Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler
Me: “Hey, I see you’re here with a new puppy!”
Puppy lays back its ears, emits a tiny growl while looking furtively around and trying to hide, between its owner's breasts, from the scary new person.
Client, while vigorously stroking the tightly clutched puppy: “Ooh, honey, it’s all right, Doc won’t hurt you.” To me, in a whisper of confidentiality: “We think he was abused.”
I can’t begin to tell you how many times over my veterinary career I’ve seen some version of that scenario play out. I always wondered, though, what sort of “abuse” had been inflicted upon that fat, healthy eight-week-old puppy? I suspect it was much more likely that youthful bad behavior was unwittingly being reinforced and encouraged at an early age. From the beginning of my career, I realized that there were much more likely scenarios at play in fearful pets than “previous abuse.”
Puppies have a window of time early in their lives (the first three months, up to 12 weeks of age) where they become “socialized.” Puppies who do not experience a wide range of positive interactions with people, other animals, and novel situations during that period of time may grow up to be more fearful and less outgoing than puppies who get plenty of happy exposure to the world while going through that formative period in their lives. The trick is to expose a puppy to as wide a variety of people and experiences while simultaneously AVOIDING scaring him. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, particularly if your new pet is shy instead of outgoing.
The window of time for socialization in kittens is actually much narrower than in puppies: it ends at approximately seven weeks of age. While that number is not fixed in stone, in general, you have less time to socialize a kitten than a puppy. Many clients who adopted young feral cats tell me they can’t understand why their pets didn’t respond to all the loving care that they provided. I have to say that it’s most likely that lack of early socialization that’s at fault, not that the kitten was abused or neglected.
Some dogs (and I have found this to be the case with the small, feet-never-touch-the-ground types more often than with larger breeds) seemed to get worse over time. The owners of these dogs feel that the way the dog behaves is how they themselves would act if they’d previously been beaten, so that MUST be what happened to the dog. In almost all cases, though, this “abuse” was never a witnessed event, just a supposition. These owners unintentionally reward the “frightened” behavior by praising and coddling the dogs when it occurs instead of taking steps (see below) to modify that inappropriate response — which, while it is attention lavished with the best of intentions, instead serves to make things worse.
Abuse is often blamed for the behavior of dogs who are found wandering or lost and are then adopted. These poor frightened things might have been yelled at, chased, shot at or simply starved, so of course they are afraid. However, when cared for properly in a patient, quiet environment, many of those dogs can come around to be happy dogs with no sign of that initial anxiety IF they had positive socialization experiences early in their lives. On the other hand, if they were not well-socialized when young, things can be more difficult: more on that below.
Recently I visited my brother, his wife and their dog, a Beagle mix who was obtained through a rescue group. They’ve come miles with this little guy, but I did note that when the dog was tired at night, he tended to growl at them for normal displays of affection, and it didn’t seem like the playful sort of grumbling you see with some dogs who are “talky” when playing. It was more of a “Get off me” growl, which is not cool coming from any dog under any circumstance.
Happily, my brother believed me when I told him that was an undesirable behavior and immediately changed his response to it, both avoiding actions that initiated the growl (leave the dog alone when he’s tired, dude) and not rewarding the grumble when it occurred (no more sweet talking and laughing about it, but instead a total withdrawal of all attention - yep, Psych 101). This little dog is a work in progress, but he’s in a home with folks who love him, who want him to be relaxed and happy, and who are willing to make changes in their own behavior in order to achieve those goals.
Certainly, there are pets who suffer from abuse. We hear about those on the news every now and again. I would postulate, though, that there are far more who suffer from inadequate care and nutrition than physical abuse; most of those who “act like they were abused” are just timid and did not learn how to interact with people in the way we prefer when they were young and impressionable. After all, dogs will, if left to their own devices, act like dogs. We have imposed the expectation to act like humans upon them, and we must remember that they are not born magically knowing how to deal with us.
So what can you do? First and foremost, if you have a new puppy or kitten, make life a wide variety of joyous experiences with people, other pets, and objects (trash cans are scary! Dishwashers are scary! Vacuum cleaners are scary! Rocks are scary! Grass is scary!). You MUST do so in a way that keeps the happy factor greater than the fear factor, which is the part that requires finesse. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior provides an excellent position statement on puppy socialization (and much of this applies to kittens as well).
