Telling Stories About Your Rescue Dog

As the stranger moves his hand forward to pet the dog, she flinches. Her people respond, “Oh, she’s a rescue. We think she was probably abused. That’s why she flinches.”

Is that true? Or is it just a story?

When you create stories about your rescue dog, does it help her? Or you?

Humans love storytelling.

We’re no longer human because we use tools. Chimps and crows do that too. We’re not human because we have emotions. Dogs and dolphins do as well. Perhaps we’re humans because we tell stories.

So it’s natural when we adopt a dog (or cat or rabbit or ferret) whose origins are unclear that we would create a story.

Shadow the loved dog

Mixed breed dog sleepingWhen we adopted our last dog, Shadow, we got a hint of a backstory from the shelter. Based on what the shelter volunteer told us, we assumed Shadow’s people loved her and wanted her to find a good home.

They didn’t drop her off in the middle of the night. They traveled far from their home to find a no-kill shelter. They gave a reason from their family situation about why they had to give her up.

And when Shadow came home with us we made speculations from her behavior about what her life had been like with her first family.

One of our favorite stories had to do with her peculiar wake-up call.

When it was time for bed, Shadow happily went to her pillow and fell asleep. But around 4:45 a.m. Shadow would wake up, jump on the bed, and curl into a ball at our feet before going back to sleep.

This was not where my husband wanted her to sleep. So we embarked on a retraining regimen. Mike ordered Shadow off the bed. Shadow jumped off, waited ten seconds, jumped back on.

After nearly three months of an involved (but ultimately unsuccessful) training regimen, we gave up. We decided moving to the bed in the early morning was far to important to Shadow. We bought a queen-sized bed. And we made up a story.

The story we created was that one of Shadow’s people went to work early in the morning. When he left, Shadow took his place guarding the human left behind. It’s a nice story. And it made us feel better about having her on the bed.

Stories that can hurt a dog

Any shelter worker will tell you that little is known about most dogs in their care. Dogs are dropped off in the middle of the night, brought in by animal control, and surrendered by people who tell lies.

Honey the Golden Retriever

My story? I like long walks, cuddlng, and chewing on stuffies. Oh, that's my centerfold story.

Some dogs are badly mistreated and bear physical and emotional scars. Others were probably happy-go-lucky strays. But I suspect the majority of dogs came from homes of people who had no idea what they were doing. When the puppy was no longer cute and still pooping in the house and chewing things at six months old, they decided to give up and take the dog to the shelter.

Did you ever notice how many dogs at shelters are adolescents?

If the surrendered dog is lucky enough to find a new home, his people will create stories based on his behavior. And the stories are often very dark.

“He runs away and hides every time we bring the broom out. We think he was beaten by one.”

“Her ears go back and she looks very worried whenever someone pats her on the top of her head. She must have been abused.”

“Whenever we hear gunshots in the distance during hunting season, she gets very startled and won’t come out of the bathroom. We think she must have seen another dog being shot.”

Or maybe, just maybe something else is going on.

  • The dog was not socialized to accept brooms or loud noises.
  • She might not like certain treatment, like being patted on the head. Would you?
  • He might just be shy or cautious by nature.

The story isn’t the problem. But if the person feels sorry for the dog who they believe has led such a sad life, they may become overprotective. And they might not work on increasing their dog’s confidence because they feel the problems from abuse are intractable and can’t be fixed.

If that happens, the dog continues in fear. He may be very loved by his person. But the story she’s made up might be getting in the way of making him feel more comfortable in his world.

Don’t let the story hurt the dog

You probably won’t be surprised to know that I feel dogs benefit from us becoming better humans. It’s just part of my self-help/communitarian ethos.

So if we want to make sure dogs aren’t unintentionally hurt by the stories we tell about them we need to work on ourselves.

Stop being so gloomy

Some people live in scarier worlds than others. Sometimes it’s because their world really is scarier. Someone who lives in a war zone has a lot to be scared of.

But others create the scary world for themselves. This comes to mind every time I read an interview with someone who insists he needs to carry a gun at all times to be safe. My initial reaction is to mutter under my breath, “Why don’t you just grow a pair? I lived in high-crime neighborhoods half my adult life and never once felt the need for a gun. Just what’s so scary in your suburban cul-de-sac?”

But eventually the compassion kicks in and I feel sorry for someone who is so trapped by his own fear. (I hope that someday the compassion comes up before the snark but it hasn’t happened yet.)

We can be the same way with our dogs. When we assume that nearly every person out there is a potential animal abuser, we fail to solve the more common problem which is that most people are well-meaning but very, very dumb. And if we assume that every dog has been abused, we may spend more time feeling sorry for them then helping them.

