Volunteering at my local city shelter as an adoption assistant, I work in the kennels while they are open to the public and work with people to find the right dog. A big part of this includes answering questions. I’ve been asked weird things (“Will his penis get bigger?”), inappropriate things, (“Can I let my kid pull on his ears and see how he does?”), and downright infuriating things, (“How much do you think it would be to crop that dog’s ears?”). But at least once per shift, I get asked, “Was he abused?” This question, although well-meaning, make me want to pull my hair out. Why? Because the assumption that all dogs who end up in shelters are “damaged” goods is a harmful notion.
We’ve all met these people, right? The people that say my dog is afraid of *fill in the blank*, so I think he was abused.” Fill in the blank with: teenagers, men, women, loud noises, people with hats, people without hats, people in pink…. you get the idea. I’ve also literally seen people “test” a dog at the shelter by lifting their arm as if to hit the dog to see if he reacts. When the dog inevitably flinches, the potential adopter usually responds by saying something like, “Oh sad, someone used to hit him.” I haven’t tried it (probably bad form for a city volunteer), but I often want to throw a punch at their throat and see if they flinch.
There is no disputing that horrible cases of abuse are discovered every day. We’ve heard the stories and seen the pictures (thank you, Sarah McLachlan). And, yes, many of these animals end up in shelters. So there is a possibility that your shy or reactive dog could have been abused before you adopted him or her. That being said, I can literally count on my hands the number of dogs we’ve had in the four years I’ve been at the shelter who have come from abusive situations**. In case you suck at math, that’s less than 10. I’ve often found that people interpret shy behavior, skittishness, or anxiety as signs of an abusive past. More likely than not, it’s due to shelter stress or undersocialization. The truth is, most dogs in shelters have never been abused, but were surrendered because their owner had no time for them, got married, had a baby, can no longer afford the dog due to the recession, had issues with their landlord, etc etc etc. If your adopted dog is skittish around certain people or situations, chances are he was simply undersocialized rather than being abused. Lots of shelter/rescued dogs have simply not dealt with many of the experiences that we take for granted.
While it may seem somewhat harmless for people to assume that most shelter dogs have been abused, this can be harmful in two ways. First, it may prevent people from adopting perfectly lovely animals because they don’t want to deal with the aftermath of this imagined abuse. Secondly, many owners use their pets’ imagined past as an excuse for their present behavior. If a dog exhibits fearful behavior towards a man, it might be dismissed as being a result of his past abuse, which in turn makes it less likely that people will actually work on the issue at hand. Where does this come from? Probably because the whole concept of adopting a dog has become a “save the world” crusade. We are bombarded with images (yes Sarah McLachlan, I’m looking at you again) of abused, pathetic looking dogs now living in shelters, waiting to be saved and loved. This has inadvertently created the image that dogs need time and a lot of comforting because of the background or history that they are coming from and that most shelter dogs are abused. It creates the impression that rules, training and structure can be cast aside for later, perhaps “when the dog is ready for it”. The truth of the matter is, no matter what your dog’s background is, you have to focus on the present and not dwell on his past, real or imagined.
**And as an aside, the abused dogs I have met at the shelter? A majority of them have been among the most loving and forgiving.