Debunking a dangerous behavior myth: Not all fearful pets have been abused


This thinking inappropriately lays the blame for fearful behavior on others.

A number of myths about pet behavior threaten pets' health and well-being. The idea that all fearful pets have been abused is one such dangerous myth. Certainly, if a dog is acquired after 6 months of age and is fearful, it may have been abused. But by focusing on that possibility only, we fail to emphasize more common causes and may not educate clients about what they can do to prevent and treat behavior problems. Believing an animal's behavior is strictly a result of events that happened before it was acquired enables pet owners to deny responsibility for their pets' behavior.

Fearful or shy behaviors are highly heritable traits.1,2 Expression of these traits also will be influenced by learning and the environment. Dogs can be habituated to stimuli that cause them fear by using properly designed programs of desensitization and counter-conditioning. These programs are best if started as soon as the problem is identified, because the longer a problem exists, the harder it is to treat. If someone acquires an adult dog with fear- or anxiety-related problems, encourage the owner to begin an appropriate treatment program, preferably under the auspices of a qualified behaviorist and using the assistance of a trainer when necessary.

Fact: A dog's behavior is a result of the complex interaction between its genes and environment. Rarely can it be attributed to a single event, and even if it can be, change still is possible.


1. Mackenzie SA, Oltenacu EAB, Houpt KA. Canine behavioral genetics-a review. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1986;15:365-393.

2. Goddard ME, Beilharz RG. A multivariate analysis of the genetics of fearfulness in potential guide dogs. Behav Genet 1985;15(1):69-89.

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