Today I am writing about a topic I am very passionate about, canine PTSD. Many of us who homestead have dogs. Some of us might have dogs that react fearfully or aggressively. Here at Sustainable Homesteading I have three impossible, big, loving dogs, all of whom I rescued from less than humane circumstances. All three came with a history of exposure to prolonged stress and trauma and all three have shown their unique form of canine PTSD. I am hoping this post will educate and change how some of us perceive aggressive or “bad” dogs. I also intend this to be a post of hope and encouragement; filled with my affection and admiration for the most beautiful four-legged friends.
I adore all animals, and have an especially tender spot in my heart for those who have been abused, neglected, and threatened by us human beings or life circumstances. It is not for everybody to adopt a dog who comes with a list of behavioral challenges and my intention is not to tell you to do so. I would like to show you the faces of fear aggression, food aggression, aggression toward other dogs and strangers, leash aggression, separation anxiety, extremely fearful and destructive behavior; all in the pictures you see in this post. I would also like to share the story of the most loyal, loving, silly, playful, confident, and good-hearted dogs I have been blessed with over the years.
I am neither a dog trainer nor an animal behaviorist but my training as a neuropsychologist, specializing in PTSD and my work of 25+ years in the field of psycho-traumatology has taught me a great deal about how to recognize and work with beings, four-legged or two-legged, who have developed symptoms of PTSD. I absolutely adore my dogs and would not trade them, not for any other dog, under no circumstances.
What is Stress and Trauma?
Let me start by sharing a little bit about what, in the field of Human Psychology, is considered to be exposure to stress and trauma and translate that knowledge into dog language.
Stress is a psycho-physiological reaction to perceived demands and pressures in a dog’s life. Dogs experience internal as well as external stressors. Externally stressful situations can be defined as being exposed to the inhumane and often cruel environment of a breeding operation, a hurricane such as Katrina or Sandy, and/or the neglectful environment of an animal hording situation. Internally stressful situations can be defined as being exposed to a crowded place when already feeling fearful, strangers approaching to fast or unexpectedly, or a human approaching the food bowl when having been starved before. The way a dog responds to different stressors depends on a variety of factors such as his or her resources, coping mechanisms, sense of safety, emotional stability, genetic vulnerability, physical health, and support by the owner or other dogs in the pack.
Any response, whether well-adjusted and balanced or fearful and aggressive, is an adaptation to the dog’s environment. If stressful situations are extreme in nature or occur repeatedly over a long period of time, the dog’s internal resources become drained and emotional and physical stress symptoms occur. Stress symptoms can include irritability, aggression, sleep disturbances, anxiety or depression, excessive drooling, vomiting, pacing, acute diarrhea, trembling, and states of high nervous system arousal shown as reactivity or an inability to “listen” to the handler. In addition, the dog might fall into a behavior of avoidance, isolating from her or his surroundings. My dog Sam did this in particular for the first six month of coming to the homestead. He would hide in his “cave” under the stairs.
It is commonly distinguished between three kinds of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic stress. Acute stress, such as being in a car during an accident, is manageable and homeostasis can be created within weeks. When acute stress occurs over and over again, when life is chaotic, overly demanding, disorganized, with no time to recharge and relax (such as repeated, unexpected confrontational training methods or use of shock collars), pressure and stress rise to an extent that the dog experiences what is described as episodic acute stress. This form of stress is more challenging to work with.
The most severe form of stress is chronic stress. Chronic stress is the indefinite exposure to a high-stress environment. Examples for such exposure are growing up in a war zone, on the streets, or in a puppy mill; being held captive or being maltreated on a daily basis; and living in a chronically violent environment. Chronic and prolonged exposure to stress attacks the body, mind, and emotional well-being of the dog.
