What is the best way to train and correct a formerly abused dog?
Abused and neglected dogs should be trained with the same methods that all dogs should be trained with - positive reinforcement and an owner who understands how to be a benevolent leader. Use treats, play and petting (No slaps on top of the head please! Most dogs hate those!) to get a dog to do what you want rather than correcting your dog for doing the wrong thing. Get in the habit of teaching your dog what you DO want, and out of the habit of correcting the dog for what you DON'T want. If Fido is barking out the window, ask yourself: "What DO I want him to do?" and go about teaching him how to do it. What's important for all dogs is for you to use clear visual and acoustic signals, to start training a new command in a quiet, non-distracting environment, and to gradually ask the dog to respond to your signals during increasing levels of distraction. Be sure to use lots of positive reinforcement each time the dog does it correctly, and be sure it's really something that your dog wants at that moment in time. (Just like you, your dog may love to be petted or massaged, but not at every moment during the day. Use treats or toys when your dog is hyped up and not in a cuddly mood.)
Positive reinforcement is good for any dog, but is especially important for dogs who have learned that they may get hurt if they do something wrong. Be very patient with these dogs. Keep your voice quiet (yelling just sounds out-of-control to a dog anyway!) and work on teaching them that wonderful things happen if they learn the "tricks" you are teaching them. Most rescued dogs will eventually learn to trust you, if you yourself are consistently kind. Do resist the urge to try to make up for years of abuse by spoiling an abused dog, however. That can end up making the dog even more insecure, because what she wants is a benevolent leader, not someone on whom she can't count.
So the keys to working with an abused dog are patience, consistently using clear signals, using positive reinforcement rather than punishment (think tennis summer camp instead of boot camp!) and being comfortable as a benevolent leader.
Patricia McConnell Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Her company, Dog's Best Friend Ltd., specializes in family dog training and treating aggression in dogs.