My dog is scared, so he must’ve been abused

In the fall we have a lot of houseflies in our area, something that is out of the ordinary for any other time of year.

We don’t have a fly swatter, so I grabbed a magazine and was—WHACK!—killing the flies, or at least trying.

Meanwhile, my dog Ace tucked his tail and head low and ran to the corner of the room where he lied down and cowered.

“Ace!” I said in my happy voice (some might say I was rewarding my dog’s fear). “It’s OK, boy!” Then I got out his ball and played with him a bit.

My dog is scared, he must have been abused

My dog apparently doesn’t like the sound of a magazine hitting the couch or the floor or the wall.

Does he dislike the sound?

Does he think I’m mad?

Does he think I’m going to hit him?

Did someone hit him with a magazine or rolled-up newspaper at some point? (unlikely)

Sensitive dogs, not mistreated dogs

Some dog owners might jump to the conclusion that my dog must’ve been hit at some point with a magazine or rolled-up newspaper.

As another example, if a dog is scared of someone holding a broom, it might be easy to assume the dog was hit with a broom.

In reality, I know my dog is most likely just sensitive to the sound of the magazine.

There’s very little that actually scares Ace, but he is very sensitive to my tone of voice and my mood. He doesn’t like to be around me when I’m stressed and crabby (who would?).

Ace the black Lab mix

He’s the type of dog that acts heartbroken if you tell him “no.” He always wants to do the “right” thing. He might’ve thought I was upset when I was trying to catch those flies.

Dawn Ross maintains a blog called American Dog Blog, and she wrote a good post recently on this very topic. She wrote how her dog Pierson can be shy when meeting new people.

While that could mean Pierson was mistreated, more than likely he is just shy due to his specific breed mix or possibly a lack of socialization, Dawn wrote.

As another example, Ace used to get really stressed when my husband Josh would yell during Vikings football games. Ace would run upstairs to hide, seemingly thinking he was in trouble. (I don’t know what he was really thinking.)

But Ace’s actions make sense, considering he grew up in a house with two women and no men. These women may have been sports fans who yelled a lot (I don’t know), but they probably didn’t yell and swear quite like my husband does when the Minnesota Vikings are losing.

Ace the Lab mix with his toy

Today, Ace is not fazed by this kind of sports drama. He even joins in on the excitement (or disappointment), wagging his tail and looking for a toy to present to us, probably to get us to stop watching TV and to play a real sport, like fetch.

A dog’s past is often unknown

Many people know very little about their dogs’ pasts, but I am fortunate to know my dog Ace has never been abused.

I saw where he lived before I adopted him. I met his previous owner, and while she didn’t train him, she cared about him and wanted the best. She hardly disciplined him at all—that was obvious. He didn’t even know the word “sit.”

I suppose it’s possible she scolded him with a rolled-up newspaper at some point, but it seems unlikely. Even if she had, I wouldn’t consider it “abuse”—just a dog owner doing what she thought was best at the time. There would be no point to dwell on it now.

Overall, I think we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions when it comes to a dog’s past.

If the dog truly was abused, then yes, that information is helpful to know, but only to help the dog move forward. It’s not a reason to hold a dog back or to feel sorry for him over the longterm.

And if he’s just shy, sensitive or needs more socialization, then you know to gradually introduce him to new things in a positive way.

Does your dog ever act fearful of random situations? What does he seem to be scared of and how did you help him?

My rescue dog is scared, so he must have been abused

28 thoughts on “My dog is scared, so he must’ve been abused”

  1. We had Tibetan Terriers growing up and we got our last one, Jodie, from a rescue shelter when I was about 10. We don’t know exactly what happened in her previous home but we could tell straight off she was very nervous around children! As you mentioned in the post, a newspaper was one thing she cowered from regardless what you were doing with it. One thing I found particularly strange was she NEVER walked on drains. She would jump over it, or walk on the road just to avoid them. I naively put this down to something her previous owners did to make her scared.

