Karen B. London
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Not All Cowering Dogs Have Been Abused
Some dogs are just naturally fearful.

Whenever we don’t know an animal’s full history, we tend to assume the worst. That means we often suspect that a dog who cowers has been abused, when in fact that may not be the case. Sadly, many dogs are abused, but not all the ones who act terrified of new people and new things have suffered in that way. Concerns about past abuse have come up so many times during consultations that I felt compelled to address the issue this week in the blog I co-write with Professor Con Slobodchikoff.

I think there are many animals who people suspect have been abused that luckily did not suffer that fate. I wish it were true of all the cowering animals out there. I’m hugely in support of working to prevent animal abuse and of helping the animals who have been so badly treated. Do you have a pet you think shows signs of having been abused? If so, does it lighten your heart to consider that your beloved family member may not have endured such mistreatment?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Syllygrrl | June 1 2009 |

Yeah! Finally - someone said it out loud! I adopted my puppy at 13 weeks of age, he was born at our local SPCA and spent his entire little life there until coming home with us. He's been nothing but spoiled since he came home, however... he is a shy/fearful dog. My theory is that he was with his litter mates long enough to learn beautiful doggy manners. Due to the "no touch" policy at our local shelter - my boy just didn't meet enough people during his puppy life to be properly socialized with people. (We are lucky to have a behaviorist as a friend who has helped us tremendously with this issue.) So thanks Karen! I'm emailing your blog to all of our friends!

Submitted by Anonymous | August 25 2009 |

What did you do to stop the cowering. We got a new puppy and she is very shy of humas as weel. How did you help your dog?

Submitted by Cheryl | January 1 2014 |

I would like you to email me a copy of that blog your friend sent you. I need to help get my dog over being scared/shy of meeting new people. It seems to be certain people and others he warms up to right away. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

Submitted by Kathy Konetzka-Close | June 2 2009 |

We were just discussing this very thing in my obedience class last week, and my trainer put forth the argument that dogs that are shy, skittish, etc., are really just using their wolf-given ancestry to survive. Wolves that are not wary of new situations probably don’t live very long, so the genetic drive to be cautious is one that has served them well. Of course, I’ve also read that the modern canine is far removed from it’s wolf ancestry, so I can’t say for sure if the above holds true under close scrutiny or not, but I found it a plausible idea. Being the mom of a wary Collie, I am continually aware of the importance of positive introductions to EVERYTHING and EVERYONE, and though he’s doing really well, there are still times when he shies his head away when I approach with my hand. I can easily see that with the “wrong” owner, his fear could escalate, and that’s something those of us who have fearful dogs really need to guard against. No more excuses!! Saying a dog has been abused (whether or not there’s any truth or evidence to support that statement) does not serve the dog, it just makes his human feel sorry for him. And in the worst case scenario, that can be dangerous.

Submitted by Holly H | June 17 2009 |

I have a reformed cowering,crab-walking,fear-biter! Daisy, an Australian Cattle Dog, came to us through my husbands rescue efforts at 12 weeks. She lived at the home of a friend, she was not abused, but neither was she given proper treatment; Daisy's favorite spot was underneath the bureau,the bed, anywhere she couldn't be touched and she was left there regularly.
Despite our best efforts at socialization and training, for 6 years we coudn't take the "cower" out of the cow-dog. Neither could we keep her comfortable in the house when our friends or family came over, she couldn't be trused not to bite out of her extreme fear.
Happily,in our 7th year of training, Daisy was finally able to keep calm in a houseful of people! While she is still not open to the free-love given to dogs by strangers, she no longer cowers and crab-walks in the presence of those not in her charge!

Submitted by Lisa | January 27 2012 |

I had an Australian Cattle dog that was the same way. Maggie came from a farm and was born under my friends house. For the first six weeks of her life none of the pups came out from under the house. The mother only came out to eat and would go back under to be with her puppies. Maggie would sleep under the bed, sit on the landing to 'stand guard' over our family. She never took to strangers at first and would just sit off to the side and watch over us. Thankfully she never bit anyone, she would just go to another part of the house. Maggie lived for 11 years until she passed. She was our guard and friend. I miss her.

Submitted by Debbie Jacobs | June 20 2009 |

You would almost thing that there is an army of men with beards and hats out there terrorizing dogs if you assumed every fearful response was due to abuse!

Genetic predisposition can be at work or more commonly inadequate or inappropriate socialization is the cause. The good news is that it doesn't matter why a dog is afraid of something, you use the same techniques to help them feel better about something whether it's new and scary or well known and scary.

Submitted by Anonymous | December 15 2009 |

my female just had puppies, 2 of them. one of them came out fine the other looks just like her and cowers everytime we try and hold him/pick him up (just like her, as if she'd been abused). he is very skiddish and playful, but always cowers on all fours. i did not recieve the female until she was preg wit the puppies, and seriously thought she was abused where she came from. when the puppy was born i discovered it had to be some kind of skiddish genetic thing. just not sure which.