Get to know the dog in front of you right now

If you’re stuck thinking about what your dog may have endured in the past, you might be missing what he’s trying to tell you in the present. What’s going on now? Right in front of you? And how can you help your dog respond to it.

Someone who does a great job of this is Roxanne Hawn at Champion of My Heart. She writes about working with her fearful dog, Lilly. Roxanne uses relaxation techniques, medication, confidence building, and environmental management to give Lilly the best shot at a fear-free life. But she does it by watching Lilly every moment to figure out what her friend needs. If you want lessons in how to really pay attention to your dog, check out Roxanne’s blog.

Feel great about the home you’ve given your dog

You are a wonderful person because you’ve let a dog into your heart and into your home. You don’t need the worst horror story in the world to make adopting your dog a good thing.

If you did bring home a dog at death’s door who had been abused, that’s great. Thank you.

But every dog that finds a forever home is blessed. And so is his person.

Save the horror stories for where they will make the biggest difference

I don’t mean to diminish the very real problem of animal abuse with this post. People do unspeakable things to the defenseless. They need to be punished.

But if we spend too much time assuming every dog showing signs of fear is abused, we end up discounted by people we need to support tougher laws to prevent animal mistreatment. And we get distracted from the real need to teach ordinary people how to care properly for the dogs in their lives.

When adopting a dog that has been mistreated, look deep inside

We all want to be a good person doing a good thing. But not everyone is able to handle adopting a dog with serious needs and wounds. Mel Freer of No Dog About It wrote an eloquent post about how not everyone should adopt a dog rescued from a puppy mill.

Look deep. Ask yourself if you are the best person to adopt this dog. Because it isn’t about you. It’s about the dog.

And if you did adopt a dog who needs special care, you’ll have to work hard to become the kind of person who is the best helper to this dog.

What story can you create about your pet that will give you the best life together? That’s the one you need to write.


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  1. Beautiful post Pamela. I agree that many of us create backgrounds for our dogs. I think it’s human nature to wonder about our dog’s past and their odd quirks/habits. By the way, I think your guess about Shadow is right on. :)

    I have often told Daisy’ story (what I know of it) to people, not to hold her back, but to educate. I think there was a time that I felt so sad and sorry for Daisy and this story got in the way. As soon as I realized it, I stopped my behavior and focused on helping Daisy to move beyond her past.

    I also agree that people make up stories about their dogs. I saw it all of the time volunteering at the shelter. The ones that always worried me the most were the ones that said that the dog bit someone, without any context. It usually means a death sentence for a dog in a kill shelter. As you said above, most people have no idea what they are doing, so when they say a dog bit someone you wonder just what exactly they were doing to cause that bite or what circumstance the dog was in that led to the bite.

    So glad that you called out not letting the story hurt the dog. Great advice. As always, thoughtful and wise. Really enjoyed this post Pamela (thanks for the shoutout too.).

  2. Very, very, very true. Though I never believed Shiva was abused – she was found as a stray and we know zip about her life before us – I admit, I did sometimes pull the “rescue” card back when she had large reactivity problems. When people would want to pet her or when they would rush over with their dogs to greet her and she would inevitably freak out, it was a way of getting them to back off. “Sorry, she’s a rescue, she’s still learning.”

    It didn’t always work, though, so I probably wasn’t doing her any favours. People still looked at her like she was a monster. One women even looked at me with horror and said “I’ve rescued dogs myself before and they were never this bad. Are you sure you can handle her?” It was one of the lowest points in our training.

    I have noticed that people also tend to use the possibility of former abuse as a reason not to train their dogs. I have come across a few people in my neighbourhood who let their dogs get away with some pretty horrible behaviours just because they think they may have been mistreated in the past. It’s their way of making up for it, I guess. What they don’t realize is that by doing this, they are often hurting the dog enormously. No dog is truly happy snapping and growling at everyone he sees. By not working with the dog on such problems, they are letting his fears grow worse.

  3. Nice post Pamela.

    I think you are right, while we can’t discount the abuse that some dogs endure, the reality is that some people are really dumb and don’t grasp the idea that bringing a dog home = lots of work and training on your part. Well-trained, well-behaved dogs don’t “just happen.” Once they get a dog home and realize the time that goes into training, juggled with the household chores and other responsibilities, well sometimes the dog’s needs fall by the wayside.