    Fast forward 20 years and I have my own dog who I got from a puppy so I know her full story…..and she refuses to walk on drains also!! Its only now I think of Jodie and realise that maybe nothing traumatising happened to her and drains in the past and I was just jumping to assumptions! Maybe….just maybe they don’t like the feel of it on their paws!!! Us humans always look for the dramatic answer!

  2. My dog Vince is scared of quite a few seemingly random things. He doesn’t like the sound of the computer starting up, floor vents, the dryer (when it’s running), and he’s absolutely terrified when the power goes out. I imagine a lot of them have to do with sounds as I’ve had him since he was eight weeks old and his foster home was a wonderful place.

    1. Ha, that is kind of funny, although probably not so funny for Vince! Terrified when the power goes out? That’s interesting.

  3. Sometimes it’s hard for me not to assume my dog was abused. He’s just so scared of, well, everything. However, the more I work with him and live with him, I really think he was just very poorly socialized. Another commenter mentioned the not walking on drains thing; this was a huge problem for Hiccup! He’d even completely freak out if I tried to get him to walk over a manhole cover. One day I just got sick of it and dropped some roast beef on one. He gobbled it up and has been OK walking over metal ever since.
    I doubt I’ll ever have much idea what my dog’s life was like before I found him. He’d had a bad couple weeks, I’m sure. His leg was broken and he was underweight. However, he did come to me when I called him, so he must have had kind people in his life at some point. His medium-length fur wasn’t even very tangled, so someone must have brushed him, too. Like you said; it’s about moving forward, and he’s happy now, so that’s all that matters.

    1. Sorry to hear Hiccup had a hard couple of weeks, but I’m so thankful he is safe and loved now. That broken leg must’ve been terrible! Poor guy.

  4. When we first got Rue, she had an aversion to two things: storm drains and the floor vents in our house. I’m not sure she was really scared of the storm drains, I just don’t think she really knew what they were so she avoided them. And the air vents, well, she was scared of those. She would move past them as fast as she could, or slink up to them slowly, but maintain like a four-foot distance from them. I think she just didn’t know what they were either and was trying to figure them out. Both of them probably have a lot of weird smells coming from them (we rent – who knows what was living in our house before us, and what smells are lurking in the vent), plus you can’t always see the bottom (of the storm drains, anyway). We mainly ignored her and her skittish behavior around them, and made a point to make contact with these things in our everyday lives. When out of walks we would walk past drains calmly and expect her to stay in heel. The rules of the walk didn’t change at all. In the house, we would play games with her, and then we would sometimes put ourselves in a position where she had to move by the vent if she wanted to keep playing. If she hesitated, we calmly and firmly would ask her to come (after she had the command down) and reward her (verbal praise and pet) when she did. Eventually, I think she just kind of forgot what she was afraid of. She’s been over her insecurities for a while. I think the key to helping her out was doing our best to be calm, maintaining consistency, recognizing that things take time.

  5. Cookie actually is quite a sensitive girl. Which is odd, because she is also very outgoing and brave. But there are things that do scare her. Things you wouldn’t ever think off. As far as we know she never got abused either, though, of course, we cannot know that for sure. And if you use a stern voice with her, you really get to see how sensitive girly she is.

  6. My last dog always got real nervous and scared when I got my suitcase out, but she was dumped with her puppies at a shelter and I think she was afraid of my leaving. I was a flight attendant, so I would leave for a few days when it came out. Even after I quit she would he a nervous mess when she saw a suitcase despite the fact she usually got to come along at that point.

  7. Thanks for mentioning my post, Lindsay! Ace being afraid of your husband getting loud while watching a game reminds me of Pierson’s fear of children. I don’t know if he’s ever been mistreated of children, but he tends to be scared of them because they tend to be louder and move faster and more boldly than adults.

  8. There’s a local dog trainer whom I respect who says this exact thing and it wasn’t until I was reading her book that I realized what a huge leap this is. We have a sensitive dog (Rodrigo). He’s been with us since he was 8 weeks; he’s never been abused. Someone told me his behavior is due to trauma in the womb. Since his mother was in a stressful situation, it transferred to her puppies in her womb. And yes, I believed that for 2 years.

