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
When 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.
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.