    Before Sampson we had a little Beagle (Roxanne), she was a sweet little dog but we didn’t have the time for her, (with three kids) that we did with Sampson. Hubby says, “She was so stupid.” Which upsets me and I respond with “She wasn’t the stupid one, we were. What were we thinking with three kids and all the stuff that goes with that?” We didn’t put the time into her to give her the opportunity to become the dog she could have been. A regret I carry to this day.

    Let’s hope we can find a way to educate people so there are less dogs that need ‘rescuing.’

  4. Amazing post!

    Like Mel, I tell Tahsis’ story not to protect her, but to educate. Granted the story doesn’t make her her, but rather tells how she came to be with me.

    Again, what a fantastic post.

  5. I’ll admit we’ve done that with Monty. We don’t make up a story, but when we take him in public and he does something so absolutely off-the-wall that people start making huge circles to avoid us or giving us dirty looks, we just say “he was rescued” and it makes them forgive him. We do believe he wasn’t properly socialized, but we are fixing that for him. However, it also means we are never sure what he will do next – Monty wants nothing more than to have a good time. We don’t want to squish that out of him, but, it makes him a bit unpredictable!


  6. Very interesting read and take on where our rescue’s stories originate.

  7. Great thought-provoking post! I know I’ve had to keep myself from making assumptions about Sadie’s past – and many, many people have asked me if she was abused. The truth is, I don’t know what made her fearful of people and why she acted out aggressively. I do know that she was terrified of soccer balls and books being held over her and that she had more issues with men than women. But I think you’re right – I stopped myself from ever saying that she had been abused and when people asked, I admitted that I didn’t know but that I did know she lived in a home with two adolescent boys and that perhaps she was just a sensitive shy girl in a home with 2 boys who wanted an outgoing rough and tumble dog. Perhaps she was mistreated, perhaps not. Being honest about not knowing, while at the same time making up a possible story that didn’t feature an abused pitbull, prompted me and everyone around us to just look at her as a dog and not as a victim. I agree that putting the abused label can do more harm than good – specifically in that it prevents people from understanding dogs, their behaviors and the many possible reasons why a particular behavior may be occurring. I never looked at Sadie as a dog that was acting out because of prior abuse; I saw her as a fearful dog who dealt with her fears in inappropriate ways, whatever the cause of the fear. That helped me address the real problem instead of the behavioral symptoms.

  8. Excellent post. I especially like the story that you made up for Shadow!

    I think you’ve made an important point, and I hope a lot of people read your message. Thank you.

  9. AMEN! Let’s not focus on the problems but on the solutions!

  10. Wonderful post, Pamela. You have such a talent for seeing and articulating all sides of the ‘story’:) I’m sure Shadow was very relieved when you finally learnt that her place was on the bed at 4-45am, even if it did take her a few months to train you:)

    I haven’t had to make up any stories about Frankie as I was one of the lucky ones. I got a rescued dog off the internet who I hadn’t met before he was delivered. He has no issues from his past life, which I know nothing about except he was found wandering the streets in a very skinny state. I expected him to at least guard his food, but he’s very happy to share everything.

    There is so much help and information on the internet these days. If you’ve got a dog with problems all you have to do is care enough to look. So many people don’t care.

  11. Excellent post! I always hate hearing that (LOL, though quite hypocritically, I’ve used it to explain why Felix still can’t handle seeing a man stand over me – even his hero, his Daddy. Though we do know every detail of his back story, so we know we are fighting a bad learned behavior there. We’re working on it and it is so much better than it was a few years ago.)

    Honestly, too many of the people at our dog park use this – and they wear it like a badge of honour. “Look at what a great dog owner I am. I love my dog even though he is the devil in a fur suit and he terrorizes all the other dogs. *He’s a rescue* That gives him (and me) a free pass at life.”

  12. Funny how you use the broom example. Our Best Friend backed away from brooms when he saw them, and is still pretty nervous around them. We’re pretty damn sure he was abused in his former live, so it’s not a difficult leap to make that he was hit with a broom.

    Telling his story (as we see it, anyway :))at the dog park has made our buddies there rally around him. We get a lot of encouragement, and it’s like the whole gang feels partial responsibility for his social rehabilitation. And they do. I’ve gotten invaluable help and advice from these people, and we feel he’s a wonderful example of how bad beginnings can be turned around. (If he would only stop barking so much!)

  13. You know, if I had known how hard Bella would be to have I might not have adopted her. But, if i had known how hard it would be and everything else wonderful about her-I’d do it all over again.

    I am someone who should not have adopted a puppy mill dog. I’m pretty sure that’s what she was. She has all the behaviors. Most people assume she was abused. I was even accused of abusing her when I first brought her home (she was 15 pounds underweight and scared of everything).

