What Didn’t Happen To Your Dog

By Sean O’Shea

So many dog with issues tend to automatically get labeled as abused. Their owners or caretakers often create elaborate stories and possible causes for their fear, insecurity, reluctance, panic, and unique emotional triggering around specific people or things.

And of course there are abused dogs out there. Of course there are dogs who have seen some really unfortunate stuff, and their behavior might be directly connected to that abuse. But in my experience as a trainer, I see very few true abuse cases, and far less abuse as the root cause of most behavior issues – including fear.

What do I see more often as the actual root cause of so many behavior issues? Usually what I see isn’t some horrible event or trauma that occurred. Usually what I see is either a lack of exposure, a lack of leadership and guidance, a lack of solid genetics – or a combination of all three.

The lack of exposure – which is more often referred to as socialization – is all about dogs being exposed to all kinds of novel stimuli at crucial points of the dog’s development. Without this exposure, many things that a well-socialized dog would be solid and easy with are instead huge stress and fear triggers. Almost like us seeing space creatures or a ufo. If you’ve never seen something before, there’s a good chance it’ll freak you out. And if your dog hasn’t seen a lot of stuff, and built a comprehensive stress tolerance and overall generalizing confidence that comes from that early exposure, he’s likely to be afraid, skittish, worried, maybe even downright neurotic about stuff.

The lack of leadership and guidance can exacerbate the gaps listed above, or create large issues out of small ones. Here’s how this looks. A dog with some level of concern/worry/stress/fear experiences something troubling, and instead of being given information about how to better handle the stressor/trigger, the dog is allowed to experience it sans help or guidance. This means your dog experiences something troublesome, worrisome, fear-inducing, and instead of you working him through it, your dog feels the stressor and is left worried. Even well-intentioned owners often miss or allow small moments of insecurity, or are unsure how to address the issue properly. Typically this means your dog will become more and more stressed, more and more worried, and more and more fearful. This might look like out and out fear, nervous barking/growling, or even aggression towards dogs or people.

One last piece of this puzzle is genetics. Genetics plays a huge role in how dogs adapt to their world and how resilient they are. Many dogs who have genetics that aren’t robust and confident will behave in very skittish and fearful ways. This behavior often gets labeled as abuse based as well – these dogs will cower, shake and have extremely poor body language. And while it might look bad, it’s simply the stuff the dog came with. No abuse, no neglect. Genetic-based insecurity and fear often looks the worst, and can be some of the toughest stuff to overcome.

Once again, there are abused dogs. I’ve seen them. But the reality is, the vast majority of problem behaviors, fear issues, and other stuff that gets labeled as having an origin in abuse isn’t abuse at all. It’s far more often about what didn’t happen to the dog, rather than what did. Exposure that didn’t happen. Leadership that didn’t happen, and even genetics that didn’t happen.

It’s a great reality check, to remind people that while abuse does exist, it’s far less prevalent than presented, and far less of a cause of behavior issues then most think. And understanding this is crucial to helping owners move from a place of feeling sorry for, or making excuses for their dogs, to instead training, leading, and guiding them with strength and resolve.

And that’s the only way to truly help your dog move forward, regardless of the cause.

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  1. Mary Lane said:

    I love reading your blogs!!!

  2. tuffy said:

    well stated-

    these points have also been my experiences with ”abuse” as a veterinarian and trainer. these issues are especially prevalent in the shelter and rescue environments where abuse stories–whether true or made up in someone’s well-intentioned imagination– often figure heavily into the narrative for adopting out dogs and cats. i believe it ultimately does a disservice to the adopted animal, and the owner, because they are both then subsequently stuck in that narrative as well; and often can’t move into a healthier, stronger, more confident and responsible way of life as a result.

  3. I’m glad you wrote this! I adopted a 2 year old shepard pitbull mix. She is an exteremly high energy dog, who requires a firm and strong leadership to control her. People ask me all the time if I know her story, expecting to be a tragic one. But I’m sure she was not abused, in fact i think she was well taken care. She was probably taken to the shelter due to lack of leadership and commitment from her previous owner. It sounds sad but I’m glad she was taken to the shelter otherwise she won’t be with me today.

    • Thanks for sharing that! The story, like you suggest, is often just one of a dog being too much for owners to deal with. Happy she ended up with you. 🙂

  4. I was operation manager for a local shelter and ran my own rescue group. I taught classes and private lessons for adopters. Now I raise Labradors and train from home. Love it! 😃Common theme….. My dog has been abused! Not even realizing in some cases there abuse was right at home. Coddling. No leadership. No obedience and allowed to rehearse bad behaviours. Great blog

    • I have to agree that the majority of damage done to dogs is done by owners not providing for their dog’s true needs – leadership, rules, structure etc. Thanks for sharif that.

      • I agree that coddling, petting, and sweet talking a dog who is going through fear and anxiety will only make things worse, because, as we all know (or should by now!), you get what you pet! Simply loving a dog is not going to cure it of bad habits or bad behaviour, whatever the cause. The dog needs leadership, rules boundaries and encouragement to go through stuff and come out the other end unscathed and confident. My rescue from Mexico was terrified of the elevator when he arrived. I just lead him in (dragged at first) and let him go through it. A few days later he was going in and out of the elevator as though he’d never had a fearful moment. My attitude, “We are doing this thing you are afraid of… period!” I never petted him or cooed to him, just acted as though it were completely normal and ordinary. It was amazing to see how fast he got over it. And I never once thought, “Oh, this poor dog.” He’d just never been in an elevator before.

  5. Nancy Gibbemeyer said:

    Enjoy your posts. How do I address my dog’s reaction to fireworks? He paces and sometimes shakes, going from one room to another. Thanks, Nancy

    Sent from my iPhone


    • This is one of the more challenging things to overcome. Playing sounds of fireworks at very low levels and slowly increasing them over time has been helpful in some cases. Since it something that happens only occasionally, I recommend putting the dog in a crate, in a room with window shades pulled, and lots loud music as camouflage to help the dog avoid the mental trauma. Also, vet prescribed Xanax can be a big help.

  6. lizonil said:

    This is so true… I have a rescue who spent his life in a kennel with nothing but a hose to wash it out… no blankets or walks or human touch. And solitary. He is now with my pack 5 in total. He is getting over his fear of puppies… yep puppies…. he hates them. He is almost socialised… although not completely there when he is on his lead and we meet a dog he has never met before. My other little troublemaker is a stressed out puppy mill mum… and genetics must play a part here… now she was thrown about and kept in a small cage with only puppies for company. She will only let me near her… in fact I can do anything with her she totally trusts me but acts as though any other human is the devil. She is very bossy with the other dogs. Thanks for your insights… it has really made a difference to how I look at them.

  7. Nancy said:

    Great blog. Please address how to handle dogs and their reactions to fireworks (anxiety
    Shaking, pacing, etc. Thank you.

  8. Richard Van Os said:

    I see a lot of my foster dogs that are just the bottom of the pack and more comfortable around dogs than humans. This fits right into your lack of exposure and experience with humans. We work them with balanced dogs at the beginning and increase human contact to bring them around. Great article.

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