Sarah McLachlan, this is all your fault: A rant by BusyBee

29 Aug

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.

36 Responses to “Sarah McLachlan, this is all your fault: A rant by BusyBee”

  1. bgszap2 August 29, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    I have a herding breed. I met someone on the street with one of my breed who had adopted her from a shelter. They said she had been abused because when they reached quickly towards her face she shied away and then, to my horror, they showed me. Other than her thinking they were going to smack her, I said to them that she is a herding dog, and it would be a pretty stupid herding dog who didn’t duck when something flew at her head, since it well might be a hoof or two hooves. Oooooohhhhhh……geeeee….they never thought of that!

  2. Cheri August 29, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

    Brilliant blog. I agree completely, but I blame the Humane society’s who are trying to emotionally blackamil us all with sad sack photos and musician’s sappy songs.

  3. Marcia Bishoff August 29, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Thank You! I get so tired of hearing people (many almost proudly) say that their dog was abused and they saved it from the shelter. I bought a 9 week old Golden retriever many years ago that I KNOW was not abused. He was just a very shy dog and despite my attempts at socializing and training, remained a shy, yet friendly dog. Can people not see how stressful it is in a shelter situation and take that into account? Anyway, no dog is perfect and will always take time to fit into their new home.

    • dorannadurgin August 29, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

      My head reels. I’m having this exact same conversation elsewhere on the interwebs right now. “Almost proudly” is exactly right. Virtue points! Virtue points!

      One thing I noted in that other conversation that I haven’t seen here is the damage this assumption does to the rescue/breeder paradigm (as in, the vilification of breeders). Inserting assumed abuse into the picture raises the emotional temperature of the big picture, making it a lot easier for rescues to appear righteous in their cause.

      (Not that rescuing/adopting homeless pets isn’t a great thing. But it doesn’t need to be an “us vs them” mentality, and planting an abused label on every shelter dog helps spin things up in that direction, and into the zone where people stop thinking about reality and start reacting to imagined reality.)

  4. Mary Ann Williamson August 29, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    Those commercials don’t work, for one thing I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t kick their mate in the head if that’s what it took to get the remote and change the channel.

    We got our dog as the shelter as a puppy. By the looks of the litter, somebody’s Border Collie got some love on the wrong side of the tracks. She’s a great dog! But she’s never missed a meal and certainly hasn’t been abused. We were lucky to get her before she was snatched up. She’s a wonderful dog. I can’t really feel comfortable calling her a rescue, because the connotation is that a rescue was on death row about to be put down.

    • Suzi August 29, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

      Sounds familiar! I’m pretty sure my dog is a Border Collie/Husky cross. We got her from the SPCA when she was a puppy. She was picked up as a stray and has some “OMG I MUST EAT ALL THE FOOD” issues that are rather annoying (and we haven’t managed to work out of her after 9 years of consistently having food), but yeah. I suspect that she missed some meals before we got her, and we’re darned lucky to have found her. I’ve had purebreds with papers, show dogs, the works. She’s easily the smartest dog I’ve ever had and the most amazing pup we could ask for with our children.

      • Doranna Durgin August 30, 2014 at 12:45 am #

        I have an OMG I MUST EAT ALL THE FOOD dog. I got him at 10mo. He lived in a gorgeous yard and a happy pack, but it was a barely structured, barely socialized life for this-n-that reason.

        I guarantee he never missed a meal in his life. But I’m sure if someone took him in off the street (not that he’ll ever be there, heaven forbid!) they might well figure he’d had a hardscrabble and hungry life, and assign his behavior around food to a sad sack backstory.

        Early structure and socialization count for a lot. Just sayin’.

    • AD April 23, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

      You should say she’s a rescue! Or at least say you adopted from the shelter. Proudly display your well behaved adopted dog. Too many people come across monstrous dogs with their owners using the excuse “rescue” and it seriously turns people off from adopting because they think they are all like that. So help out the rescues and brag away!

