3 Reasons a Dog Will Flinch Without Being Abused

Human beings have survived for thousands of years by assuming the worst.

Not every sound in the forest is a saber toothed tiger, though. And not every dog that flinches has been abused.

Titus the foster dog is a pit bull mix.

Three things don’t frighten Titus a bit: 1. Looking out the window,

3 Things That Make A Dog Flinch (Besides Abuse)

1. Clumsy Owners

When I walk into a room carrying an awkward or heavy object, Honey clears out. I can assure you we have never hit her with anything.

But I’m as graceful as a stripper wearing seven-inch heels playing rugby in the mud. I stumble. I drop stuff. And I fall on my a$$.

When I enter a room with a big box, Honey has found her best defense is to yell “Timber” and flee the scene.

2. Poor or No Socialization

If a puppy has happy experiences with objects, experiences, and people when they’re young, they’re less likely to fear them when they’re older. Just like children, puppies gain resilience by learning how to handle new situations in a supportive home.

A puppy raised in a home with people who never go for a walk won’t have that base for resilience.

So you’ll find a dog who is perfectly comfortable with the Real Housewives or Duck Dynasty (hmmm, maybe that is abuse after all) but knows nothing about joggers, bicycles, or large trucks.

Titus the foster dog naps on the couch.

2. Napping, and

3. A Shy Personality

Some people are daredevil adventurers. Some people get scared riding the bus.

Dogs are the same.

One person jumps out of her skin when a car honks. Another keeps texting while two taxis, a bicycle, and a rickshaw collide in a cacophony of sound after trying to avoid the mindlessly texting pedestrian crossing against the light.

One dog flinches every time a person makes an unexpected move toward his head. Another just wags when you nuzzle him with your face, turn him upside down, and blow raspberries on his belly (don’t try this at home).

Some of us startle more easily than others.

Was This Dog Abused?

A few kind-hearted people commented at A Day in the Life of a Foster Dog that it sounded like Titus had been abused. And that’s why he preferred not to have me reach over his head.


But the folks at the SPCA didn’t tell me that. And I have no reason to believe his fear is caused by abuse and not any of the other things that can cause a dog to flinch.

I suspect that many more people are ignorant toward animals than cruel. Not that ignorance doesn’t do a lot of damage. But I don’t want to live in a darker world than I have to.

Titus stretches with his hind legs on the couch.

3. Stretching.

Two years ago, I wrote Telling Stories About Your Rescue Dog in which I talked about the problems we cause when we assume every rescue dog has a horrible past. And as usual, the comments were even better, confirming that we all have a tendency to create stories when we don’t have much information.

I’ll avoid making up stories for Titus and just work with the behavior he’s showing me.

Honey the Golden Retriever and Mike pose for the camera.

What does this picture have to do with this post? Nothing. It just makes me happy.

After all, telling myself he doesn’t want me to put drops in his ears because someone mistreated him doesn’t get those drops in his ears any faster. But patience and a few bits of liver might.

Thank you to everyone who commented on yesterday’s post about our new foster dog, Titus. I really appreciated the well wishes and good advice that I’ve already started to use. You’re the best!

Your Turn: Have any of your dogs flinched or cowered without being abused? What do you think caused it?


  1. We agree the world is dark enough. Best not to question the past we say but look to the future. Have a fabulous Friday.
    Best wishes Molly
    PS Some people have said they have lost our post feeds. We are posting as usual.

  2. Looks like Titus is making himself right at home. I agree – I’d rather not focus on what ‘may’ have happened to jack & maggie – but rather on what CAN happen to them with us!

  3. I just had someone tell me the other day they thought their dog had been abused in the past because he was so scared of everything. I tried to explain that this might not necessarily be the case, but they got it stuck in their head. I wonder why that is.

    • I’m going to hazard a guess it has to do with some TV show they’ve seen. Sometimes I think those “educational” pet shows do more harm than good. But then, TV tends to favor extremes and not balance.

  4. Sampson will sometimes flinch if you make a quick or sudden move and I can assure you he hasn’t been abused. Heck, sometimes I flinch when someone makes a quick and sudden move at my head and I’ve never been hit round my head. Of course then there are other times when I don’t flinch or move and end up being whacked by something.

    From your photos it seems like Titus is adjusting well, I’m certain he couldn’t be anywhere better.

  5. I was going to write a comment but I keep flashing on the stripper wearing seven inch heels playing rugby in the mud. Metaphor superb.

  6. I think its just the ‘go to’ answer when we don’t know a dog’s history.
    I’m a pretty pampered pooch but don’t like my nails being cut. i’ve never been abused, never even had a bad nailcut where the quick has been caught. But I still don’t like it. Mummy now wishes she’d spent more time playing with my paws than tickling my belly when I was a pup. There are just some things we don’t like, maybe just cos we’re not used to them.

  7. Mom just ignores those behaviors and carries on as usual when our guest dogs do things like that. Most of our friends that stay with us don’t get out much, and mom does notice that they have lots of strange fears of things we come across on our walks, even just the sound of a garage door opening. Another bunch of great reasons to make sure and properly socialize a puppy!

