Broken Spirit


I recently acquired a BC/Spaniel mix that I have named Sam. I got him from the Humane Society. He was found roaming the streets. His age is estimated to be 10 months. He is very mellow and sensitive to correction no matter how mild. If you even look at him without smiling, you can see him looking around to see if he has done something wrong. At first when I got him he would flinch if you approached him too quickly. He has gotten over that. Now to the reason that I am writing.

I can't help but notice a sadness in his eyes. He plays great with my other dog but doesn't know how to play with a ball or anything. He is always looking at me to make sure he isn't doing anything wrong. He doesn't show initiative to do anything without permission. I feel his spirit has been broken.

I don't want him to live in fear of doing anything. He doesn't need my permission to be a happy puppy. I am seeking people who know of this situation and any experiences and/or advice about this. Some people might say why worry, he is not a problem dog. Yes, he is absolutely great and well behaved, but I am really bothered by that sadness deep within him. Perhaps, I expect too much too soon?


We see this in rescue dogs a lot, as well as abused children. In either case - time, patience, and continued love and security are all that can solve this situation. The dog has possibly come from a situation where it has been beaten, mentally and/or psychologically abused, or completely neglected. You're right, his spirit has been broken. I would say that you might be expecting too much too soon, since it can take a long time to rebuild a dog's confidence in humanity. Some never quite recover.

Many of our rescue dogs have no idea how to play, how to deal with humans, or even other dogs. The reason is quite obvious - they have never had to or gotten the opportunity to interact. They need to learn , just like puppies do, how to play, socialize, and abide by rules of human and dog societies. In fact, it will often take much longer for them to learn, as they have to not only learn but also overcome their fears and insecurities. Puppies lack confidence in situations because they *think* something could possibly go wrong and they will suffer. Once they see that nothing bad will happen, they can overcome their fears quite readily. Abused rescue dogs, on the other hand, lack confidence in situations because they *know* something could possibly go wrong and they *will* suffer. It takes quite a bit of time to get them over their fear of retribution - because they have learned from history that humans dole out punishment and pain if displeased.

Abused rescue dogs need to be reassured that their human masters will not come down on them for every little indiscretion or slipup. This is why your dog looks to you every move it makes, as it is checking to see whether you approve of that action or not. Allowing the dog to push its boundaries and encouraging (with great positive reinforcement) exploration and new activities will help it build its confidence slowly. You also need to balance this "coddling" with times of complete indifference - demonstrating to the dog that you need not approve or disapprove of every move the dog will make. This is a long road to walk - filled with fits and starts of positive gains and periods of regression. It may happen all at once one day - suddenly the little light turns on and the dog sees that this is a wonderful place to be - or it may gradually evolve into a more positive relationship little by little as the months pass.

I think more importantly, (not at first but once the dog has settled in a bit), the abused rescue dog needs to also see that its human master can and will come down on them for severe infractions, but the human can do it in a fair and dignified manner. Rescue dogs don't need to get away with bloody murder. There is a fine line one walks in the rehabilitation of an abused dog - between overwhelming encouragement of all actions and complete discouragement of any action. I would analogize your role to one of a teacher on the playground during recess. You are there in support but not in control of every little movement, allowing them to play and explore on their own, encouraging positive encounters and fostering relationships with others, ready to take action if a crisis erupts - either as a source of security in time of need or as a source of judicious regulation in those times that they overstep their bounds.

Broken spirits can be mended, like other broken items, with time and bonding.

Good luck and don't worry about it too much. The sadness in their eyes can go away.

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Page last updated April 1, 1997. All material Copyright 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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