Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Dog Training: What is Abuse?


Abuse is not a part of training.The one bite I’ve gotten in the last 25+ years of dog training came from a 5-month-old puppy who had been hung by the last “trainer”. Yes, hung. It used to be done a lot more than it is these days but it is still done by some. There is never an excuse for it.

Hanging a puppy by the collar off the ground is abuse. Period.

And that leads me to the point of this blog: What is abuse?

Understanding what it is (and what it isn’t) makes it easier to make choices in dog training.

The most useful definition of “abuse” I found in Steve Lindsay’s opus  Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 1: Adaptation and Learning.

If a method/situation is:

  • unpredictable
  • uncontrollable
  • unstoppable
  • emotionally overwhelming to the dog

then it is abuse.

A puppy does something. Anything. And it is hung up by the neck off the ground – that moment, to the puppy, is completely unpredictable. Nothing he does can control it or stop it and it is terrifying. Therefore, it is abuse.

The dog learns nothing except that periodically, for no reason he can imagine, humans try to kill him.

So that puppy enters my training room and I reach down to adjust his normal puppy collar on his fuzzy little neck and he bites me. As hard as he can. And he holds on.

Now, some other puppy might have collapsed in submissive-peeing confusion and another might have gone into class-clown mode but this one went on offense. Fast and hard.

Why am I on this diatribe today? Because I was talking to a trainer friend in New York earlier. Her client just had an underground fence put in and the installer “trained’ her dogs by holding them then instructing the pet person to go to the other side of the fence and call her dogs.

Her dogs – running happily and trustingly to her  – ran smack into the correction field. They didn’t have any idea what was happening. They didn’t know what to do to stop the shocks and they are truly frightened. Worst of all, to me, is it made the joyful act of coming to the person they love most in the world frightening.

I rarely get deeply angry.

I am deeply angry about that.

That is an abusive approach to underground fence training.

And underground fence – explained to the dog coherently – is predictable, controllable, stoppable and not overwhelming at all. There is, by this definition, nothing “abusive” about such a fence system. How someone teaches the system to the dog can be abusive though, as painfully illustrated above.

Using this definition, you can quickly assess whether some technique is abuse or just something you don’t particularly like.

If a dog understands the situation, can control what is happening with his behavior, and is calm then you’re on safe ground. If the dog doesn’t understand, can’t control anything and is becoming upset, then you are heading toward darkness.



Find another approach; adopt a better attitude; phone a friend.

There is always a better way.

Sarah Wilson is the author of My Smart PuppyChildproofing Your DogDogologyTails from the Barkside.


  1. This post is so timely for me. I have seen a man brutalizing his German Shepherd twice now…It is a beautiful, 18 month old Shepherd who is reactive to dogs. This man corrects the dog so hard that ALL 4 FEET paws come off the ground and the dog literally twirls in space. The second time I saw this man, he hit the dog square in the face. All of this angry, evil energy put my shy Aussie in a panic, so I just put her on leash and walked away. The man called after me that his dog wouldn’t hurt my dog and I could come back. I said, “Sir, she is afraid of YOU, not your dog.” I have felt sick about it ever since. This guy is not a regular at our dog beach and I only have one idea that I would like to run by you and your readers: What if I complimented on how gorgeous his dog is and asked where he got him…if he tells me the name of the breeder, I could contact that person and tell him/her what I observed. Wouldn’t a responsible breeder want to intervene on such abusive treatment? The first time I saw the guy his wife was there, too – she looked like a deer in the headlights. It made me wonder how he treats her – I wish she would take that poor Shepherd and start a new life. Any thoughts?

  2. Hi Brenda –

    So hard to see. You said the right thing, IMO. It may trickle into his mind/heart when he is calmer. We can hope.

    Sadly, in the world of GSD, he may be acting on “pro” advice. Can you call your local Animal Control Officer and discuss what you saw? Talk to him or her about the law and what your options are?

    That would be my first step.

  3. Wow. That is just heinous, I can’t believe there are still so many unenlightened dog people out there who would let an underground fence “trainer” mess up their dog like this. So sad.

    • Oh, these are devoted dog lovers. They had been very clear that they did not want their dogs dragged into the fence line – this was the installers alternative approach. They didn’t understand the significance until they saw it happening. I feel only upset on their behalf. We can’t expect pet lovers to know.

      Not unlike being told to take the food bowl away from Wyatt to help his aggression. How could you know?

  4. This article tugged on me because Buddy had both of these experiences while he was in my care after being rescued from an abusive situation. We were unable to complete the fence training they asked us to do because Buddy would vomit after each experience (I totally felt his pain!) and my adult niece refused to participate after the second day.

    Years later, when his normal behavior deteriorated into aggression, we had a trainer who began working with us and then continued while I was at work. During a session where we resumed working together, she hung Buddy on a choke chain and leash–twice in quick succession–right in front of me. Needless to say, she was not allowed back. I still feel sorry that I didn’t explain in detail why I was unhappy with her work. My vet had recommended her and I explained it all to the vet after the trainer called and threatened me with informing the vet that I was harboring a dangerous dog. Just found her on Facebook still running a dog training business. I’m tempted to send her a kind explanation even today.

    So, yes. My poor abused rescue dog was abused in my care, too. On the advice of “experts,” I disregarded my own instincts to do what seemed wrong. With the guidance of a kind, caring dog pro named Sarah Wilson, I took my Buddy to a veterinary specialist, sent his bloodwork to Dr. Dodds, and discovered that his aggression was a sickness. I’m sure the hanging only made it worse. Today, Buddy’s aggression is mostly managed and he is a great dog (who even sort of saved my life! But that’s another story!).

    So I’m glad to see this now, Sarah. I wish everyone knew that even dog “experts” can recommend abusive strategies. I spoke to my fence company about something else the other day and asked about the training. (I knew I’d never do that again.) They have changed their methods, thank goodness. Maybe all of them will get the message soon.

    So, thanks for the great perspective and giving pet families the power to identify abuse when it happens. I still feel guilty that I let it happen to Buddy on my watch at all.

    • Hey Mare – You are the poster-person for hanging in there with your dog and Buddy is the winner in this situation. You kept looking and trying on his behalf and you found answers. As you said – happened fast and hard to even comprehend something so unexpected. When it all landed – you acted. That makes you a superstar.

  5. Wonderful article, Sarah. I just watched a video on hanging and was horrified. I will never understand some people. Also, we had invisible fencing at our old house, and am happy to say that our dogs were properly trained and never had issues with it. Well, except for the time Charlie Basset figured out that the mountain of snow between us and the neighbors was a handy way to get up and over the fence field 😉 !

    • I’ve helped dogs with underground systems for years and it can absolutely be done fairly so the dog understands completely.

      Those snow piles? Smart dog. 😀

  6. Thanks for this post, Sarah. I often hope that more dog owners and trainers could hear this wisdom. We are involved with a GSD rescue that strongly advocates shock-collar training–especially for shy dogs (which breaks my heart). They brag about how well-trained their dogs how, how the dogs wouldn’t dare move a muscle when placed in a down/stay, and all I can think is, “Of course not. They are TERRIFIED of getting shocked again.” This is not a way to build a trusting relationship. Sigh. It’s time for these training methods to go the way of the dinosaur.

  7. I only have rescue dogs and cats. I get so mad when I hear and see abused animals, it really disgusts me. I have a dog that showed up on our farm, I think he is part Beagal a year ago. I can tell he was really abused becaused he will not let you get close to him nor can we get him to come into our home. We have made him a loving home. He is a great watch dog protecting the property, we no longer have skunks or other animals coming near our farm.

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