An extensive literature over the last two decades describes the etiology and symptoms of psychological trauma in human beings, the neuro-physiology and biology, as well as the assessment and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I will try and apply this knowledge to the world of our four-legged friends. The term “trauma” originates from the Greek, meaning injury or wound. Psychologically traumatic experiences are perceived as inescapable in nature and overwhelm the normal coping and defense mechanisms of the dog. The dog perceives a threat to life or bodily integrity (the experience of many dogs repeatedly beaten, abused in dog fights, or laboratory animals), and neither resistance nor escape is possible. The dogs system of self-defense becomes completely overwhelmed and disorganized. Often the dog is exposed to multiple and pervasive violent events beginning at an early age and continuing for years. The abusive events were likely frequent, yet unpredictable.
It is important to distinguish between actual and perceived threats and to note that the threat to the dog does not have to be real or actual, but only be perceived to be threatening. The perceived threat is a trigger that ignites a set of survival mechanisms that can lead to traumatic injury. That is why your dog might become highly triggered and reactive when seemingly there is no threat. The “friendly” stranger does simply not feel friendly to your dog, or the dog off leash storming in “friendly” excitement toward your dog on leash might remind him of being attacked by other dogs while being abused in dog fights.
Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition and memory. The traumatized dog may experience intense emotion, may find him/herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without any apparent reason to us humans. The dog lives with a constant feeling of terror and hypervigilance as a response to the unpredictability of safety. These dogs have been exposed to rage, violence, and brutality; and the fear of recurrence is present at all times.
What is Canine PTSD?
The brain’s ability to grow and change, to adapt and recreate, is also true in regard to how this complex structure is influenced by the exposure to chronic stress and trauma. The more any neural system is activated (i.e. the longer the dog is exposed to chronic stress and trauma), the more it will change over time. If you take care of a dog who is highly reactive, easily triggered by noise, specific environments or people; is fearful, aggressive, or lives in a state of persistent hyper-arousal or over-excitement and those behaviors have been showing for months in a row, you might be seeing the symptoms of canine PTSD.
I would like to help you recognize canine PTSD a little better by referring to the diagnostic criteria for human PTSD. According to the DSM-V-TR (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) the following six criteria must be met for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder in humans. I will use these criteria to talk about the symptoms I have seen in my dogs and share a little bit about their story before they came to the homestead. Remember that I did not list the complete diagnostic criteria, but a simplified version “translated” into dog language. There is currently no equivalent in the world of animal behaviorism. See for yourself if you can recognize any of the described symptoms and/or behaviors in your dog.
Criterion A: stressor
The dog was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. This can include repeated violent and cruel behavior by the handler, confrontational training methods involving forceful and/or painful punishment, witnessing the repeated beating of another dog by the same handler, and/or repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), such as being a working dog in a war or disaster zone.
When I saw a picture of Sam on one of the dog rescue websites I immediately fell in love with him even though I saw a malnourished, completely matted dog, who seemed to be in a state of extreme fear. The people at the rescue told me that they had taken Sam “off death row” from the local shelter whose personnel had labeled him as a “red-zone” dog. They also told me that nobody could get close, he would try to bite, attack, and that they did not know how many broken bones he had in his beaten body. Given his behavior we all agreed that Sam had been exposed to actual serious physical and emotional injury. This boy did not know what the word “trust” meant.
