As humans, we're fascinated by the "why."
If a recently adopted dog cowers when someone picks up a broom, we reason someone must have beat him with something.
The injured stray who barks aggressively at men with beards and runs away from cars, must have been dumped out of a moving car by a man with a beard.
I think knowing the "why" is a form of closure or coping for us humans. It finishes the story and justifies the pain we observe and encounter. Knowing why can make difficult things a little less difficult.
Dog training straddles a fine line between addressing observable behavior and trying to figure out the "whys." I can observe the crouched posture, tucked tail, and whale eye your dog displays when the broom comes out and interpret that as "fear," but I can't unequivocally say he does that because someone beat him with a stick-like object. Until dogs learn to speak fluent English, we can’t absolutely know what happened in their past.
The relationship between current behavior and past experiences isn't quite as lucid as we'd like.
Yes, it could have been abuse, but it could just as likely be a genetic predisposition.
I've experienced first-hand the overwhelming influence genetics has on a dog's temperamental bias towards fear. Even owners who are thoroughly equipped to raise their dog "right" in every way, can still wind up with a fearful dog.
Many who choose to purchase a pure-bred puppy from a breeder do so because they're uncomfortable with the unknowns of a rescue dog. They want more control over the dog’s experiences in order to produce a safe, problem-free member of the family.
Unfortunately, the reality is that puppies aren't truly blank slates--they come with a largely fixed temperament that predisposes them towards certain emotions and behaviors. This is why it is so important to work with a top quality breeder who prioritizes temperament and behavioral health just as much as physical health and external appearance. (For more on this topic, I highly recommend the 6th chapter of "The Midnight Dog Walkers" by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA)
Helping and Healing
So now what? There's good news! We don't have to know if your dog was abused in order to help him.
Rather than dwelling on what caused the fear-baggage, I encourage clients to focus on creating a new history for their dog that is full of enjoyment, confidence, security, and trust. A reward-based lifestyle is crucial.
When fears are noticed, we look at what is happening now and build a training plan to help the dog feel safe and happy. Here's a great how-to blog post on helping your dog overcome fear.
If you're noticing fear in a puppy less than 4 months old, please contact a qualified reward-based trainer **today**. If you're in the Round Rock, Texas area, I'm happy to assist.
For further reading on helping fearful dogs, check out Debbie Jacobs' resources.