    There may be some truth to it, but Rodrigo is Rodrigo and he’s a great dog. He’s fear issues were compounded when I would baby him when he was afraid (rewarding him – something else I learned that I was doing from a local dog trainer). LOL

    1. Who knows, maybe there is some truth to the mom being stressed, but yes I think people do tend to come to some pretty ridiculous conclusions sometimes!

  9. Great post. My parents have a Shih Tzu that they have had since he was a puppy. He is horrid around other people and dogs, not because he was abused, but because they neglected to socialize him.

  10. Jack isn’t really fearful of anything, but he can get anxious – mostly when I’m anxious…he gets it too – so it’s a good calming mechanism for me. Maggie, is fearful of most things – or was, she’s much better. We do assume it’s her background, but I do try hard to to jump to conclusions. The one that has us stumped is coughing…she hates it and scampers away. Not sneezing, or other loud noises…just coughing. Weird.

  11. I know this is a serious post–and it’s very well-written and well-thought-out–I just have to say I loved “a real sport, like fetch” and Ace’s worried look (at least that’s how I interpret it) in the first photo. I find my dog’s worry face quite funny because there’s so little to be worried about, which he usually figures out very quickly.

  12. Exactly!! We have two examples of that – and many, many people assume that they must’ve been abused. Cooper has been with us since he was 7 weeks old. He was well socialized, has been through so much training, has the support of his dog brothers… but he’s terrified of EVERYTHING. We know he’s from a “bad” or “weak” litter, so it has nothing to do with how we was treated but more about his DNA. Lucas, on the other hand, is reactive. We don’t know what happened to him for the 8-12 months before we had him, but I suspect it was the opposite of Coop’s problem. I suspect it was simply a lack of socialization/human interaction. Of course, I don’t know… just a guess… but I would conjecture that that’s more likely than abuse. Yet in both cases, so many people default to that assumption. I’m so glad you wrote about this!! (Incidentally, due to scars and such, it’s likely Emmett WAS abused. Yet, he’s nearly perfect, afraid of nothing, loves people, dogs, cats, new experiences, etc….)

    1. Oh wow, those are three perfect examples of why not to make assumptions. I was especially interested to hear about Emmett. I hope he wasn’t abused, but that is interesting how he is the one that is the least fazed by new situations out of your three dogs.

  13. Great article! Early and ongoing socialization can make most dogs very comfortable around a range of objects and sounds (learned that from Cesar Millan, and again from our obedience trainer).

    Our pups have lived with us since 8 weeks of age, and I made sure to socialize them thoroughly. They are a little over 3 years old now, and are comfortable with loud noises such as the vacuum cleaner, the garbage disposal, motorcycles, as well as big, bulky objects such as boxes, guitar cases, excavators…I remember going on a walk with them around our apartment complex while something was being built, and as a consequence there’d be excavators and construction trucks sitting around. After the construction guys had left, I armed myself with tasty treats, and had the pups check out the excavators, and even do a sit in an excavator shovel.

    So long story short, I’ve put a lot of effort and energy into socializing our pups to all kinds of things, and was thoroughly surprised when they both reacted to some kind of little flags that were shoved into a front yard next to a mailbox. Their hackles raised and only went down after they had “checked it out” (that’s what I’ll say when approaching something new to them), i.e. given them a good sniff. We’ve walked past those flags several times since, and they are no longer bothered by them.

    I just thought that was the strangest thing!