Handling of a youngster is important. People of different ages, genders, and sizes should interact with the pet, always in a positive fashion, never forced and intimidating. It's also important that the pet should not just be held: you need to touch feet, mouths, and tails. When I was a kid, our Dachshund had to be anesthetized to remove part of a stick from between the teeth in the roof of his mouth. He was going to eat my parents rather than allow them to reach in and pluck that thing out. If he had been taught to have his mouth opened and examined regularly at home as a puppy, it likely would have taken them only a moment of non-drama instead of a veterinary visit and a bill for anesthesia.
These creatures are going to have to tolerate veterinary examinations! Take them to the vet for a happy visit. Get treats and hugs, play with the staff, get more treats and more hugs, then leave. Associating the clinic with positive experiences during that early socialization period will make the rest of your visits much easier down the road.
If you adopt an older animal, you may have a harder row to hoe. First and foremost, understand that if your new pet was inadequately socialized while young, you may never have the bubbly, outgoing personality that you had hoped for. Like my brother and his wife, you will definitely need to make a special effort to train behavior as well as you can (poorly socialized pets CAN be trained), but be prepared to accept that this pet may always be scared of people, certain objects, etc.
The most common reason adult cats and dogs are relinquished to animal shelters is inappropriate behavior. For most animals, this is a one-way ticket. At that point in their lives, when their actions have caused them to be unwanted or even unsafe in the company of the humans who try to care for them, it’s usually too late. There are very few experienced people who are willing and able to go to the lengths that it takes to “fix” an animal whose actions have been deemed unfit for coexistence in civilized society.
What do you do if you have one of these pets? You get appropriate help.
A book released in January 2014 by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, “Decoding Your Dog,” is an excellent resource for insight into a dog’s mind and behaviors. They highly recommend that you work closely with your veterinarian; for dogs or cats with difficult problems, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a certified veterinary behaviorist for appropriate advice or a certified trainer.
If you choose to work with a trainer, be cautious because there are no requirements to be a dog trainer. Anyone can call themselves a trainer whether they know what they’re doing or not, or whether they are using current theory. Sadly, there are trainers out there who, while they mean well, use training techniques based on “dominance” and other inappropriate theories that will make a nervous dog worse instead of better. Find a trainer who has been certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. You can recognize them by the CCPDT designation, as in Jane Smith, CCPDT.
If you find that you've adopted an adult dog who seems more like he's constantly worried than that happy-go-lucky fellow you'd hoped for, keep the following in mind:
- Resist the urge to believe that the dog has been physically abused, and to excuse his actions based on that belief as the vast majority of the time, it isn't the case. Dog behavior and human behavior are different, and we'd do well to remember that a dog's perceptions and reactions are different from our own.
- Don't inadvertently praise bad behavior. If you respond to a grumble or growl with "Ooh, honey, it's okay," you've just taught your pet that grumbling and growling works, and you've made it more likely that he'll do it again.
- Have realistic expectations about your new pet's behavior. Check with your veterinarian to find a trustworthy veterinary behaviorist or trainer who will work closely with you and your pet, and who uses positive methods of training (not punishment!) to help teach your dog to be a relaxed, happy member of the family.
- Avoid situations that trigger defensive or aggressive responses. Some people feel that they need to repeat activities that make their pets nervous "so they'll get used to it,” such as taking food away from a dog. All that does is increase the dog's anxiety and make a bad outcome (a bite) more likely. The goal is a calm, relaxed pet, so avoid creating additional stress.
- Regardless of the underlying reason for a growl, it's never acceptable. If you see signs of aggressive behavior, consult a veterinary behaviorist or certified trainer immediately. Do not delay! The time, effort and money that goes into this early work may mean the difference between having a pet you can manage and one who is unsafe. A veterinary behaviorist or certified trainer will evaluate your pet and teach you proper techniques to modify his behavior safely.
When we learn more about behavior, it becomes easier to see that actions initially attributed to “abuse” are usually the result of a simple misunderstanding; we’re imagining how WE would think and feel in the dog’s shoes rather than thinking about it from the dog’s perspective. It can be hard to separate human emotions from the doggie ones, but to give our animal companions every chance at a happy, relaxed life in our company, we owe it to them to make that extra effort.
And PLEASE don’t pet and praise your puppy when it tries to bite me. That will make a veterinarian cranky for sure!
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.