Me: “Oh my. What a beautiful new dog you have.”
Owner: “It’s alright Tiger, Doctor Mark won’t hurt you….he loves dogs……(leaning in towards me she whispers) “we think he has been abused.”
This scenario is one I have witnessed countless times in my twenty years at this gig. The owners nearly always respond in the same way; frantic clutching or tight holding of the dog while issuing affirming words in response to this predominantly fear based behaviour. Now, while the dog may have been abused, the ingrained fear-based behaviour and the owner’s surprise and misplaced loving response has only ensured that the behaviour has been unwittingly reinforced. Such dogs have not likely been abused as much as they have been inappropriately and enthusiastically loved and this may have started early on in puppy-hood.
Puppies have a window of time early in their lives (the first three months, up to 12 weeks of age) where they become “socialized.” Puppies who do not experience a wide range of positive interactions with people, other animals, and novel situations during that period of time may grow up to be more fearful and less outgoing than puppies who get plenty of happy exposure to the world while going through that formative period in their lives. The trick is to expose a puppy to as wide a variety of people and experiences while simultaneously AVOIDING scaring him. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, particularly if your new pet is shy instead of outgoing.
Some dogs (and I have found this to be the case with the small, feet-never-touch-the-ground types more often than with larger breeds) seemed to get worse over time. The owners of these dogs feel that the way the dog behaves is how they themselves would act if they’d previously been beaten, so that MUST be what happened to the dog. In almost all cases, though, this “abuse” was never a witnessed event, just a supposition. These owners unintentionally reward the “frightened” behavior by praising and coddling the dogs when it occurs instead of taking steps to modify that inappropriate response. This lavished attention has only the best of intentions behind it but always makes the circumstance incrementally much worse.
Abuse is often blamed for the behaviour of dogs who are adopted from shelters. It is not uncommon for these poor creatures to have been yelled at, chased, shot at or simply starved, so of course they are afraid. However, when cared for properly in a patient, quiet environment, many of those dogs can come around to be happy dogs with no sign of that initial anxiety, as long as positive and appropriate socialization events occurred in puppyhood. If these events did not occur, it is more likely that the dog may act out inappropriately and fearfully.
There are definitely pets who suffer abuse. We hear about those on the news every now and again. Often when owners use these terms, they mean “hitting” and other forms of physical abuse. I would speculate that there are more instances of abuse in the form of inadequate provision for the dog (provision of food, water, housing, health care, etc) than direct acts of commission in the form of physical hitting or pain inflication. Most of those who “act like they were abused” are just timid and did not learn how to interact with people in the way we prefer when they were young and impressionable. After all, dogs will, if left to their own devices, act like dogs. We have imposed the expectation to act like humans upon them, and we must remember that they are not born magically knowing how to deal with us.
So what can you do? First and foremost, if you have a new puppy make life a wide variety of joyous socialization experiences with people, other pets, and objects (remember veterinarians are not objects….we are people too). You MUST do so in a way that keeps the happy factor greater than the fear factor, which is the part that requires finesse.
Handling of a youngster is important. People of different ages, genders, and sizes should interact with the pet, always in a positive fashion, never forced and intimidating. It’s also important that the pet should not just be held: you need to touch feet, mouths, and tails.
These creatures are going to have to tolerate veterinary examinations! Take them to the vet for a happy visit. Get treats and hugs, play with the staff, get more treats and more hugs, then leave. Associating the clinic with positive experiences during that early socialization period will make the rest of your visits much easier down the road. We always us Stress Reducing handling techniques that will help but are not the be all and end all. We really do want to ensure that your pet leaves happy and full of healthy cookies.
If you adopt an older animal, you may have a harder row to hoe. First and foremost, understand that if your new pet was inadequately socialized while young, you may never have the bubbly, outgoing personality that you had hoped for. You will definitely need to make a special effort to train behavior as well as you can (poorly socialized pets CAN be trained), but be prepared to accept that this pet may always be scared of people, certain objects, etc.
The most common reason adult dogs are relinquished to animal shelters is inappropriate behaviour. For most animals, this is a one-way ticket. At that point in their lives, when their actions have caused them to be unwanted or even unsafe in the company of the humans who try to care for them, it’s usually too late. There are very few experienced people who are willing and able to go to the lengths that it takes to “fix” an animal whose actions have been deemed unfit for coexistence in civilized society. This is unsavoury business indeed and definitely a lose-lose proposition.
What do you do if you have one of these pets? Don’t think you can “love them” out of this state. You will need to get appropriate help to increase your likelihood of a desired outcome.
A book released in January 2014 by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, “Decoding Your Dog,” is an excellent resource for insight into a dog’s mind and behaviors. This is step one.
If you choose to work with a trainer, be cautious because there are no requirements to be a dog trainer. Anyone can call themselves a trainer whether they know what they’re doing or not, or whether they are using current theory. Sadly, there are trainers out there who, while they mean well, use training techniques based on “dominance” and other inappropriate theories that will make a nervous dog worse instead of better. This is not likely a good place for a “tough love” advocate. Feel free to ask for references and to quiz them on techniques and approaches.
If you find that you’ve adopted an adult dog who seems more like he’s constantly worried than that happy-go-lucky fellow you’d hoped for, keep the following in mind:
1. Resist the urge to believe that the dog has been physically abused, and to excuse his actions based on that belief as the vast majority of the time, it isn’t the case. Dog behavior and human behavior are different, and we’d do well to remember that a dog’s perceptions and reactions are different from our own.
2. Don’t inadvertently praise bad behavior. If you respond to a grumble or growl with “Ooh, honey, it’s okay,” you’ve just taught your pet that grumbling and growling works, and you’ve made it more likely that he’ll do it again.
3. Have realistic expectations about your new pet’s behavior. Check with your veterinarian to find a trustworthy veterinary behaviorist or trainer who will work closely with you and your pet, and who uses positive methods of training (not punishment!) to help teach your dog to be a relaxed, happy member of the family.
4. Avoid situations that trigger defensive or aggressive responses. Some people feel that they need to repeat activities that make their pets nervous “so they’ll get used to it,” such as taking food away from a dog. All that does is increase the dog’s anxiety and make a bad outcome (a bite) more likely. The goal is a calm, relaxed pet, so avoid creating additional stress.
5. Regardless of the underlying reason for a growl, it’s never acceptable. If you see signs of aggressive behavior, consult a veterinary behaviorist or certified trainer immediately. Do not delay! The time, effort and money that goes into this early work may mean the difference between having a pet you can manage and one who is unsafe. A veterinary behaviorist or certified trainer will evaluate your pet and teach you proper techniques to modify his behavior safely.
When we learn more about behaviour, it becomes easier to see that actions initially attributed to “abuse” are usually the result of a simple misunderstanding. It can be hard to separate human emotions from the doggie ones, but to give our animal companions every chance at a happy, relaxed life in our company, we owe it to them to make that extra effort. And you owe it to your veterinarian to not praise your dog when he tries to bite. If you do, it is possible that your cranky veterinarian may bite you in return.
Submitted by: Dr. Mark Steinebach