Without a doubt, in my many years of working with animal shelters and rescue groups, I have met more mistreated animals than I care to count. Puppy mill survivors immediately come to mind as well as pets who have been physically harmed or emotionally abused. Emotional abuse could include screaming at the pet, lack of socialization, use of punishment or force-based training techniques and other ways that damage a pet’s psyche. From this ill treatment, many animals fear humans and require a great deal of patience and compassion to learn to trust.

People who truly love animals want to help these needy, special creatures. Being human, our natural inclination may be to want to “make up for the past” by overindulging the pet. We want to give them everything so that they will know love and security in hopes of compensating for what they missed out on. However, not all pets will benefit from being overindulged. Underneath the scared façade is a pet with a unique personality: a confident dog, a shy cat, etc. Spoiling could possibly backfire. When I say “spoil,” I mean allowing them to push your around, not training them, and not being a good parent by making them adhere to consistent rules. By all means, overindulge them as much as possible by feeding them high quality food and treats, going out for lots of walks, playing and training with them, and giving lots of affection on your terms (see my post that discusses leadership).

Take my current foster dogs as an example. These little Chihuahua mixes were found abandoned in a home. The owner had moved out and left them there, and they were not discovered for several days. When they were rescued, both were scared but one was especially shy. Nutmeg didn’t want to be around people and backed away. When I met her a few days later, she turned her head away from me and curled her lip slightly. These girls are little and so cute, easy to spoil by allowing them all kinds of privileges. Ginger, the other one, took to me immediately. All she wanted was to be hugged and petted. She overcame her fear very quickly. I could tell that her personality was sweet with a touch of insecurity. Nutmeg, on the other hand, was showing signs of confidence and pushiness, despite her initial fearfulness. The more I got to know her, I saw that she wanted to be the leader – pushing herself through doors first, walking far out in front on the leash and pushing Ginger out of the way.

Neither of these dogs’ personalities could benefit from being spoiled, although they no doubt deserved it. Instead, what they really needed was security. And that is accomplished by me, their “parent,” being the leader. Ginger needed the security of knowing that I was taking care of her. Nutmeg, however, thought she wanted to be in charge but like a rebellious teenager, needed me to be a good parent so that she would relax and not try so hard to be in charge. With her nervousness, she was not equipped to really be in charge although she wanted to be.

As much as we can know, animals don’t think of their pasts. They live in the moment. The past is over and done. By making their “present” as happy and secure as possible, they can easily put their past behind them. No matter how we try, we cannot change the past but we can make the present and future stable and secure.