Submitted by Anonymous | March 24 2011 |

I just bought a new boxer puppy 4 weeks ago she was 14 weeks when I bought her and was very timid when we brought her home but expected that now going into our 5th week and socialising has been a nightmare she will not come near us and hides under tables ive overturned my coffee tableso that she cannot hide and i close the crate door so that she only goes in there to sleep at night or when i go out as she was hiding in there as well .We nevver raise our voice and I am very patient but I am really worried that she is not going to come out of it and end up biting soon due to her fear. I have tried taking her out and putting lead on her but she shakes and just lays down I dont want to force too much on her or be too forceful so she still isnt on a lead and difficult to get her to interact .shes very good with other dogs and looks so happy when i take her to puppy class but the minute were home she is back to cowering we have to walk round her have to step back from the door so that she will pass us to go outside to toilet and if i go out with her she hides under the decking so i end up going back in the house so that she will do the toilet so cant praise her when shes doin her stuff ,,I am at the end of my tether dont know what to do dont know if she has been bad treated by the breeder or if this is just her temprament she was the last 1 to get sold and her 8 siblings all went to homes when they were 8 weeks shes such a bonnie wee thing I just want her to be happy and she looks so miserable all the time HELP!!!!

Submitted by Karen London | March 24 2011 |

That's a lot to be dealing with, and I sympathize with you and your dog, as both of you are suffering. Regrettably, this is not the sort of problem that can be solved in a comment on a blog, but here are some general suggestions for you in terms of getting help. 1) Consult with a qualified behaviorist who has worked with fearful dogs. 2) Use only positive methods--no punishment of any kind, including harsh words. 3) Buy some books on the subject. A few of my favorites are Nicole Wilde's "Help For Your Fearful Dog", Debbie Jacobs' "A Guide to Living With and Training a Fearful Dog", and Patricia McConnell's "A Cautious Canine." 4) Pay attention to the worry you feel about a bite and take every precaution to avoid putting your dog into a situation in which that might happen. Take good care, and best of luck to you.

Submitted by MykalA | April 16 2012 |

Might be a form of epilepsy. My dog displayed similar symptoms. After monitoring the episodes over a month long period his Vet thought it might be the "aural" stage of epilepsy.

Put dog on phenobarbitol and the improvement was dramatic. He still "zones out" from time to time but the shaking, trembling, hiding, panting, rapid heart beat have not resurfaced.

The following is FYI. Good luck!


Submitted by Kaila | April 15 2011 |

We have an australain sheperd mix, we got her at 6 months old and now she is seven. Latley she has been hidding under the table and I can't coax her out. She will also cower as if she's going to be hit; but of corse she isn't. I am wondering why she would change her behaiver after many years.

Submitted by Karen London | April 16 2011 |

Kaila, it's hard to know why a dog changes behavior after many years, but it can sometimes mean that something is going on with her health. It would be wise to have her checked out thoroughly by a veterinarian. Many dogs do seem to change their behavior when they are ill. Also, many dogs seem to become more anxious and fearful, particularly of loud sounds including thunder, as they age. I often see dogs who are newly afraid around the age of 7 or 8. Best of luck to you.

Submitted by Kathleen | May 27 2011 |

We recently aquired a Beagle approx 18 months old. she was used in my college's Veterinary Tech program. She walks fine on the leash and seems to enjoy the company of her new Dog brothers and Cat. However she cowers when my husband approaches her whether she is in our backyard or in our home. His heart is breaking because all of our animals graviate towards him and see him as the "packleader". He is soft spoken and does not yell or speak sternly what can we do to help her get over this behavior.

Submitted by Anonymous | June 13 2011 |

My fiance's dog had some pups and there was one that I felt was 'off' mentally. She was an older pup when I came in the picture but usually animals listen very well do me and gravitate to me, and she did not. She was VERY standoff-ish and would bite if she got the chance or if you tried to pet her. She was one that acted like she had been abused and the vets even accused my fiance of beating the dog and he would never do such a thing. Shoot, I don't even know of a time that he's spanked our 4 yr old daughter. But to me she acted like she was part coyote. I know for a fact the mother tangled with coyotes before so I wouldn't doubt that this pup was that type of a mix.

Submitted by Anonymous | June 29 2011 |

We have a mongral terrier he's 11 years old. Recently we went away on holiday, just for a week, he remaind at home being looked after by family members. They took very good care of him and became concerned with his mood. Since we came back he's cowering, hiding under the table and squeals whenever anyone comes near him. Some days he's worse than others. He seems very sad, never wags his tail or plays. We took him to the vet who gave him pain killers in case he was hurt, these made no difference. It's been going on for 3 weeks and we're very worried. Has anyone come across this before? Any suggestions as to what could cause this behaviour?