  14. Interesting post, and good points made. I have 4 pooches, 2 are “rescues” and 2 are from reputable breeders. My shelter dog, I know absolutely no history on, just that she was picked up as a stray. I’ve had her since she was a year and a half; she is now 6. She’s one of the best dogs I’ve ever had the please to be friends with. She is soft, and simply raising your voice to her makes her give you the sad puppy eyes. Do I think she was ever abused? Nope; she’s just a soft soul. My other “rescue” was abandoned where I work, and we bonded, so I adopted her. I actually have a couple good guesses at her history. She’s reactive, sometimes borderline aggressive, and spooks easily. I don’t believe she came from a reputable breeder, and I do think that some aversive training may have been used. However, mostly, I just think she was highly unsocialized. Then you get to my breeder pups. One is soft, despite heavy socialization and exposure to novel people, items, surfaces, and experiences throughout her puppy-hood. I know she’s never been abused; she’s been with me since she was 6 weeks old. I know her history, and yet, she is still soft. Much like her big sister, a raised voice makes her give you puppy eyes. Then my oldest, a stubborn Shiba Inu, who I unfortunately trained using aversive methods (I was young, ignorant, and did not know better ways), is confident, bold, and nothing really stops him. A lot of that I can attribute to his breed, but it just goes to show that you can’t judge a dog’s past based on its reactions to certain stimuli.

    Also, interesting side note: If your dog is scared by something, or shows signs of fear, it is 100% perfectly okay to coddle and love on them. Due to the area of the brain fear is produced in, fear cannot be rewarded. So, next time your dog is having a tough time with a thunderstorm, go ahead and give him/her some love! Your dog will appreciate it, and it can help lower your stress levels, too.

  15. Great post. People do often jump to conclusions, which is generally not wise. I think there is quite possibly a genetic link as well. Some dogs are born with a certain personality or temperament just like people. It also might depend on how soon they were taken from their mother. We got a golden pup once at six weeks and she was a basket case all her life fear-wise. I am convinced that was part of it, in addition to her genetic make-up of course. I will never take a puppy that young again. Living beings are complex, that’s what it boils down to I guess. I’m glad Ace can join in during the Vikings games now!

  16. We have a puppy who balks at getting into the car. Even though the car should represent only good things to him (going to the pet store to let him choose a treat; or going to the dog park) he refuses to get into the car. He sits down and won’t move, or tries to backpedal on the leash. No amount of high value treats can get him to get into the car. While our other pup happily jumps in and tries to show him how to do it. We end up lifting him into the car where he promptly goes to sleep. I’d love to figure out what the issue is to help him get past it, since he’s already 30 pounds at 3 months, and will probably grow to 70 or 80 pounds.

  17. My boxer Bandit is literally scared about almost everything, loud noises, sudden movements, other strange dogs, he reacts to people walking down the street. He grew up with an older brother who was not like that. We took him to obedience class and although it was a struggle , he mastered most of the commands. He still has trouble with meet and greet. He also pulls and is reactive on leash. I recently purchased a no pull leash and am getting ready to try it. I will probably order the book you mentioned as well. I look forward to your posts.

  18. when i got champ he was full of fleas. his blood platlets were 10 instead of a normal 48. his ears are always down like he’s scared. u go towards him and he rolls over on his back. he’s a yorkie. he does strange things like jump up from asleep and walks around in circles or just stands there with his head down. if i give orders he cowers. he hacks alot like maybe he had had a chain around his neck. he gets lumps around his eyes that come and go. he is a very affectionate guy. he is on my lap all the time. he does’t want to leave my side. he is my soul mate. does this sound like an abused dog

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      We just can never know for sure but sounds like he didn’t get the best care as far as his health obviously and maybe not socialization.

  19. I have a 22 months old Lab, he is scared of loud sounds, pigeons, people staring him in the eye and most of all detest his own kind. He just can not stand another dog, beyond his threshold of 50 meters. We have tried training him, desensitization, making him visit calmer and older dogs..results are NADA! he still hates them.
    He is a fearful, timid dog outside, always alert and reactive. at home he is a delight, he loves getting cuddled and playing all day long. what can i do to ensure that he learns to trust his surroundings and at least be less anxious. I have had him since he was a puppy, he was weak and sick, he had bad tick fever and it took us good 4 months to rebuild his strength. He has been like this ever since.

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