How to Help an Abused or Neglected Dog

What should you do if you suspect a dog is being neglected or abused?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #48

A reader, Misa, writes about a problem her mother faced. An elderly friend was suddenly hospitalized and Misa’s mom went to take care of the friend’s dog. She hadn’t met the dog before and was distressed to see his coat so matted that his skin was sore. And she found signs that the friend was drinking a lot. The hospitalized man has refused offers from Misa’s mother and other acquaintances to pay for the dog’s grooming and other care. Misa wonders what avenues for help might exist.

First things first. Although this podcast is called The Dog Trainer, obviously today’s article applies to cats and other companion animals as well. I imagine we’ve all seen animals treated in ways that made us wince. A dog living on a chain in the backyard. A heavy-coated dog matted to the point of pain like the one Misa’s mother encountered. At the park, Dog A snags Dog B’s ball and plays keep-away; Dog A’s owner smacks her, hard, when he finally catches up.

Should You Approach a Stranger Who’s Mistreating a Dog?

Few of us are born with the diplomatic skills needed for a successful talk with a complete stranger about how she’s treating her dog--unless “success” means nothing more than venting dismay. I’ll admit I’ve done that more than once. But confrontation and shaming are probably just as counterproductive with people as punitive behavior modification techniques are with dogs. You might well suppress the problem behavior in the moment, but you might also find the person lashing out at you in return. And I’m betting she won’t be inclined to reevaluate her behavior toward her dog.

How to Approach Other Dog Owners

A tactful approach may well not work, but it’s probably the only approach that stands any chance of helping. If you’re a fellow jogger, try falling into step with that oblivious runner and offering a heads-up--“Hey, I was behind you on the path and I happened to notice your dog’s lagging some. Long run today?” Grit your teeth and offer empathy to the person at the dog park who hits his dog--“She must get on your nerves with that behavior …” He may feel humiliated too; the ether is thick with gobbledegook about how if only your dog respected you as alpha she would always obey, so what does it say about him that he has such a rascal for a pooch? I’m not suggesting you get him into therapy, but a few minutes of friendly conversation might enable you to point him toward a good trainer in your city.

Be Sure You Understand the Situation

Bear in mind, too, that you may be mistaking the situation. A woman in my neighborhood adopted a nearly starved dog a couple of years ago. For the first month or so, as he transitioned from emaciated to merely skinny, people were doing double takes whenever the two of them walked by. Otherwise healthy young dogs sometimes break out in generalized demodectic mange.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).