How to Deal with Pet Abuse
Interview with Dorothy Litwin
by Allan Tong
So you've adopted a cuddly dog from a rescue, but it behaves strangely, whether scared or hostile, without reason. Sadly, your dog may carry the scars of abuse from its previous owner. Just like humans, dogs can be traumatised by physical abuse at the hands of cruel people. The good news, however, is that professional behaviourists can heal your furry friend, though it demands time and patience. Guardian's Best asked Toronto animal behaviourist, Dorothy Litwin, what signs to look for in a dog, what treatment is available, and how you, the owner, can help.
What's are examples of an abused dog?
A dog might literally scream in panic, tremble, and even urinate in response to something very specific. For example, a person throwing a stick for the dog, yet the dog responds by cowering, screaming, shaking, voiding the bladder, etc. But sometimes, fearful or aggressive reactions that bring on fear can happen in a pet that wasn't even abused.
That animal may have never been exposed to that particular something/someone during the all-important socialisation window which in dogs is 3-14 weeks of age and in kittens 2-7 weeks. Once the socialisation period is over, the pet may show fearfulness to specific object/persons/situations. For example, cats are commonly frightened by vacuums or visitors to the home, but usually, kittens are not socialised with many household object/noises. Many kittens are born outside to stray mothers, or in barns or shelters. So, by the time they are brought into a home environment, they are usually past that critical socialisation time.
Should an owner force an animal to face its fear?
No. It's inhumane. Unless the fear is very mild, this approach will likely create more fear and anxiety for the animal. None of us likes to be forced to experience a scary situation.
What can an owner do to put their pet at ease and gain its trust?
Allow the animal control over its environment by letting it avoid the things it is afraid of and letting it become more at ease on its own schedule. One owner, I knew noticed that her new dog didn't like to be touched and would shrink back. How does this owner get her pet to trust her? Start by touching lightly (as light as necessary to avoid the fearful response) or on a different part of the body (an area that does not cause the fearful response). Over time, move closer to the area the dog is sensitive about or increase pressure. Always have loads of yummy treats while doing this or perform the exercise while playing a fun game with your dog to keep your dog in a happy mood.
If an owner doesn't make progress, how else can she treat her abused pet?
Find a professional who's well-versed in evidence-based behaviour therapies and can resolve fearfulness. We use techniques, such as systematic desensitisation (SD) and counter-conditioning (CC) to overcome fears. SD exposes the individual to the “scary” thing gradually without creating a fearful response. CC means changing how the individual feels. In the case of fear, we want the animal to feel either neutral or happy instead of afraid.
What qualifications should the professional have? Some owners will automatically go to their vet, asking for behavioural treatment, but are vets trained in this area?
There are various certification bodies out there for both trainers and behaviour consultants. An owner must do her research. Do not simply trust someone who just says they are great with dogs or have a special talent. These therapies require being well-versed in learning theory as well as species-specific behaviours. Some vets are also board-certified to conduct behaviour therapy, and these are the only vets who should consult on pet behaviour issues.
How long does it take to treat a pet, either by an owner or a professional?
Be patient. Helping an animal become less afraid will take time and. A ballpark range is not possible, because each case is unique and depends on many factors. Do the best you can and don't be hard on yourself.
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