  5. Arrogant Afghan Hound August 29, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    AMEN, I could not agree more. I wish I could hug you right now. I feel the same; not long ago, I wrote this:

  6. Sheila Collins August 29, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    One thing that infuriates me is the way that shelter personnel actually encourage people to invent sob stories of abuse or neglect for the animals they bring in.They tell people that a good sob story helps to get animals adopted. Even well-cared-for owner-surrendered dogs are given fresh new background stories of having come from hellish situations. I know that some shelter personnel do this, because I’ve actually been told to make up sob stories for animals that I took to the shelter because were strays running loose beside the highway. If every shelter dog is from an abusive home, we must have a raging epidemic of animal abusers in this country. You’d think someone would notice that.

    • Chloe September 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

      Everyone loves a good enemy.

  7. Darcy August 29, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    BusyBee… This is genius. Well written. People, you can work on any behaviors, anytime… Stop “excusing” by saying your rescued dog was “abused” .. Work with him already! DO something about it. Stop congratulating yourself for “rescuing”, and DO so training… Your dog and all the other humans on this planet will thank you! Very well said BusyBee… Well said indeed….

  8. tvignogna August 29, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    I used to think that my last dog was abused, not knowing her history. However, looking back, I realize that it probably was just Dahlia being her ornery old self. She had her own set of life’s rules, and most people weren’t included.
    My current rescue is very shy, especially around men. I concur with the under-socialised life. He was abandoned in the backyard of a foreclosed home, and was starving. He’s rarely met a meal that he doesn’t like.

    Most folks just use the abuse line about their dogs so they do not have to do the work to make them well behaved.

  9. anon August 29, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    I am having a baby, and during a Dr visit today they asked if I had pets. I said I had dogs. Now, I wasn’t expecting her response, but it sure does clear up a lot of CL ads. She said that she prefers that people with infants and toddlers no longer allow pets in the home. Seriously? Yes, in fact, its safer to not have the baby around a jealous pet altogether. Well, that’s not going to happen. I would get rid of my kid before I got rid of the dogs. But I can see now why so many first time parents feel pressured to rehome a dog. And while its still a horrid reason, I know they didn’t come up with it on their own. A learned professional told them to be assholes.

    • Cj August 29, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

      Wow..that is really disturbing. Glad you know better, hope you shared that with the ill informed doctors office.

    • Taryn August 30, 2014 at 11:52 am #

      That’s really awful! Especially with all the studies out there saying how much stronger your child’s immune system will be with a bit of pet dander and dirt in their lives! I hope doctor’s with this thought process (or lack there of!) are few and far between.

    • Mary Ann Williamson September 5, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

      That is really cruel! My sister certainly never followed that kind of idiot thinking with her kids. Now her oldest has begun dog agility with her young dog. They have learned so much about respecting other lives from the animals; in the house and on their farm. That MD is a complete asshole.

    • Carolyn September 7, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

      I think I would tell her that “I prefer a doctor that knows what they are talking about.”

  10. Kelley Moss August 29, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    It makes people feel better thinking they have SAVED an abused animal. Like somehow they are a better person for it. We hear it everyday at the veterinary clinic where I work. Abused? No, your precious, snarling beast is a jerk. Thank you for posting this. Now please do one on why people feel the need to brag about how far they traveled to get said dog. “We drove all the way to ____________ (insert a different State of residence than the one they live in) to get this dog. Whatever, but we’re pretty sure you can find poorly bred ___________ (insert breed) in this State too.

  11. Rosemary August 29, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    If a dog had been abused, they would probably thrive with the predictable structure of humane training.

  12. shelties! shelties! August 29, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    Reminds me of this stupidity:

    Stupid lady: “Wanna go for a ride?”
    Sheltie: “OMG car ride! Let’s GO! Yeah! barkbarkbark!”
    Lady: “Aww, poor baby, you’re barking ’cause you’re scared!”
    Sheltie: “Let’s GO! Car ride! Put it in gear! bark!bark!”
    Lady: “Aww, poor widdle poochum musta been abused in a car…”
    Sheltie: “@#$%! Let’s go already!”
    Lady: “OK, snookie wookums, no car ride today!”
    Sheltie: “@#$%! Stupid @#$%!”

    on and on, ad infinitum, until the dog is clinically insane.

    • Diana B. August 31, 2014 at 12:50 am #

      Oh my.

      Having seen this video I now know literally dozens (if not 100’s) of shelties that have been abused on agility courses. Some if which run very fast – clearly in an effort to escape the memories. I am guessing their accuracy is a coping method, kind of a focusing through the flashback.