Criterion B: intrusion symptoms
Intrusion symptoms are those kinds of symptoms that we often have a difficult time understanding. Your dog shows signs of aggression and/or fear when seemingly no threat is present. What might help is to understand that the traumatic event(s) is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s): 1. Recurrent, involuntary, and 2. intrusive memories and traumatic nightmares. My dog Luca was found on the site of the road, bleeding, with open wounds conflicted clearly by the cruel and unthinkable use of a knife. His canine form of PTSD showed in the form of severe food aggression, territorial aggression, and a state of high anxiety when being left alone. His intrusion symptoms showed in a way I had never seen before. Luca (for about a year or so) while being sound asleep, would go into full attack mode. He would attack everything and anybody around him, seemingly in a state of trance. When coming out of his “nightmare” he was completely disoriented, not knowing what he had just done. 3. Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) which may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness. I would describe Sam as a dog who used to experience intense startle responses and even further I would describe some of his reaction (i.e. lunging at cars driving by), as a state of dissociative reaction. Not matter what, I could not get through to him, and he seemed completely out of his body, dissociated. 4. Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders. 5. Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli. Mack, my “little” boy who has earned the homestead award of being “the cutest dog ever” was in a state of intense and prolonged distress when he first came to the homestead. He also fit the description of being in a state of physiologic reactivity for a long time. This boy barked like he was out of his mind, and yes he was. Apparently he was tight up outside with no contact to others, tortured by a shock collar “for his barking.” Mack’s longing for connection was much stronger than his fear of being shocked; for hours a day he would be exposed to pain. Can you imagine? It took me about nine months before Mack could settle into prolonged periods of relaxation, meanwhile I learned to differentiate his varies barks. Nowadays, the moments he goes into “panic bark” I intervene as quickly as I can. I must admit, I had times where I lovingly threatened him to send him back to the orphanage. Every time I did that he looked at me as if saying “You would never do that, I have you wrapped around my little toe.” Well he is right, I just wouldn’t, no matter what.
Criterion C: avoidance
Persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event. I have seen this behavior in many dogs, avoiding a situation or circumstance to not become re-exposed to the traumatic event. Sam, when he first came to me, did not want to come into the house. He panicked when I tried to guide him in, even when I put out the freshest best looking pieces of meat to convince him to put just one paw inside the house, he would run away in terror. That behavior, in combination with his intense startle reaction when I would hold something in my hand, told me the story of a dog beaten when he tried to get inside the house. So, he learned to avoid. It took me several weeks of tenderly pushing his boundaries before he would come in and out the house with trust and confidence. 1. Trauma-related thoughts or feelings or 2.Trauma-related external reminders (e.g., people, places, activities, objects, or situations). I think this criteria is something many of us have seen in our dogs. Your dog goes into panic when he hears thunder, sees a certain type of a person, or realizes you are holding a stick in your hand she associates with being beaten in the past. For Sam it was enough for me to raise my hand, hold a pencil, or allow a person to come to close; he would panic and go into attack mode within seconds.
Criterion D: negative alterations in cognitions and mood
Negative alterations in cognitions and mood that began or worsened after the traumatic event: I have not been able to relate this category to dogs.
Criterion E: alterations in arousal and reactivity
Trauma-related alterations in arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the traumatic event: (two required) This category on the other hand I can give you many examples of listed behaviors seen in my dogs. 1. Irritable or aggressive behavior (both Luca and Sam have shown extreme aggression. Luca has shown food and territorial aggression; he gets triggered to quickly that he would go right into attack, no warning, and no growl. Sam, who by now is a sweet, belly-up, trusting kinda guy, was in constant attack mode for months. It took me a full year before I was able to brush him, little by little I would start off by simply showing him the brush, placing it next to him, letting him take it, using the back of the brush first, before minute by minute brush him every single day. 2. Self-destructive or reckless behavior 3. Hypervigilance When Sam first came he embodied hypervigilance, not one moment of relaxation, not one moment when he was able to let go into a state of parasympathetic relaxation. 4. Exaggerated startle response. Again, Sam’s response to unexpected movement, noise, and people was extreme and is at times still present. 5. Problems in concentration I would say this showed in Mack. I lovingly call Mack my ADHD boy as he has had such a problem paying attention and dropping into a place of focus and connection. I play dog puzzles with my dogs during those long winter months and both Sam and Luca love finding the treats and can do it for hours. Mack still has a hard time holding his focus and concentrating on the game. 6. Sleep disturbance During the first year with Luca I certainly experienced sleep deprivation. This boy would not sleep, no matter if I massaged him, played comforting music, went on a 5 hour hike that afternoon… it was as if his system had to be on constant street-danger-alarm, not having the luxury to relax. Thank God, this has changed.