Submitted by David | January 22 2012 |

I have had 2 Rottweilers over the last 14 years.my dog is 2 years old now, my first Rottweiler died of cancer and it allmost killed me from grief ,10 years of absolute joy and the best friend I ever had! My wife left me (and my dog) 7 months ago and his behavior has gone thru some drastic changes. A lot of separation anxiety( to be expected) wich he and I are still working on together. I love this dog with all my heart and have devoted any time I was not working to him. No hand has ever or will ever be laid on him for any reason!! He started cowering for no apparent reason? Sometimes when I am walking him and bend over to per him he will cower down squint his eyes and curl his neck down?? I actually cried the first time this happened! He actually got me in a fist fight a few days ago during a long walk in the snow, he stopped in the middle of a main street while we were crossing dropped down and started cowering? I had to get him out of the road and he dug in( all 125 lbs) and I had to pull and drag him out of the road!! People started screaming at me DOG ABUSER!! I was petting him and he slowly started to get up and walk back home and I was jumped by 2 men and there lady friends , as the screaming started my dog began to cower again probably from the yelling? They weGre yelling what kind of Rottweiler cowers you ### abuser! There intentions we're probably well meant, hard to say while your being verbally assaulted! I am a large man 6-5 265 and have never been sourrounded and assaulted before. I ended up tying me dog up to a pole 20 feet away while being attacked from behind. I knocked out both men and slapped a drunk woman off me, while this took place my dog was barking and dying to help me! Once unleashed I had to keep him from finishing them off! Then he would probably get branded as a vicious dog! I ran my dog home in the snow for his safety and that was the end of a horrible experience that has left me baffled with why my dog cowers ? Not all the time! But seeing my beloved dog cower tears me up inside more than anything I have experienced . The beet up drunks I left behind didn't deserve everything I had to do to them to protect myself! Now I don't know what to do? I wish I am baffled?

Submitted by Shirley | January 28 2012 |

As a longtime vet tech, shelter worker and animal control officer, I agree that cowering behavior isnt always the result of abuse. Lack of socialization can produce that kind of terrified response to people. Pups that werent exposed to many positive human experiences while young often are unable to cope. I have also seen dogs that were terribly abused who bounce back and arent afraid of people. The dogs natural temperment comes into play as well, some dogs are just naturally very timid.
For dogs that are afraid its important for their people to be confident and positive with them. Dont cater to their fears, reward any positive response. If the person is confident, it will help the dog feel more comfortable.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 2 2012 |

I have a chiquaqua mix doggie, she is about 1 1/2 years now. I have had her since she was born. I have Mom who is a great dog who does not cower, but the puppy does it. We do not abuse her. I love her to death, she is my baby. She contracted parvo at about 5 months and I nursed back to health. She cuddles with me, sits in my lap when I am on the computer, she is very protective of my family. She does not like strangers. But she cowers. And I do not know why?

Submitted by Jayne | September 4 2013 |

My dog is nearly four. She has been fine and happy up until now. Suddenly she has to started to cower and act as if we are going to hit her which we have never done. She has her 'normal' moments too but is very timid the rest of the time. It is a mystery. Occasionally she has also yelped for no apparent reason but I have felt her all over for injuries and have found none. Help!!!

Submitted by jolene | March 27 2014 |

I was in a accident a two months ago and my puppy was with me she was two months at the time but she gets scared easily and won't play and does not like men.... She isn't abused she's nothing but loved but i would love her to go to other people and be okay... I have introduced her to other dogs and shes fine she even likes cats

Submitted by Karen London | March 30 2014 |

Jolene, I'm so sorry to hear that you were in an accident and that your puppy was there, too. It's very hard to go through a trauma together. Many dogs are naturally fearful, especially of men, without having been abused, so I understand that your dog is being loved, loved, loved and is still scared. That's very common. She's obviously more comfortable with dogs and cats as opposed to people, so if you can give her opportunities to be with other animals in a safe way, that will be a kindness to her. To help her overcome her fears, I recommend consulting with a canine professional who can guide you and your dog in an individualized program. Resources to consider are The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell, A Guide to Living With and Training A Fearful Dog by Debbie Jacobs and Help For Your Fearful Guide by Nicole Wilde. Best of luck to you and your pup!

Submitted by Steve Brewer | September 8 2014 |

We've just adopted a beagle/jack russell mix. She is about 4 years old. She was found wandering on the road and when she wasn't claimed at the pound a worker brought her home. She is friendly and comes to you easily but when my adult son or I reach down to pet her she cowers and sometimes rolls onto her back (submissive position). Once we pet her or scratch her ears she is fine and enjoys the petting. Don't know if she was abused but would like to know how to get her to trust so we can work on some training. Thanks, Steve

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