    Even knowing how wonderful a dog like this can be, i would caution people form adopting them. It is HARD, FRUSTRATING work with very small payoffs over time. It required a complete lifestyle change that was difficult to deal with at the time. I was in a place (single, no kids, no roommates, regualr hours) where it was easy to devote the time needed but not everyone is.

  14. Interesting post with a unique perspective. I guess I never really thought about it, because we have always known what happened to our dogs that were hurt. So I didn’t have to make anything up and I only talk about it in context as it pertains part of our healing process.
    Though I do realize that when the Chance and Blaze are going crazy barking and such when there are kids around, I feel like I should have a sign out front that they were both abused by children that’s why they act that way. But then I’ve noticed that the few kids that come by, (a mean like rarely) don’t ever seem to notice the dogs wigging out in front of them.
    So I try to do the best I can with them and my limited resources, but you’ve made me realize how many times I do have that as a back up plan.
    Still something we are working on.

    That was a real thinker.

    Love the Shadow story.

  15. You’ve definitely inspired me to put on my thinking cap… I definitely do this and make up stories for Bella. I never really thought about it from this angle, however… I’m going to have to start paying more attention to how I use/rely on them.

  16. Ugh, I hate it when I can’t make it here until it’s late and I’m borderline brain-dead. :(

    My Molly was abused (although her rescuers didn’t elaborate), and I knew she was fearful when I adopted her, but being the naive young whippersnapper I was, I thought I could “fix” her with nothing but a loving home and my “charms.” We never went to a trainer, a class, or anything. But not because of her story – because I was dumb. I think a lot of people are dumb like I was. So how do we get this thought-provoking message you so skillfully crafted in front of all the “dumb” story-tellers’ faces? :)

    Interestingly, my first “adulthood” cat came from the pound and no one could tell me a thing about his past. He was so well-adjusted, loving, healthy, PERFECT that to this day, I know his original owner passed away (and there had been no arrangement for his care). However, there was also the doorbell thing. Whenever the doorbell rang, he’d bristle up and bolt underneath a bed. It’s been over 20 years since I adopted him (and he’s gone now), but boy, would I like to know that story.

  17. Wow, brilliant post, Pamela. I completely agree that people should scrutinize themselves before adopting a dog, regardless of whether the dog is a rescue or not. As you say, a lot of puppies end up as rescues when they become adolescents because their families don’t know how to handle them and shouldn’t have adopted them in the first place.
    When we decided to get a dog, we considered adopting one from our local shelter. We thought about it for months, debating all the pros and cons, and we even went to see a few dogs. It broke my heart to see them looking sad and dejected, and I felt I wanted to take all of them home. But then we realised that we weren’t ready to take in a dog with an unknown story. Because Brianna was only 5 at the time, we thought it was better to get a dog that would grow up with her, the way we want him to. So we got George. However, I haven’t given up the idea of adopting a rescue dog…When the kids have left home and my husband and I are by ourselves again, then the time might be right and we might be ready for such a committment.
    People do make up stories all of the time, and not only about their own dogs. I think some assume things to match their prejudices. George doesn’t like being petted and touched by strangers, so he’ll shy away or growl defensively if anyone he doesn’t know tries to do that. Surprised, most of these people, who are, of course, whippet experts, say something like: “Oh, he’s a rescue, isn’t he? Whippets are supposed to be very soft and friendly, he must have been abused…”

  18. Wonderful post! It’s funny, we have had Cali since she was a pup, but sometimes we wonder why she reacts the way she does! I guess we make up stories too, like why she is afraid of flies; there was morning in South Carolina when I got up and her face was swollen and she was covered with welts, she obviously had an allergic reaction to something (she had spent the weekend with my in-laws while we were out of town). Ever since she has been afraid of black flies . .so we decided that it must have been a bite from a black fly that caused the allergic reaction! (but really, who knows, right??)

    I can only imagine the stories that people create :) This is wonderful food for thought :)

  19. Ah, you’ve hit upon a sore point of mine. It drives me insane when I meet people who ask about the Greyhounds, tell me they’ve never met one before, and then proceed to tell me about how abused my dog was. Really? My dogs who have never known a stranger and expect to be petted by everyone? What makes people so certain that my dogs have had a horrible life before they came to me? Yes, their lives were different, and yes there is sometimes abuse at the track, but it’s much less common than people think. Why? Because a happy, healthy, well-socialized dog runs better races and wins more often. It just irks me when people make assumptions based on something they’ve never experienced or dealt with before. Someone just informed me the other day that my Greyhound couldn’t sit “because they teach them not to at the track so they can get out of the box faster.” Bunny promptly sat on command and showed them what a bunch of hooey that was! Sorry, off my soapbox now!