  8. YEP. Cooper came to us when he was abouut 9 weeks old, and we socialized him to everything we could think of. And he did great until he was about 18 months old. At that point, he decided EVERYTHING was scary. Because he had a strong start, we’ve been able to overcome a lot of it, but some stuff is just stuck. I think genetics play a big part. He came from an intact female pit who should not have been bred (it was an accident anyway…) because of health and behavior issues. Cooper is allergic to everything, his fur falls out, he had a lazy eye, he has head tremors, he gets pimples all over his belly, and then there’s his whole fear thing. It’s just who he is… and I love him to pieces and will work on every issue that crops up. But I can say that he has never had a single bad thing happen to him in his whole 2 years. Well, except for getting his nails trimmed, but that’s all in his head.

    • http://Mike%20Webster says

      From the Husband:
      Cooper’s nails are in his head??! Where are his teeth?
      (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I was socialized this way.) 🙂

  9. We had our beagle pup from the get-go and she was certainly never abused, but she would duck her head if someone tried to pet her over the top of her head. No clue why. She just didn’t like it. Someone who didn’t know her might have thought she had been hit.

    With Rita, we don’t know if she was hit, but it’s definitely likely that she was at least threatened by somone at some point. She was found on the beach in Baja, so who knows what happened to her. She is very fearful of things that look like weapons – gardening tools, sports equiptment, pool cleaner scoops, canes, so there’s probably a good chance someone scared her with a something at some point while she was living “on the mean streets.” She was also definitely bit by another dog (scar over her eye, plus it was the foster’s dog who bit her) so we know that really happened to her.

    But, yes, I agree – genenrally it’s best not to assume the worst about these pups. If only they could tell us!

  10. Yes, a thousand times. I can’t tell you how many people assume Silas is abused. And then I say, “Umm, I’ve had him since he was five weeks old. While I don’t know what happened before that, it seems pretty unlikely.”

    I think I have a blog post about this in draft form somewhere that I should fish out–the truth is that the reason *why* a dog does something means, in the grand scheme of things, extremely little. We like to psychologize, but since we have no way of knowing that it’s true, it doesn’t do it any good. The thing that we can know, for absolutely certain, is what the dog is *doing,* and we can’t let a narrative interfere with watching and responding to that.

  11. Thank you! I get asked if Sadie was abused all the time and I reply that I don’t think so, that she probably just wasn’t socialized as a puppy and that she’s definitely a bit shy & fearful. Thing is, girl adores being patted on her head once she trusts you. Her favorite is when I scratch her nose. But she doesn’t like strangers petting her on the head and she probably never will. That’s A-OK with me because nowadays strangers become friends in a matter of minutes with her. But it wasn’t always that way. I hope Titus learns to trust too.

    I’m not an expert but I would wager a guess that most dogs with head shyness are that way due to a fearful personality or lack of socialization and rarely because of physical abuse. I just hope that our need to make these extreme assumptions isn’t hurting giving these dogs the confidence boosting training that they need.

  12. Splendid! Dogs duck reflexively to avoid stuff over their heads; some may have been abused, but most, as you say, are likely un-socialized and reacting naturally.
    When Farrah came, I knew she had been abused (another rescuer took her puppies but left her to be killed….a whole ‘nother post). She would only let me touch her head, not her body, which is where the scars are.
    I have many dogs come through and most are like Titus (he is GORGEOUS and I’m impressed you have real curtains; if I did that, chew toys tut suite), who knows and who cares? Let the dog be a dog first, watch, learn, adapt, place limitiations but gosh, have fun!

  13. It’s true, sometimes a dog will flinch for strange reasons…My Lab Murphy would flinch if I stepped over her…Had her from a pup, never ever tripped, kicked or harmed her in any way (oh my god no) and yet, during an exercise in Obedience class where we were required to step over our dogs while they were on a down stay she flinched every time…Never could figure out why

  14. Great post…and I couldn’t agree more. When we adopted Leah a lot of people thought she was abused because she was afraid of, well, everything, and she submissive peed if we talked to her louder than a whisper….but honestly, I think she was just a yard dog who was under-socialized.

    I mean, she didn’t even know what a tv was, she was captured roaming the streets, and she knew how to unhook a leash from her collar with her tongue, which is probably how she escaped….

    Oh wait, I’m giving her a story, aren’t I? I guess it’s just human nature. 🙂

  15. Congrats on your new arrival. Titus looks like he has become a part of the family already. He’s picked out the best place to observe. I guess it’s comfortable, although I would prefer sitting.
    He picked a prime sleeping spot.

    Hugs and Licks, BJ Pup

  16. Great points SWTWC…Trev used to flinch whenever we emptied plastic grocery bags…but we knew Trev had been abused as a puppy :-(…. That’s why everyday is filled with LOVE…He sure knows it too!!!! LOVE healed our four pawed angel…That pic you posted near the end is a great one!!!! Dog hugs, woofs and wags!!!!

