“My Dog Was Abused”

An awful lot of owners who’ve adopted an adult dog or puppy from a shelter say that. At various times, I’ve said it of my girls, both rescues. However, I’m not sure we’re always right. Not that anyone is lying, here, I just think we might be misinterpreting the situation and/or some doggie body-language.

Certainly, there are a lot of dogs in shelters that have come from bad situations. Volunteering at the Humane Society of West Michigan for several years, I’ve seen dogs taken from puppy mills and homes by legal action. Certainly any animal picked up as a stray has had a hard time. Many dogs surrendered by their owners are not in top condition. Certainly, all of these dogs have been abused in some sense of the word. However, most times, they were neglected – ignored and/or given insufficient food or exercise — rather than beaten, berated, or forced to fight.

Some people would say that putting a dog in a shelter, in itself, constitutes abuse, but I think when we say a dog has been “abused” most of us mean the active kind. A hungry dog or one who hasn’t had proper shelter reacts differently than a dog that’s been thrashed or crushed with harsh language. After inquiring into particulars, barring a known case history of physical abuse, most folks are assuming their dog has been mistreated because of two things:   1) the dog ducks away when we try to pet her, and/or 2) she shies away from people.

Rather than abuse, I would diagnose insufficient socialization as the most likely cause of the second problem.   Despite the eager, everybody-is-my-best-friend stereotype we expect of all dogs, a lot of them are naturally shy and not very outgoing – just like a lot of people.  If those dogs are not actively and systematically introduced to all sorts of other dogs, situations and humans in the critical development period (7-16 weeks) they will remain wary at best and grow fearful at worst!  In a sense, the puppy’s original owner did misuse her, but it wasn’t intentionally cruel and not what we really mean when we say “abuse.”

Reaching out a hand to pet a dog and having it duck away from our caress hurts our feelings.  If we think the dog is acting that way because it was harmed, then we don’t feel so bad.  The dog isn’t rejecting US, just reacting to something ANOTHER — bad — person did to it.  If the dog was beaten, we can understand and forgive her for not welcoming us because it’s nothing personal.  And it ISN’T an insult or a rejection – even though most dogs who duck away do not have a history of beatings.

To a dog, height is everything.  Dr. Patricia McConnell says, to us height is a symbol of power but to a dog it’s the real thing itself.  So, any adult dog trying to put his paw or leg on top of another dog is making a very big, loud statement of domination!  (Unless there’s been an exchange of play-bows, and even then another dog might have trouble trusting that sort of “play” from a new acquaintance.)  Starting out, we’re so much taller than dogs that a shy, un-socialized individual is already a bit leery of us.  Then the dog is made even more uncomfortable with the human penchant for patting pups on the head.  They duck away because they don’t know us and we didn’t make any play-bow, so they are reluctant to trust that we mean them no harm.

Yep!  That’s all I’ve come to believe the ducking away from a petting hand means.  I can’t believe that 9 out of 10 dogs have been physically abused, and that’s about the percentage that I see avoid a patting hand – even a well-known hand!  (Kita still ducks away from my hand reaching towards her half the time!) And why do we EXPECT a dog to LIKE that, anyway?  Think about it.  Would you like it if some stranger patted you on the head – or even a friend?  When you were a child and adults did that to you, did you enjoy it?  Didn’t you try to duck away?

When two humans meet, the polite thing to do is face that person directly, make eye contact and extend a hand in greeting.  To a dog, that’s just plain rude if not antagonistic.  Facing head-on and staring is what an attacking dog would do.  Reaching out a paw, without a play-bow, is not usually friendly.  I try to greet dogs by standing in profile to them, glancing at them sideways and holding a hand (palm up) loosely at my side to allow the dog to make the first contact — to come and sniff if they choose.  The first time I pet a dog, I reach to the side of her face and bring my fingers under her chin to stoke the cheek, neck or chest.  It seems like they would be more protective of these vulnerable areas, but most dogs accept this approach and noticeably relax to enjoy the caress.

I am not denying that far too many dogs have been treated badly by humans, and that many have indeed been physically battered and berated.  However, most dogs, even ones who’ve lived their entire lives with loving families are never going to like – or even readily accept — a human hand descending from far above to land on their head.  And, I see no reason to expect them to do so!  They can’t intuitively guess at our benevolent intentions when our body language is telling a different story!

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