Fear =/= Abuse

When I brought Shayne home from the shelter, she was quite a mess.  She was still quite underweight, was terrified of getting into cars, terrified of stairs, REALLY terrified of thresholds (she STILL doesn’t like being in doorways), was afraid of toys, was concerned about slick flooring, was timid of women, was fear aggressive towards men, was uncomfortable around other dogs, and had issues with sudden environmental changes.  The shelter had told me that the was an abuse/neglect case.  She had been tied to a tree with no food or water by a man in the area (could not prove ownership) for a few months and neighbors reported seeing him chasing her off of his porch away from his door while swinging a stick of some kind at her before he tied her up (he claimed that she kept trying to get inside so he tied her up to keep her away from his dogs).

Knowing, to an extent, her background, it certainly explained some of her behaviors but the reality is, the neglect and abuse she suffered was not really the cause of all of her behaviors.  I suspect her food aggression, fear aggression towards men, and her fear of thresholds were indeed rooted in the treatment she suffered but most of her behaviors were simply due to lack of socialization.

The vast majority of fearful dogs I encounter are fearful not as a result of any type of abuse but simply as a result of poor socialization.  Chances are Shayne had not been slammed down on slick floor, or beaten with a squeaky toy, or thrown down stairs.  It’s more likely she had simply never encountered these things and they made her concerned.  If we didn’t have that little bit of information regarding the man chasing her off his porch (out of his door) with a stick, I probably would have assumed that her fear of thresholds and men had to do with her lack of socialization (being tied to a tree during critical time in her life and likely being a stray prior to that).

There is no need to jump to the conclusion that because your dog shies away from men that she was abused by one in her past.  There are a variety of ways that a dog can become deeply fearful of things  that do not involve any type of abuse or neglect.

A big cause is simply lack of socialization.  If dogs do not get out into the world as puppies, they do not begin to acclimate to the things that happen in the world.  Since they do not get a chance to “normalize” these very typical events, they become out of the normal and thus scary.  I never lived in a place with radiator heating units until college and I was startled by the clunking/screaming sound the radiators made for at least the first 2 months of fall/winter–the very first time I heard it, I quite literally jumped out of my bed.  Because I had never experienced that noise before, it was really scary the first time I heard it and continued to be a bit startling for quite some time (especially at night when it would start screaming).  If dogs have no experiences with men, slick floors, fire hydrants, snowmen, or blow-up holiday decorations, there is a good chance their reactions will be fear/concern (particularly if this is a dog who, in general, lacks confidence and who had little socialization with other things).  If dogs have a solid foundation in socialization novel items/people/noises will likely not be an issue because they have so many other positive socialization moments.

Another cause of fear in dogs can be  a classically conditioned response.  The dog has paired the “scary” object with a scary event that happened.  A dog who suddenly becomes fearful of thunder may have been home alone during a thunderstorm that resulted in a tree falling on the house or windows being broken–the dog may have paired the thunder with the terrifying event.  So the next time they hear thunder or something that resembles thunder they are scared the windows may break or a tree may fall on the house.  Maybe once they came in from outside with wet muddy feet and slipped on the ceramic floor and broke a toe–it would not surprise me if they were scared of slick flooring after that.  Perhaps a man in a hat was standing near your dog at a park when she got stung by a bee–she may connect men with hats with a pain in her hip.  These are certainly negative experiences but they are not abuse or neglect.

Other causes of fear often ignored are genetic or biological factors.  Perhaps the dog is from a line of dogs that are more shy or timid.  There is a growing body of research looking into how the stress levels and environment that the bitch is in during pregnancy can effect the puppies–preliminary ‘observations’ may link stress on the mom to fearful/anxious pups.  Dogs who are more anxious due to brain chemistry imbalances may have more noticeable fears because they never really feel relaxed in an environment and are always a little jumpy and concerned–ready to fight/flight if need be.

Probably something a little less thought about but certainly happens is that when dogs go through a fear period that something that seems innocuous happens that looks strange to the dog and it sticks with them. Dog who were never ever afraid of balloons may have seen one blowing in the wind as they were in a second fear period and created a really deep connection between balloons and fear in their brain. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone teased the dog by tying balloons on her and watching her be terrified thinking those weird things are following her. Maybe a woman with a trench coat sneezed loudly and startled the dog when he was in a fear period and that really stuck with him. Fear periods, particularly the second fear period can be really intense for a dog (some individuals take it harder than others and some breeds are more prone to intense fear periods than others). Things that previously were perfectly fine for the dog are suddenly terrifying. These fears can extend to people, objects, places, sounds, etc. it can quite honestly be very random and sudden. One day the dog was fine with the siamese fire hydrant spigot poking out from the side of a building (something they walked past 3 times a day every day) and the next it is suddenly a two headed dragon monster trying to eat them.

Too often I hear “but he was abused” as an excuse for tolerating dangerous behavior and that is not okay. There is a good chance that the dog was not actually abused and even if he was, it doesn’t mean you coddle him and tolerate potentially dangerous behaviors. We should not jump to conclusions or dwell on potential sob stories for our dogs–realize you have XX behavior and you want ZZ behavior and come up with a plan to try and address it.  There are certainly far too many dogs out there who have suffered abuse and who show behaviors that correlate to that abuse but I think the vast majority are fearful dogs are simply undersocialized, have had negative experiences (though not abusive), or who have biological or genetic roots of the fear.


  1. I’m pretty sure the fear period one is what caused Koira’s fear of garbage trucks and buses. She was about 7-8 months old when one day I came home from work and she was shaking really, really bad, not wanting to come out of her kennel. I thought something was wrong with her, but she was simply terrified of something. We live near a fire station, so I wonder if something happened with the trucks going by a lot, but I’ll never really know. I do know that before that, she wasn’t afraid of much. After that, traffic (especially large trucks and buses) has terrified her.

  2. A lot of people think my Leah was abused because of all the fear issues my husband and I adopted her with, but I’ve always said I thought she was just an unsocialized yard dog. My clues were: (1) She was found running loose (2) She did not know what a television was (3) She was fearful of and submissive peed because of everything and anything, and (4) She knows how to unhook a leash with her tongue…

    Which is probably how she escaped her yard in the first place…luckily…for me. 🙂

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