  17. Amazingly my dogs have never flinched when I walk into a room carrying something, they actually do the opposite and stand or walk right in front or behind me, which is so odd given my track record of falling and tripping over them.
    The only times Leroy flinches is when I walk behind him when he is doing something wrong like jumping on Sherman because he knows he’s is going to get a little tap in the balls for being a jerk. (sorry for the language but it’s true and one of the benefits of having an intact male who is full of himself:)

  18. OMG! LOVE the stretching picture!

    And yes, after having tripped and fell ON the girls a few too many times…they know to be careful with me too. LOL

  19. None of my dogs, the abused and the non-abused like being petted on the head or have anything over their head. They have also been known to flinch even with me if they are feeling tentative for some reason. I’ve always heard that the dogs see it as an act of dominance. I always tell people who meet our dogs for first time not to pet them on the head, but under their chin.

    I agree there could have been a number of things that could have happened to make Titus skittish. He may also just be shy. Obviously his life has been uprooted in some way or he wouldn’t be at your house as a foster. It could just be as simple as that.

  20. A LOT of dogs flinch at unexpected moves toward their heads, especially if you’re moving fast. I think most of us do. Pretty sure any dog that’s been around kids will learn to flinch any time there is a fast-moving something in the room. LOL Because kids tend to rocket around and don’t always pay attention to where they’re going. You’ve got to look at more of the body language than flinching to tell what they’re going through. There’s a difference between an impulse flinch and sitting there waiting for you to hit them (the latter of which I have also sadly seen).

    I will say there’s one dog I was certain was abused based on a flinch, but the whole situation around it was somewhat odd. See, I had tried to adopt her brother previously (horrible separation anxiety and I worked full time so that didn’t work out – he ended up in a home with other dogs so it did work out for him in the end) who was fairly shy and had been dropped off with the claim that he had attacked one of their other dogs (we didn’t see a single sign of dog aggression in him). Something seemed “off” about him in the time he was home with me, but I figured he was just a shy and submissive pup and was nervous because he was used to having a bunch of other dogs to play with. Then his sister was dropped off, and I took her out for a walk. Like him, she was shy, very slow to warm up to me, but after a while of taking her out in the yard she actually started to bounce around and get playful, which was nice to see – but then she stopped almost immediately, the body language instantly shifted to that of a dog who is certain they’ve done something wrong, and she ducked and flinched and kept watching me waiting for the strike. Everything in her body language was saying “I’m sorry I did the bad thing just hit me and get it over with”. I swear to you it broke my heart. I mentioned it to the shelter workers who insisted that it was impossible – they knew the daughter of the people who used to own that dog and were sure she’d never let her parents get away with something like that. Then the third dog came in from the same home, starving, emaciated, and more terrified of people than even the other two. I came in for my volunteer time and they told me there was another one, told me what happened… She was out in the front yard to keep her away from all the noise (they’d had her for a bit getting her better fed for a while but she was still thin). I went out to see her. I guess the gal walking her was like the only person she trusted out of anyone there so far… so it surprised the girl a bit that the dog came right up to me. But that happens a lot… Either way, apparently I had seen what nobody else could in that case.

    It was actually part of the push that led me to want to study animal behavior – between that and the animals that ended up there for months on end because they had some issue that wasn’t being handled since they had to rely on volunteers (100% donation funded shelter) and I didn’t have the time to be there all the time (though I would have loved to). They do work with behavior a bit, but of course if you don’t have enough people to consistently handle all of them on a regular basis, it’s still difficult. I wanted to be able to help them become for “adoptable”… I wanted to be able to prevent them from ending up at the shelters in the first place. And I wanted to be able to teach those dogs who had been mistreated how to trust again.

    And I am determined that one of these days I will teach people the difference between an aggressive growl and a play-growl… so many people I’ve seen freak out at the latter. *facepalm*

    • Good lord there I go writing books in people’s comments again… oops…

      • You write as many books in the comments as you like. I find the comments are usually the best part of the post. 🙂

        It’s terrible that those dogs were so afraid (apparently, with good reason). Obviously there’s never any guarantee that a person or family who seem decent aren’t doing terrible things when no one is watching.

        And yes, if you can figure out how to teach people the difference between play growling and warnings, I’d love to know how. Honey loves to growl when she’s playing tug and it really puts people off. They wonder how this sweet dog turned so mean.

        • I just don’t get it, because the two types of growls even SOUND different to me. It’s like a human being actually offended versus that fake-offended thing we do when we joke. But then, I always had an easier time understanding animals than humans. I actually honestly want to see if the local shelter will let me start doing video once I have time to be there regularly again – partly to parse out how I know the difference in what an animal is saying, and partly to see for sure what it is *I* am doing that makes them respond so differently to me than to others, because when I try to focus on it I mess it up. It just comes automatically to me and I do better when I’m not even thinking about it.

  21. http://Mary%20Biro says

    My puppy Bojo(15 yrs old) has been flinching whenever we go by him. He has lost alot of weight, has trouble getting around & needs help up on the bed many say he’s ready to cross the “rainbow bridge” yet he still wags his tail, has a appetite & doesn’t lose control. He sleeps a lot more but still goes for walks I think he is still enjoying the colors if this world, will I know if he is in pain?