5 Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse in Dogs

Not all abuse leaves physical scars. Here are 5 ways to recognize emotional abuse in dogs.

By: Au Kirk
Scared and overly submissive behavior are sometimes signs of emotional abuse. Photo: Au Kirk

Not all abuse is delivered in the form of beatings. Some cruelty is emotional and can leave scars as debilitating as physical ones.

It’s important to be able to recognize the signs of emotional abuse in dogs and how to manage it.

1. Food Aggression

Seen with treats and chews, food aggression is easy enough to discover and is an indication that a dog may have been abused.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be explosive hostility. Food aggression can develop gradually into outward aggression. Signs include:

  • Frantic and rapid eating
  • Standing over the food bowl and refusing to move when approached
  • Refusing to leave food when called away
  • Growling when approached
  • Snapping at or biting anything or anyone that approaches the bowl

Food aggression can develop in dogs who are neglected, fed irregularly and infrequently, or starved. Not knowing when or if their next meal will arrive puts an understandable amount of urgency in these abused dogs.

Food aggression can be extremely dangerous and is a leading cause for dog bites. If you discover that your dog is food aggressive, contact your veterinarian or dog behaviorist to start training immediately.

2. Separation Anxiety

Especially common with rehomed animals, separation anxiety causes pets distress every time they are separated from their people.

Does this sound familiar? Even if Sadie is left alone for only 5 minutes while you run across the street for a latte, she spirals into a howling, scratching, despondent mess until you return.

Although separation anxiety can be found in dogs who have had only one family and home, it more frequently occurs with pups who have been abandoned and rehomed or have moved with their families. Generally, the anxiety becomes worse with the number of moves or abandonments.

When left alone, dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit:

  • Destructive tendencies
  • Howling, whining or barking
  • Pacing, panting or shaking
  • Urinating or defecating

From crate training to medicating, there are a number of methods for managing separation anxiety, depending on the severity of the situation.

3. Antisocial Behavior

Dogs rely on their caregivers to provide socialization at a young age. Being introduced to people, young and old, provides them with a level of comfort when meeting strangers later in life.

From the time they are fully vaccinated, puppies can interact with other dogs, giving them a positive foundation for interactions as they mature. Without this socialization puppies can grow into timid and distrusting adults.

This sort of antisocial behavior occasionally results in aggression toward other animals as well as people.

4. Submission

Some dogs are naturally more dominant, and others tend to be submissive. This is nothing to be concerned about.

It’s actually important for dogs to establish who is at the top of the pecking order in a multi-dog household (that is, after they’ve realized that you are in charge). But an overly submissive dog may be displaying signs of emotional abuse.

What to look for:

  • Rolling over with tail tucked when approached
  • Cowering
  • Lying down or cowering while urinating

This behavior should be addressed immediately by a professional because the wrong reaction can make it worse.

For instance, scolding a dog who is urinating submissively will make the problem worse and could even be the source of the trouble. But if you work with your submissive dog, you could help increase her confidence and make both of your lives happier and more rewarding.

5. Idiopathic Fear

Possibly the hardest emotional issue to diagnose and treat is idiopathic fear — that is, fear with an unknown cause.

It can be triggered by anything — noise, vibration, a change in weather, the time of day — and managing it is beyond frustrating.

The primary cause of idiopathic fear development is difficult to pinpoint in many cases, but emotional abuse can be one cause. Because dogs rely so much on predictability and routine, being exposed to extended periods of unstable living conditions (relocations, family changes, unpredictable schedule) can lead to nervousness and eventually idiopathic fear.

Treatment options range from positive reinforcement training to prescription medications.

Managing Emotional Abuse in Dogs

Much as in people, not all dogs respond the same way to emotional abuse.

One may shut down completely, cowering in the corner of a shelter kennel after being surrendered by his people. He may never recover from the sense of abandonment, whereas another will accept the change without batting an eye.

Emotional abuse may not be as apparent in dogs as physical abuse, which leaves visible marks, but it is every bit as harmful. Know the signs and, if you suspect your dog has been a victim, discuss treatment options with your vet before the effects of emotional abuse manifest into something more dangerous.