When people find or adopt a dog that exhibits fearful behavior, they frequently assume the dog was abused. But is that really the case?
When puppies are growing, they go through several developmental stages. One of those stages, commonly called the "sensitive period of development," is a time when everything the puppy encounters that does not frighten or hurt it accepted as a non-threat. That time is before 12-14 weeks of age.
Anything not encountered before that time is likely to be approached with suspicion.
When you consider that it is still common for puppy owners to be told not to take their puppy outside until their final round of vaccinations (between 10-12 weeks), you can see how common it is for many puppies to start their lives with a socialization deficit.
And that's in responsible homes!
Imagine the puppy that lived only in a backyard for the first 6-8 months of its life before being taken to a shelter. Or the puppy born to a stray mother. How much socialization would they have to the sights, sounds, and activities of what we consider normal life?
Then we have to look even further back, to a dog's parents, grandparents, and so on. There is more than a little evidence that fear and anxiety are genetic traits.
Genetic predisposition and socialization. The two most common factors in fearful behavior.
Now, which is more likely:
A) that every fearful dog was responsibly bred and socialized, then later abused; or
B) that fearful dogs are genetically predisposed and/or lacked sufficient socialization during the sensitive period of development?
Abuse can and does happen far too often. However, the signs of abuse often manifest differently than just as generalized fear.
My family once adopted a Spaniel mix named Rufio (my brother was a big fan of the movie Hook the time). He was a quiet dog who didn't demand much attention.
One day, we were hanging out by the creek. My grandpa, a lifelong dog lover, picked up a stick to throw for the dog. Rufio saw my grandpa's raised arm and the stick and dropped to the ground, screaming. An extreme response to a very specific action. (Of course, my grandpa felt terrible and I'm sure gave poor Rufio lots of extra goodies the rest of the day)
Now, I feel pretty confident that Rufio had been struck in the past given how extreme his reaction was, and I've observed similar behaviors in a few dogs I've worked with. Fortunately, these cases have been rare.
In the end, we can't always know for sure whether a dog has a history of abuse, especially if the dog was found as a stray or shuffled between multiple homes.
The good news is that we don't need to know in order to help the dog. As with any dog, we look at the behavior, what triggers it, and what function it appears to serve. If we can see that a dog is screaming and dropping to the ground when someone raises their arm, we have all the information we need to help the dog, whether or not the cause was abuse, genetics, and/or the too common neglect of a puppy's socialization needs.
And please, if you find a stray dog that is frightened, don't assume they have horrible owners. They may have been fearful before they were adopted, or be frightened because they are lost. Always try to help them find their way home.