      We must get the word out. 😉

      • Mary Ann Williamson September 5, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

        I’ve seen those Shelties too, poor dears. Their abuse can lead them to fly through a JWW course 15 seconds under course time. LOL.

      • Jennifer Zynischer November 1, 2014 at 11:17 pm #


    • jerriskinner September 1, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

      This woman must be dumber that two rocks. OMG this poor dog is so ready for a ride.

  13. donnasoderstrom August 30, 2014 at 1:21 am #

    Oh, you are hitting a nerve here. Students who tell me their dog was “pregnant runaway who was incarcerated”, and then removed from her babies… A different owner was telling me her young female was mourning for her babies that were taken away, months before (from a nice foster situation). Why, oh why, do people seem to want their dog to be “damaged goods”? How can I explain in a gentle but productive way that you, dear bleeding heart, may be your dogs biggest problem?

  14. dalsrule August 30, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    It really annoys me when people say they “rescued” their dog from the SPCA (or Humane Society). No! No! No! The SPCA may have rescued the dog but you ADOPTED it – it was already rescued.

    • Morgan September 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      AMEN Dalsrule! This whole “rescue” word reeeeally bothers me. You “rescued” the adorable healthy bouncy 9wo puppy from the local no-kill humane society? No, Honey, you adopted him.

      Did you fight off a mustache-twirling, ski mask-wearing, sword-brandishing villian, untied the biting dog from the tracks as the train carrying toxic chemicals hurtled toward you, and flung Fido to safety? No?

      You walked into a no-kill shelter and adopted a vetted dog? Yes? You ADOPTED.

  15. pommom101690 September 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    My biggest fear is that if something happened and my oldest Chi went missing is that some good Samaritan will assume he is abused because his ribs show and he has very few teeth. No. He isn’t abused. He is just really old, and I have only had him a few months. He is spoiled rotten and very loved! He is microchipped and heAgreed! Most of the dogs that are from legit abuse cases are not adopted out to the public by the animal control affiliated. I know here in Birmingham, Alabama, most of those abuse case animals are sent to rescue where they will get the time they need to recover until they are ready, both physically and emotionally, to be adopted. That being said, a great deal of the dogs that we have in rescue didn’t come from pretty backgrounds. Over the past few years since I have been with this rescue, we have probably rescued nearly a hundred puppy mill dogs. These guys are true examples of abuse. We have one in particular that has been with his very experienced foster mom since Christmas, and he still isn’t anywhere close to adoptable. He may never fully recover from the damage done by living so many years in a puppy mill. One of my furkids is a puppy mill survivor. He spent 11 years of his life being used a stud. When I got him, he was terrified of EVERYTHING! Grass, people, car rides. The only thing with which he found comfort was my first dog, Zoe. It’s not uncommon for mill dogs to cling to other dogs. After all, that’s all they’ve really known. Fast forward 2.5 years, you would never know that’s where he came from. He has the best personality, and he is the puppy love of my life. I still see his little quirks that will likely stick with him for the life he has left, but to most people, he’s just a normal Chihuahua. It took a great while to undo what damage had been done, but it was worth it. The “damaged” ones often make the best companions, if you are willing to be patient and put in the time.

    That being said, labeling just any dog as “abused” because they don’t like loud noises or whatever almost cheapens the abuse experienced by dogs like my sweet Dexter. I know so many people say that because they want to look like a hero. Guess what though? Whether your dog was abused or not, you ARE a hero for choosing to adopt a homeless animal. You saved a life. The life of that owner surrender is just as valuable as that puppy mill survivor or that dog that was seized during a cruelty investigation.

    I also want to touch on two things that aren’t totally related, but are kind of…

    First, if you do happen to have the opportunity to adopt a dog that was truly abused, that’s great, but please understand your limits. Not everyone is cut out to rehab these dogs, and that’s ok. I enjoy taking in the tough cases, the broken ones, but it isn’t for everyone. You should know yourself well enough to know if you can handle a dog that has a great deal of baggage. If it’s not for you, that is totally ok. No one is going to fault you for adopting a dog that was surrendered by a loving family that is can no longer afford Fido. If someone does fault you, well, those people suck. Ignore them.