  20. Mike Webster says:

    I am also human because I love the Yankees, and because I show compassion and forbearance to the many less evolved forms of life on the planet who love other baseball teams. (Except the Red Sox. And, this year, the Tigers.)

    Please, dear SWTWC readers, don’t take it out on Pam. She really had no idea when she married me. (Also, she’s a Baltimore Orioles fan. . . .so that makes two long rows for her to hoe.)

    • Mike Webster says:

      Of course, now that I’ve read the rest of her post, I’m reminded once again of what an amazing woman I married. Maybe *I* need to become a Baltimore Orioles fan.

      Naaah. Not up to it.

  21. This hits close to home for me, Pamela. In the pit bull advocacy community there is a deep divide that is invisible to most people on the outside, between those who are quick to throw the “fighting dog” or “bait dog” card (especially the “bait dog” one) and those who think that speculating and assuming all dogs come from fighting backgrounds is not only unproductive, but harmful in the grand scheme.

    Those of us with what I call a “social justice heart” and a love of the underdog tend to sympathize with the sad stories, but your average Jane probably thinks that dogs who have been abused or have been victims of fighting or other cruelty are just plain scary. We’re not doing the dogs any favors by assuming that horrible things happened to them.

    Animals have an incredible capacity to forgive, forget, and move on; we should allow them and help them to do so.

    • Good point. I think playing the “bait dog” card can backfire a lot. If you have a rescue dog whose history you don’t know, it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility, but it shouldn’t blind you to the dog in front of you.

      And a lot of people have the idea that the majority of pit bulls have been abused or used in dog fighting. (I don’t know the statistics, but I’m guessing that the number of dogs used for criminal purposes are vastly outnumbered by the ones who are just pets living a relatively normal puppy dog life.)

  22. Wow. This is SUCH a great post.
    I noticed this the other day when I had my new foster pittie puppy Sandy out with her Adopt Me vest. So many people–as they were being kissed all over by this happy, waggy, wiggly, obviously pretty well-adjusted pup–had the impulse to say Oh, she’s been abused! All because she had a little bald spot above her her eye, that was probably a bit of mange!

    I actually thought it was kind of a sweet impulse–that people’s nurturing instincts came out and they wanted to imagine the worst so they could feel part of an even-more-dramatic happy ending. But you are absolutely right, that for the dogs’ sake we’d be better off carrying around happy images for them, rather than traumatizing ones.

  23. I’ve definitely seen this. My dog Diamond is very shy and easily scared, and a lot of people think she’s been abused or speculate about why she’s scared of a certain thing. (Oh, she doesn’t like this person, she was probably abused by someone with a similar build…)

    All we actually know is that she was turned over by a family with several kids (four I think, I forget) who said that having her was too much, because it was like having another kid. So smart money says she didn’t get enough socialization as a puppy and that she may have been in a rather chaotic environment. For a puppy, that would be enough to make her nervous, no abuse or horror stories needed.

    And I think it’s better to focus on where she is now than worry about what her past may have been.

  24. Beautiful post. I’d love to be able to highlight the part(s) I appreciated the most, but I truly can’t — the entire post was incredibly valuable, for both humans *and* our rescue dogs. If we bring a dog into our home (rescue or otherwise), it truly becomes about them, not us. In fact, I tell people that the work I do as a Dog Listener benefits the humans, but I do it for the dogs. Thank you so much for every word you wrote…and for the humor I always find in your posts!

  25. i know i’m way late here, but i just read this now and it hit close to home. between a couple of vets, the animal control staff, and the professionals at the rescue that pulled desmond from the euth list, we’re pretty sure we have a good picture of the first 10 months of desmond’s life–and it’s not good. i find myself telling the story a lot because people always ask us what’s wrong with this legs/if his legs are ok. now i wonder if i’m somehow perpetuating a negative stereotype.

    on top of that, i have a friend who adopted a puppy from a shelter almost two years ago. she now talks about wanting another dog but not being able to handle another puppy, so i point out that there are plenty of older dogs that needs homes–and she makes it very clear that she’ll never adopt anything but a puppy from a shelter/rescue, because, basically, you can get a defective/tainted/broken dog if you get an older one since you don’t know what you’re getting. i didn’t tell her, but i took offense to it. i felt like she was saying desmond was defective or that we were stupid for taking a chance on a dog we couldn’t really know the history of. the whole thing made me sad and kind of made me wish she didn’t know desmond’s story either.