Helping a Pair of Abused Puppymill Dogs Learn to Live and Trust Humans Again

Opal and Nana

Opal (left) is a five-year-old Toy Poodle who has been extremely fearful of people due to her former life in a puppy mill. Because of this background, I knew this was going to be a challenging dog training session. She spends most of her day motionless in a dog bed while avoiding interacting with anyone or anything. Opal was first paired, then later adopted with Nana, a nine-year-old English Spaniel who was rescued from the same puppy mill. Nana likes to bark at people passing by the back yard fence, doesn’t show much respect for personal space and demands attention from her guardians.

Meeting these dogs in person was quite the lesson in contrast; Nana was excited to greet me at the door while Opal will could barely tolerate me being in the same room due to her fear of strangers.

Because Opal was so fearful, I wanted to give her space to process my arrival without pressure so I ignored her for the initial part of the session and focused on working with Nana.

As many rescue guardians do, these dog’s humans were treating them with a very soft touch to try to make up for the less than ideal life that the dogs lived at the puppy mill prior to being rescued.

Whenever you have a dog that comes out of an abused situation, one of the first things you need to do is help the dog understand that it is now in a safe place. This is an activity that most people take to like a duck to water.

But while helping a dog learn that it is no longer in danger is a crucial part of any dog’s rehabilitation, there comes a time of diminished returns with this technique. Dogs associate receiving attention or affection with whatever they happen to be doing at the time. So if a dog is shuttering and shaking or acting fearful and anxious and we pet it, we are actually nurturing that unbalanced state of mind. This is one of the primary differences between human psychology and dog psychology that trips many people up when rehabilitating a formerly abused dog.

Because the dog’s guardians had done such an amazing job of helping the dogs understand that they were no longer in danger, it was now time for us to take the next step with some dog behavior training. I offered him a number of suggestions to the guardians; ways to get their dogs moving past their abused background so they can develop and grow.

In the course of this discussion I noticed that Nana was not at all subtle when she asked for attention. I have seen cases like Nana’s where the dog goes from being a velcro dog or needing attention to a full-blown case of separation anxiety.

To help prevent Nana from going down that path, I suggested that the guardians start to practice a technique that I like to call Petting with a purpose.

Now because of Opal’s overly fearful state, this technique will likely only be utilized for Nana in the short term. But once Opal starts to seek out attention from her guardians, it will be equally important for them to practice this technique with her.

While many people think that removing rules and limits is helpful to dogs who come from an abused or fearful background, this is actually the opposite of what the dog needs. Dogs go through life probing; waiting to be corrected or rewarded. This allows them to determine where boundaries and limits are. If a dog does not have any rules or boundaries than it gets the impression that it is an authority figure. Just like with humans, there is stress that comes with the responsibility of being in charge.

By helping these dogs understand that there are clear rules, boundaries and limits in place; the dog’s guardians can help them feel more assured and confident knowing that the humans have many of the things that they worry about under control.

After making a couple of other suggestions on how to interact with Nana and some rules to incorporate, I was ready to directly introduce myself to Opal.

Another common mistake many people make when working with abuse to dogs is thinking that showering them with love and affection is the only way to reach them. As I mentioned earlier, this is important during the initial stages of rehabilitating a dog, but can become a crutch that stunts growth if it is utilized for too long.

I wanted to make sure that Opal did not engage her flight mode, so I took my time when approaching her for our first actual meeting.

Providing treats can be a great motivator for any dog. But it is often how we introduce and deliver the treats that makes the biggest difference.

Dogs get over things by literally moving forward. This is why a game of fetch, throwing a toy or taking a dog for a walk is such a great activity to engage in when a dog is fearful or in an anxious state of mind. Many people let a dog shut themselves down or find a comfortable place to retreat to. Again this is something that is helpful initially, but can become debilitating if the dog is allowed to simply hunker down and not engage with the world.

By offering Opal treats in a way that required the dog to get up and move forward, we can help her start to get over her fears.

Because Opal was not very active inside the house, I suggested we head out into the backyard after this meeting. Sometimes a change in scenery or environment can help a dog snap out of a funk.

Once we got outside, I was initially very optimistic as Opal started to move around and seem to be aware of and engaging with her environment. However, after a couple of minutes she started to shut down again and the only movement we could coerce out of her was to follow her guardian to be close to her.

The rescue group that found and liberated Nana and Opal had paired them together due to their opposites in personality and energy level. The match seem to be comforting for both dogs.

I wanted to utilize this bond to help Opal start moving forward without the human being the one who was manipulating her.

While this coupling was a little bit cumbersome at times, I was quite pleased with the results. Initially I kept Nana on a leash to prevent her from running around and making it a traumatic experience for Nana. That would have been one of the last things we wanted to do given her anxiety, mindset and situation.

It was funny to watch this tiny little dog stop a full-grown English spaniel from moving about. But I surmise that most of this was due to Nana being aware of the situation and not wanting to pull Opal around with reckless abandon.

After a couple of minutes, Opal seemed to get the message and instead of simply sitting down, she was starting to follow Nana around the yard on her own.

I recommended that the guardians practice this technique multiple times a day for short sessions. If necessary they can take a leash that is attached to Nana and walk the dogs around the backyard. Eventually however, this should motivate Opal to get out of her funk and start exploring the backyard on her own.

The next step will be to take the dogs out for walks. Because of Opal’s fearful state I’m guessing that she will not want to voluntarily walk away from the comfort of the home that she knows. If this is the case, then I recommended that her guardian simply pick her up and carry her a block away from the house then place her on the ground and walk the dog back home. This way the dog is walking towards a goal or target that it has a positive association for which can be a strong motivator.

By the end of the session, I was able to pet and give Opal treats; something no one outside of her guardians were able to do. Nana was starting to show respect for personal space and even sitting in front go humans for attention instead of nudging.

By adding rules and structure, and orchestrating activities that get the dogs moving forward, the dog’s guardians will be able to help their dogs regain their confidence and stop living in the past. Being such resilient creatures, I’m betting it won’t be long before both dog’s baggage are left in the past for good.

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