"I think he was abused ..." is one of the most common phrases I hear before or after a dog exhibits a behavior and said dog has been adopted and has an unknown or clear history. While there are different types of abuse for dogs, most people are referring to physical abuse when they make this statement.
I need to let you in on a secret, most likely your dog wasn't physically abused. You may actually be saying, "ok, but does it really matter?" Actually, yes, it does. I find that most dog owners who think their dog was physically abused are either far too soft on them, don't implement proper rules and boundaries, and/or coddle the dog a lot. Some people do all or some of those things when they think this is true and the problem is that it affects the dog dramatically. It can affect the dog's behavior and ability to learn and develop.
First, yes, sometimes this is the case. There are definite cases of abuse. I'm not saying this is never the case ... but ... it's not usually the case when I'm seeing dogs that are labeled as such. Also, when the dog is labeled as possibly being a victim of abuse they usually are referring to physical abuse.
The most common answer to behaviors that dogs exhibit and people associate with physical abuse is actually a lack of exposure and socialization. Dogs that are afraid of men, sounds, objects, places -- those don't necessarily mean they have been abused, but rather they have not been properly socialized and/or exposed properly to these things.
Also, genetics play a huge role in behavior. I think we often overlook this incredibly important fact. Two insanely insecure and scaredy-cat dogs that have offspring aren't going to produce confident and happy-go-lucky pups. Genetics, they can be a real bitch at times!
I like to explain this to people because there is a stigma around their dogs when they think one thing or another is a "reason for" something. The truth is that we just need to work with the dog. These "she was abused" labels are a huge reason people start to anthropomorphize their dog — put human traits on something that isn't human. This is where things get muddy with dog behavior ... when we can't see the forest for the trees.
The best thing to do is find out what your dog's behavior is like right now. Is he shy? Fearful? Anxious? Aggressive? Aloof? Once you find this out then we just go from there. The protocol to help the dog through any of this is the same no matter why the dog is the way that it is.
I use Classical Conditioning and Desensitization for most cases like this as well as Operant Conditioning. We basically change the dog's current emotional response to something and make it a different, usually, more appropriate and acceptable response. This usually means something like a dog that's afraid of a broom is taught that brooms are ok. We pair good things with the sight of the broom, starting at a distance where the broom doesn't cause too much stress. We go at the rate the dog is comfortable working and while we are making steady progress, so as not to see any regression, if possible. Then it just goes from there. (If this is similar to something your dog needs help with please locate a trainer near you.)
Stay tuned for my blog post that will cover what to do with an under-socialized adult dog.
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC