Recognising and Assisting Abused Dogs

This week a very interesting and strikingly different paper came to our notice called, “Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse” by McMillan et al, published in the Journal for Applied Animal Welfare Science (you can find the full paper here).  They studied 69 dogs deemed by a diverse panel of experts to meet the criteria of likely to have been abused.  Caregivers of the animals in question were asked to complete the C-BARQ, (the  Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire) and results were compared to a control group (of 5239 dogs).  Results showed that the abused dog group were more likely to have behavioural problems such as being more excitable and being prone to attachment/attention seeking behaviour.  Abused dogs were also more likely to show aggression and fear towards unfamiliar humans, dogs and unusual places (e.g. stairs).  As the authors note in their discussion, there are some practical uses to this information.  The dogs in the ‘abused’ cohort showed higher levels in 12 different characteristics measured.  And 8 of these (including aggression and fear directed toward unfamiliar humans and dogs) are high on lists of reasons why people surrender their animals to shelters. So, preparing potential new ‘owners’ of the likelihood of behavioural distress, and equipping them with the means to manage it, might well be something shelters can take on board to increase the likelihood the dog will stay with their new home.  This is important for many reasons but not least is the fact that multiple re-homings can also adversely affect dog mental health.

The paper is striking because as the authors note very little research has been done into the effects of abuse of any kind on dogs (or any animals), so much so that any criteria for defining it is “practically non-existent” (p. 92).  But research into psychological effects of abuse on animals is even rarer.  The main reason for this seems to be that traditional models of animal welfare were (and sometimes still are) steeped in a worldview that assumed animals had only instincts and drives, not emotions (for more detail on this, see Broom 2008).

Since emotions are a pre-requisite for psychological trauma, it has long been assumed that if dogs didn’t have emotions then they couldn’t be traumatised.  Many people intuitively know this kind of thinking is wrong. Yet, getting past the idea of animals as objects has proved difficult and troublesome. The Cartesian legacy that categorically denied animal consciousness (more on this, here), still lingers in some circles, usually promoted by those who benefit from such beliefs, such as those that profit from farming and killing animals, and harvesting their body parts.

Fortunately, not everyone has been persuaded by (scientific or religiously based) claims that dogs and other animals can’t feel emotions. Challenges to animal cruelty based on beliefs about their intelligence and emotions go back at least a few hundred years.  See, for example, debates about vivisection in 19th century UK, and in particular the old brown dog affair. As a result, we are starting to see changing attitudes to animals, often interwoven with advocacy, rescue and rehoming work.

Today there is a rapidly growing body of evidence that animals do think, feel and experience the world in rich and complex ways, sometimes similar to us, and sometimes very differently. Over and again scientists are showing that animals have emotional lives of their own, including dogs but also sheep, cows and pigs so often erased when they are classified as ‘livestock’. Recognising the emotional lives of others makes it easier to see how they are affected by abuse, and that some of those effects will be similar to those felt by human victims/survivors of abuse. The authors make this point throughout their paper by drawing parallels with effects of abuse on human children.

Beyond these findings, however, lurks a much bigger issue about what we do with this knowledge and how we respond to the animals that people have abused. No longer is it legitimate, if it ever were, to neglect research into the specific effects of abuse on non-human animals. No longer is it acceptable to assume that dog, pig, cow or sheep abuse, for example, is automatically less important than human abuse. But the catch is, once we recognise that it throws open a veritable can of worms. Recognising the impact of abuse on non-human animals generates other, often very tricky, questions. For example, if animals do suffer emotionally then how can we justify them being farmed, slaughtered and used for experimental drug testing?

In a world that rarely considers animal lives and when it does tends to think of them as resources for humans, this must prompt big changes.  In the process of people appreciating the serious impact of abuse on non-human animals, some will need to re-think taken for granted ideas about the mental lives of animals. It must mean that we reconsider our treatment of them as individuals and group members; that we question the routine, daily and often institutionalised abuse that many animals suffer.  Acknowledging that sentient beings are not just human, must mean recognising that dogs—if not also cats, sheep, goats and so on—have lives that matter, with psyches and bodies that can be damaged; that they, like humans, may need help recovering from abuse. Understanding more about how we might assist them to recover from abuse seems to be the next logical step.

Authors: Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser

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