    Second, along the lines of not assuming every dog in the shelter was abused. please don’t just assume because you pick a dirty dog up from side of the road that the dog is abused. The dog may just be lost. wears a collar all the time with a tags that say, “Special Needs Senior.” If you find a dog, either take them to AC where the owner can reclaim them or post a vague ad (no pictures) and ask that the owner call to identify the dog and provide proof of ownership. No every dog that you find has been dumped or abused. Some are just lost with owners that are looking for them. If you haven’t already, I would love to see an post about this topic.

  16. Kath September 2, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

    People love to have a handy excuse for the poor job they’ve done with their dogs. If a dog really did experience abuse or neglect that presents as misbehavior, responsible owners should do something about it. Most of these things can be resolved with some effort and training, and though there are extremes, other behaviors more difficult to rehab can and should be properly managed, whether they stemmed from actual abuse or simply ignorance.

    Relatedly, I’ve met dogs who have been raised by ignorant owners (the ones who coddle obnoxious behavior rather than correct it, for instance, or who feel that housebreaking isn’t a priority because the dogs are tiny) who have required more time in foster to become adoptable than the ones who were literally chained up and underfed in a dirt yard. Behavioral issues and their causes come in all shapes and sizes, and none of it is anything to get self-righteous about. It’s something to be resolved.

  17. lkalindra September 5, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    First I’d like to say that I really enjoy your blog 🙂 and second, we have a Keeshond male who we’ve had since a young puppy and he will flinch if you move your hand too quickly. He’s never been hit in his life. So some dogs are just very sensitive and don’t like fast movements around their faces. I’m sure any person would flinch as well, it doesn’t mean they have been abused.

  18. Denise September 8, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    My last two foster dogs are dogs everyone wants to assume where abused. The last boy loved people but was scared of EVERYTHING else. I believe he was just an under socialized and possibly failed hunting dog (treeing walker coonhound) who was probably simply born with a timid temperament. I had him for about 3 months before he got adopted by a nice family in a much more rural (quite) part of the area. He improved a lot while I had him but he will always be a fearful dog who doesn’t like busy new places.

    My current foster doesn’t seem to be bothered by much except she thinks people are scary. If you have a dog with you you MIGHT be okay, single adult ignoring her carefully watched, adults interested in her are scary, children are terrifying and she must try and run. It’s been just over 3 weeks and she IS doing better but she is never going to be happy to see a stranger. Hell she’s still not that sure about my brother who lives with me and walks the dogs in the morning, but she does seem to be warming up to him a bit finally. Only history I have on her is she was surrendered to an ASPCA when she got pregnant. They took care of her and her pups then transferred her to the rescue I volunteer with. She did NOT do well in a shelter environment so not too long after my last foster got adopted she came home with me. She probably didn’t have the best life before but again she is likely the result of poor socialization and born with a timid temperament. It’s clear no one every really tried to train her as she is 2.5 years old and has no concept of working WITH me to earn treats. Frustrating for both of us to try and work on, but she seems to be relatively smart so once it finally clicks I think she’ll be fun to work with.

    So yeah, probably a bit neglected by our standards but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were abused.

  19. Tracy S. September 8, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Great rant, very well said! I have a mellow, very well adjusted champion miniature bull terrier…got her at nine weeks old. She’s never been hit in her entire life (5+ years). She flinches when anyone lifts a hand over her head and ducks if someone pets her head. She simply doesn’t like to be patted on the head. Neither do I, and I flinch if someone tries 😉

  20. Jennifer Zynischer November 1, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    Being a bit of a devil… one *could* argue that an un-socialized dog has been abused…

    (covers head and runs away..)

  21. AD December 23, 2014 at 5:41 am #

    Thank you! Many of these “abused” dogs I come across are simply out of control and untrained I doubt from abuse but rather from being spoiled. I know a woman who adopted a bichon from a shelter that was surrendered, adopted and returned twice. The dog had a bite history, supposedly barked and bit men, people with hats etc had separation anxiety. Fortunately the dog was eventually adopted by this woman who works from home and frequently uses doggie daycare. The dog is now pretty well behaved but the woman swears the dog was abused. I suspect the dog is the typical small dog with typical small dog owners that don’t treat and train the dog like a dog.

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