“She must have been abused.” I hear this so often from people whose dogs cower or otherwise express fear in response to certain objects or certain types of people. It’s natural to think that reactions to seemingly innocuous stimuli must be indications of previous abuse. It’s easy to imagine that a dog who is scared of children has been teased by them in the past. Similarly, it’s perfectly understandable to imagine that the only reason a dog would react so aversely to a broom is because of a previous terrifying experience with one.Many clients have told me that their dog immediately cowered the instant that they picked up a broom, a mop, a stepstool, or even a garbage can.
The behavior that most commonly elicits concerns of abuse in a dog’s past is that the dog is only scared of men. While it is always possible that a man has harmed the dog, it is a fact that fearful dogs are often more reactive to men than to woman or to children. To dogs, men are generally more intimidating due to factors such as larger size, broader shoulders, deeper voices, and facial hair. It is very rare to meet a dog who is more afraid of women than of men. Is this because the sickos out there abusing dogs are all men? No! It’s because of fearful dogs’ natural inclination to be more afraid of men.
A variation of the assumption that a fear of men results from abuse by a man is that fear of people with hats, or backpacks, or carrying clipboards indicates past abuse by a person sporting those same objects. While this cannot, of course, be ruled out absolutely, it is much more likely that the dog is simply not used to people with these extra objects. Dogs don’t seem to understand about removable parts and many are frightened by anything that changes the overall silhouette of a person. Instead of seeing a person with a hat and backpack for example, dogs may see a strange shape that they can’t identify. In fact, many dogs have shown fear towards a person they know well and love until they remove the hat, at which point the dog stops appearing fearful.
Not every dog who exhibits fearful, reactive behaviors was a victim of abuse. Certainly, and most regrettably, there are dreadful people out there who abuse dogs, and there is no question that dogs who are abused are reactive to objects and types of people with whom they have had bad experiences in the past. However, for many dogs, other explanations are much more likely. I do find small comfort in knowing that there are many dogs out there who people suspect of being abused that were not likely victims of it.Dogs often react to sudden movements or anything that is unfamiliar, especially if they are genetically prone to develop neophobic tendencies or they were not exposed to many novel experiences as puppies.
I’ve had many lovely clients who have had a dog since the dog was only weeks old with these fearful, reactive behaviors and they say, “People are going to think we’ve abused her, but I swear we’ve never hurt her.” It’s a pleasure when I can reassure them that I do believe them and for very good reason.