.
    3 years later, she’s a great dog — and the most loyal dog I’ve ever seen. She’s never too far away – when I’m working, she’s under the desk. When I’m in bed, she’s right next to me. She even accompanies me to the bathroom. If I let her off the leash, she runs off to play with my other dog, sniff around or dig for mice, but almost always stays within 10m of me.
    She’s no longer scared of people, in fact I took her to a conference I attended with some 500 people in one room 2 months ago.

    The one thing I couldn’t teach her so far is that other dogs are friends too – she tends to get mad at other dogs out of fear. (It gets better when she’s walking in a bigger “pack” – if I’m with a friend, she’s far less likely to growl at other dogs coming by).
    I could certainly use some hints on getting that off her mind…

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