Helping an Abused German Shepherd Learn to Be a Dog Again

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 27, 2016


Zina is a two-year-old German Shepherd in Woodland Hills who was purchased to be a guard dog. But when she was delivered to her new family, her guardians found a dog that was scared of her own shadow with such low self esteem and confidence that Zina spends most of her day laying on the floor in the same place not moving or engaging with anything around her.

When I arrived for the session, Zina showed no curiosity or interest; laying in her preferred spot on the floor near the living room and not moving anything but her eyes. She was hunched over as she was trying to make her self as small as possible. These are classic signs of a dog who has been abused and is now untrusting of humans.

I sat down with her guardian to discuss how Zina came into their lives. After reading the correspondence between her guardians and the people who “trained” Zina, I had a lot of concerns about how these “trainers” conditioned Zina to be a guard dog.

Just like humans, dog personalities come in all shapes and sizes. Some are high strung, others are laid back and some are even sensitive. Ive only seen Zina for a few hours so far, but its possible she is simple more sensitive. Often times a dog that is more sensitive reacts very poorly to trainers who practice dominance theory. This is an old and outdated training method where they dog is punished for not complying to the request or command.

This fear based methodology has been proven to cause a number of behavior issues. Its not a technique I use or recommend for anyone. I don’t want a dog to obey because they fear me or a punishment. I want the dog to want to do what I ask because it wants to please me. This is usually the case when a dog loves, trusts and respects their handler or guardian.

In Zina’s case, its clear that her “trainers” used such a heavy hand that they simply broke the spirit of the dog. Not only is she completely unqualified to be a guard dog, Zina sufferers from such low self esteem even the simplest of dog activities are overwhelming for her.

I asked her guardian to bring her out of the spot she lives to shut down in and join us in the living room.

Once she was out of her spot, Zina seemed to perk up for a moment. Her guardian had noticed that she seemed more willing to move about when she was on a leash so we left it on her as we chatted about how I could help.

They had been going slow and showing her a lot of love which had helped her feel a bit more comfortable, but still, Zina was a long way from being comfortable. I wanted to see if a change in environment would help so I decided to take her out for a short walk on my own.

The change in setting was extremely helpful. While she started off slow, as we walked, I could see her relax and start to become aware of her surroundings. Dogs get over things by LITERALLY moving in a forward manner. So walks will be an important part of her rehabilitation.

Usually I show my clients how to get their dogs to behave on a walk and not be so enamored with their surroundings, but when dealing with an abused dog or one with low confidence, you want to let it do pretty much as it pleases at first, unless it tries to stop and shut down or return home.

My goal was to give Zina some stimulation in a positive way to help her regain a little confidence while building up her trust in me. I had avoided touching her until I saw her relax as its pretty likely that the human touch she was exposed to by these “trainers” was delivered in a negative way. My petting her in that unbalanced state would have been interpreted as something to endure, rather than the comfort from or enjoy.

When we got back to her home, Zina immediately returned to her spot on the floor shutting down again.

I took her back out with her guardian so he could repeat the walk the same way I did; letting Zina take the lead to whatever interested her. I suggested that her primary male guardian take her out for walks like this as often as possible.

Where the dog was shut down and still inside, she was alert and moving forward with a relaxed energy outside. We want to help the dog stay in this engaged state of mind for as much as possible. I tried letting the dog out in her back yard, but instead of being stimulated, she simply went to lay down in her dog house.

When we returned to the house, Zina’s other guardian joined us (she was sick with a cold). I could see the dog brighten up around her and clearly had developed a bond. When the female guardian moved about, Zina was with her. This is good and bad. We want the dog to feel comfortable, but if the dog only feels that way around one person that can lead to other issues like Separation Anxiety.

But even with the female guardian, I noticed that Zina recoiled any time anyone touched her while inside. I spent a few minutes discussing this with her guardians and showed them a touch therapy technique that they will need to practice a lot.

The goal will be to repeat this very short exercise (10-30 seconds) multiple times a day (10+) until the dog no longer recoils when touched.

While I hate seeing dogs in this kind of a broken state, knowing that I am helping it come out of a dark place is one of the more rewarding things I get to do as a Dog Behaviorist.

By the end of the session, we were able to achieve a more relaxed and engaged Zina inside the house.

While we made some nice progress in the session, Zina is going to need follow up sessions. Her guardians will need to practice the little things to help Zina regain her confidence. The first step is simply to get the dog to act like a dog again. Moving around and engaging with her environment without being on a leash or coaxed into doing so.

I made arrangements to return in a few days with a puppy I worked with a few months ago. I want to take advantage of the puppy’s playful energy to help engage Zina and help her remember how to live and have fun instead of sitting in a semi comatose state all day.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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