Why a History of Abuse Is No Excuse for Pet Bad Behavior

Behavior & training

Veterinarians hate pet abuse. We hate it so much that we lecture students, start organizations, counsel inmates, form committees, and lobby Congress over it (among other things). We HATE it.

As much as we detest it, some of us also hate hearing the common refrain: “My dog is [insert negative pet behavior characteristic here] because s/he was abused as a puppy.” But not necessarily for the reason you’d think.

Let me explain:

It’s common for pet owners who adopt older puppies or adult dogs to believe their rescued pets were abused early on in life. Shy, fearful, and aggressive behaviors, in particular, are often considered the result of past traumas.

For example, if your pup cowers whenever she comes across men, people will often assume she’d been abused by one. Maybe bicycles, not men, are her nemesis. If so, then she must’ve been run over by one once. And if he hides under a sofa whenever shrill Aunt Suzy comes over with her Sunday bonnet on, we might be forgiven for assuming a loud and annoying woman used to clobber her with a big, tacky hat.

It makes sense. The assumption that abuse or traumatic experiences are the root cause of anxious behaviors is common and understandable. Only it’s not usually true.

That’s because the foundation of most negative behaviors like fearfulness, aggression and shyness isn’t typically abuse or some other trauma. They more likely stem from a lack of socialization or one of any number of anxiety-based disorders we might observe even among animals raised in “responsible” households.

In fact, these negative traits are probably more likely to be genetic in origin than the result of any kind of animal abuse. Recent research into the heritability of fearful and shy behaviors underscores this point.

Yet every veterinarian I know has a zillion patients who were “abused” in one form or another. And sure, it’s possible all these animals sustained serious trauma as the result of one bad actor or one bad event. But here’s the rub: If every pet whose owner believed their pet was formerly physically abused was spot-on in their suspicions, we’d have to assume pet abuse is far more prevalent than we currently believe it to be.

That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that pet owners wedded to their belief in abuse as the root cause of any negative behavior tend to ignore or deny the possibility that the condition is progressive and/or treatable. In accepting their pet’s past, fictional though it may be, they seem to give up hope for any other outcome.

Moreover, it’s my experience that when pet owners believe staunchly in their adopted pets’ history of abuse, it allows them to deny responsibility for it. This, too, makes it more difficult for veterinarians to advance our message of positive change.

Not only does that mean pets will fail to receive treatment for their conditions, but pets with anxiety-based disorders that tend to progress will typically deteriorate under their owner’s care. Needlessly.

Luckily, I find that most pet owners can be brought around to understanding that it’s possible their pets’ history may not be exactly as they’ve always assumed. And even if it is, they don’t have to accept that their pets will always be irreversibly “damaged.”

After all, we know that dogs can change. They can become habituated to the negative stimulus that leads to their anxiety by employing carefully designed programs of desensitization and counter-conditioning. These approaches can be highly effective –– especially when implemented early on in the process.

But that means people have to understand that an animal’s behavior arises as a result of the complicated interactions between nature and nurture. And as such, that they’re seldom the consequence of a discreet animal abuse event.

But more than that, owners have to be open to the reality that behavioral healing is possible. And that may be the hardest part.