Your Dog’s Origin Story
Humans are excellent storytellers. We have stories we grew up with, stories we tell each other, our very lives and perception of the world are stories that we tell ourselves. It’s no surprise that we also want to tell stories about our pets, and your dog’s origin story could be and important part of the story you tell about them, especially if they have a murky past.
With our dogs there is danger in making up stories for them. It keeps us potentially stuck in the past, changes our perception of our dogs, and limits their potential. Stories that we tell ourselves about our dogs can get in the way of helping them navigate life, and those past stories can echo into the future.
It’s time to shed those origin stories and start focusing on what the story for the future is going to be like with your dog.
"We Think He Was Abused"
Maybe Fido shows some fear around men. Maybe he barks at them. Maybe he simply isn’t showing very friendly behaviors towards men.
This is a story I hear constantly from owners who have rescued a dog or puppy who is timid, fearful, or reactive. With the amount of owners saying this story about their rescue companions the amount of serious animal abusers out there who are churning out dogs into the rescue system must be sky high.
In my experience it’s about every other rescue dog owner who tells me a variation on this story. This story is popular for a couple reasons, the biggest being that the average owner doesn’t know enough about training or socialization to recognize a dog who has had a lack of those things. And on top of that the average owner doesn’t understand or know the consequence of these lacks.
Let's get Some Facts Straight
The vast majority of dog owners are not animal abusers.
Instead, there is a serious lack of knowledge about proper husbandry, training, and raising a behaviorally stable animal and many owners assume that their dog will be stable regardless of breed, regardless of the amount or type of training they receive, and regardless of the type and amount of socialization they have.
The average owner can easily teach their dog sit, stay, shake, or a variety of simple commands, but when it comes to more difficult tasks or knowing how to support a dog when they’re fearful or reactive, this is when owners find themselves well out of their depth.
Body language and particularly the subtle signs of stress, avoidance, or fear are usually complete unknowns to the average owner, even though every dog speaks this common language. The warning signs were all there, but owners get blindsided because of an inability to recognize those signs.
On top of this there is a very real lack of knowledge on what causes certain behaviors, and how many behaviors a dog shows are symptoms of an underlying problem and not the problem themselves.
Lastly we also live in a culture where dominance theory (Cesar Millan style methods) are popular and still very much thriving, despite the damage they cause to dogs. These methods of “training” do more harm than good and are not effective.
Under-socialized and Untrained
The largest demographic of dogs in the rescue system are dogs who are young, 6 months to 2 years or so. There are a couple of factors that lead to this and mostly it’s a combination of dogs who are under socialized and untrained.
At roughly 6 months of age we see puppies begin to approach the world differently than when they were smaller. They may develop selective hearing, and if they haven’t been trained they will act like a dog who has little to no real connection to their owner. Being “naughty”, “stubborn” etc. In truth this is a stage of development that can be made much easier with preemptive training, but I digress. The bottom line is that the training is lacking for young dogs in the shelter system and their subsequent behavior landed them there.
If they weren’t properly socialized prior to 6 months, this is when we start to see reactivity begin to develop. Dogs begin to react in ways that are “out of character” when really this was brewing below the surface the whole time and would have been mitigated with proper socialization.
There are very real behavioral consequences due to a lack of training and improper socialization.
There are a whole slew of behaviors that a dog might show due to this, and some fall into categories that cause new owners to label these dogs as abused. The reality is that that’s just not the case. These dogs often are suffering from a lack of training and proper socialization, so they may be reactive to things or easily overwhelmed.
The shelter system is inherently stressful for dogs and this poses its own set of challenges as well often reinforcing or magnifying existing problems that the dog had to begin with. Truthfully it can be a big mess to wade through, especially for novice owners.
The Danger of Labels
Your dog’s origin story, and the labels we use, often cloud our vision when it comes to training and moving forward through a problem our dog is facing.
“Well he was abused before we got him” – This is a phrase that can be quite dangerous when we’re talking about training and getting training help. Abuse or not, the dog’s story changes when they come home to you and you become an important part of their life. They are now in your hands.
This type of phrase minimizes the issues that a dog may be experiencing, shifts the blame, and chalks up behaviors that are happening currently to some intangible evil that happened in the past. The dog is labeled as damaged goods and the way that the dog is treated because of this often isn’t helpful.
There are three common approaches I see in this regard. The first is to bubble wrap the dog, overprotect, and not set proper structure in place for the dog to actually make forward progress. The second is to flood or overwhelm the dog, putting them into situations they’re not ready for yet with the intention of forcing the dog to get over it, which inevitably lead to a cycle of failures. The third is to minimize the problems and have an attitude of “it’s not *that* bad, he’s been ok this long” meanwhile the dog is living each day as a stress mess. We can do better.
I see owners unintentionally making things worse and limiting their dog’s potential with labels like this because there is some level of assumption that this is how the dog will be. He was abused and so now he has permanent/difficult quirks. The urgency of training, which these untrained and under-socialized dogs desperately need, is shifted and minimized.
I have owners contact me months and years later about their abused dog, where the dog has been practicing the same unwanted behaviors, living in a state of fear or uncertainty and stress, completely unnecessarily. The label of abused dog, doesn’t allow owners to see past it and realize that they and their dog just need help.
This all means that when they get training the work we have to do is extended and more difficult. At the first sign of an issue is when the training journey should begin, not waiting until a breaking point is reached.
No matter what your dog’s origin story is, when you enter your dog’s life you now have the power to write the next chapters in their life. Training and professional help will ensure that the story is one of joy and harmony and help you from getting stuck in the past.