How to Train an Abused Dog

Building trust to alleviate fear is an important step in training an abused dog.
Dog image by yosicom from

An abused dog may seem aggressive when he is actually fearful and distrustful of people, other dogs and social situations. Building trust and confidence through kindness gives an abused dog a new lease on life. Consistent, positive training methods, structure and rules help abused dogs feel needed and secure, according to therapy dog trainer Kathy Diamond Davis from Once an abused dog learns to trust you using positive reinforcement training, it is time to begin socialization.

Step 1

Begin training your dog's focus and attention. You should be the most interesting thing in his life. When your dog focuses on you, he will not care about the distractions around him, resulting in decreased fear and anxiety. Train your dog how to focus on you by using the cue “watch.” Hold a treat between your eyes and when your dog looks at the treat, either click with a training clicker or use a positive reinforcing word, like “yes.” Immediately reward your dog with a treat. When your dog looks into your face consistently, say the “watch” cue. Continue this training until your dog looks into your eyes whenever you give him the cue. Build up the time he must look at you gradually, until your dog focuses on you even when there are distractions.

Step 2

Continue training with the cue “leave it.” If an abused dog shows any signs of aggression to people or other animals, you can keep him under control with this command. This cue also teaches your dog self-control, which is critical for many abused dogs that rely on instinctual impulses for survival. When your dog learns “leave it,” he will know what you expect from him and will trust that you know what is best. You can use this cue for many situations when you want your dog to stop an unwanted behavior, such as touching an object, barking at someone who walks by or lunging toward another dog. Begin training the cue “leave it” by holding a treat in your hand and letting your dog sniff it. Eventually, he will look away from your hand, hoping you will give it to him. As soon as he looks away from your hand, click or say “yes.” Immediately give him a better treat than the one in your hand. Add the cue “leave it” when your dog looks away from your hand consistently. Eventually, place the treat on the floor and train in the same way. When your dog knows the cue, begin using it with other objects, other dogs and people.

Step 3

Teach your dog socialization skills. Many abused dogs have experienced negative, cruel experiences from people and the outside world. They lack the socialization skills that provide confidence in the world around them and with the people in their lives. Begin socializing your dog as soon as he trusts you to be in charge of his world and protect him for danger, which you enforced when teaching “watch” and “leave it.” Begin socializing your dog slowly with only a few friends. Keeping your dog on a leash, allow a friend to approach your dog. If your dog remains calm, immediately click and treat or say “yes” and treat. Your dog learns that not all people want to hurt him. Continue this training until your dog is comfortable around people who come to your house. Eventually, bring your dog on a short walk where he can pass by other people. If he becomes fearful or aggressive, use the “leave it” cue and treat him. Ignoring other people and dogs is such a big step for an abused dog that you can give him a jackpot of several treats when he ignores others and focuses on you. Your dog knows immediately how he should respond to other people and trusts in your positive reinforcement.


  • If you feel frustrated with your dog’s behavior while training, your dog will react adversely to this tension, by either shutting down or becoming aggressive. As soon as you feel your patience waning, take a break from training. Abused dogs recognize negativity and your frustration will hinder the trustworthy relationship you want to build with your dog. You can use a cue for break time, such as “that’s it” or “all done” and end on a positive note.


  • Consider using a clicker in your training. The clicker gives immediate reinforcement to your dog when he does something right and gives you a way to communicate with your dog, even from a distance.

Items You Will Need

  • Training clicker
  • Treats
  • Leash



  • Don’t Shoot the Dog; Karen Pryor

About the Author

Karen Curley has more than 18 years experience in health and nutrition, specializing in healthy food choices for families. She received USDA certification in food components, nutrient sources, food groups and infant/child nutrition, and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts. Curley is also an avid gardener, home renovator, Collie breeder, dog groomer and dog trainer.

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