According to Nicholas Dodman, Director, Animal Behavior Clinic, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University.
Mistreatment can have far-reaching effects on dogs, producing a sort of post-traumatic state in which adverse events remain etched in the pet's mind. Dogs that weren't properly socialized as puppies, for example, may be unsure around people and other dogs. Dogs that have been mistreated by men with beards may be scared of bearded men. Dogs whose early bonds with their attachment figures have been ruptured may develop separation anxiety. My own rescued dog, Rusty, cowers when he sees a man's belt in hand, hears a garbage bag being shaken open, or is nudged out of the way with a leg. My theory is that he had separation anxiety when young, raided the trash, made a mess in his previous owner's absence, and on the master's return was scolded, struck with a belt, and possibly kicked out of the way as a new bag was put in place.
While a dog may never forget the original frightening event, you can help him override some of the negative associations through a systematic process of counterconditioning. If he has a tendency to flinch when you have your hand near his head, try making a passing movement with your hand three feet above, or far enough away that he doesn't recoil. Reward a nonflinching response with a treat. This teaches him to make a positive association. As time goes by, wave your hand progressively closer until it can be brought to touch his head. If he accepts without flinching, give him three treats!
Retraining is an ongoing process. I regard it as analogous to a game of Chutes and Ladders -- three steps forward and maybe two back, but making forward progress overall.
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