Duration of symptoms In the realm of human psychology we differentiate between acute, chronic, and delayed onset of PTSD. Acute PTSD is defined as the duration of symptoms being less than 3 months. Chronic PTSD is said to be if duration of symptoms is more than 3 months, and PTSD with delayed onset is an often overlooked form of PTSD, the onset of symptoms is at least 6 months after the stressor.
How I have worked with symptoms of Canine PTSD in my dogs
I would like to share what has worked for me over the years; considering that every dog is different, has different needs, and responds to different interventions. Trial and error, tears and laughter, patience, commitment, forgiveness, room for mistakes, clear boundaries, consistency, respect for my dogs while expecting their respect, positive re-enforcement only, lots of treats and cuddles, and long off-leash hikes in the wilderness of the CO Mountains has been my recipe.
Here are a few experiences I made over the years that might help you on your journey
1.) Be aware of your expectations and hopes. Don’t expect your dog to change completely. Ask yourself the honest question: “Would I keep him or her no matter what?” We all have hopes and dreams, sometimes based on false assumptions such as “if he only stays with me long enough his pattern will change, she will turn into a confident and balanced dog, …” Know that an extremely traumatized dog might never become a “normal” puppy. I know that Sam for example will never turn into a dog I can just take to the farmer’s market believing he will feel absolutely fine. Or Luca, when he gets overwhelmed and triggered, I know his old street fighting behavior around food and space will show. Mack still falls into panic barking when he does not feel a strong container or connection. I strongly believe we make a commitment for life when opening our homes to any animal. The cute puppy you bought at the pet store, well she might have been part of an inhumane breeding operation and might show signs of PTSD later on, are you willing to keep her and put hours or training and learning into your relationship?
2.) Respect your dog and ask the same in return. My dogs, as much as they like to be cuddled, have a need for space and control – fear and aggression are more easily triggered when your four-legged friend feels threatened or blocked. Finding a balance between challenging your dog’s need for control while allowing him to feel in control is a fine dance. Sam taught me the most about this particular piece. I walked toward him, he would growl and threaten to bite. I held that exact place, not moving further into his space, but also not backing off. I waited, a lot. I tested his boundaries, over and over. It was like peeling layers off and onion, one centimeter at a time.
3.) Learn how to identify and work with triggers. Anticipate and prevent rather than react. Learn the particular situational triggers your dog might have. Those can be: cars driving by, other dogs barking behind a fence, loud noises, small spaces (a feeling of being trapped), a certain type of a person (this can be gender specific but does not have to). When taking my boys out on leash walks I know when Sam might get triggered. I correct the tiniest kind of excitement so it cannot turn into aggression. One thing I have found that helps both of us a lot is my own focus. Where do I put my attention, on the barking dog behind the fence or the tree down the road? Try this at some point, if you put your focus, eyes, energy down the road and ignore the trigger it keeps your dogs calmer. I am big on teaching my dogs to ignore things, people, and animals.
4.) Know that training happens every minute of the day, not just when we decide to have an hour of training. I strongly believe that our dogs do what we tell them to do, at any given moment.
5.) Exercise came to my rescue. When I run my boys for a 4 hour off-leash hike or snowshoe, they are tired. A tired dog is much less reactive which makes for a happy and more confident me.
6.) Be patient and know your own limits. I stop when I lose patience, when I become annoyed. It does not serve anybody. Mack with his constant, really annoying barking has been the one dog who has driven me to the edge of my patience, more than ones. He has a real talent in that regard. What did I do with a dog who barked and barked and barked? Contact, the kind of direct body contact that he would have to acknowledge. Mack goes out and barks… I go out and get him inside while signaling and verbalizing a strong “no”. It helps to have a long leash in the beginning so you are not playing hide and seek. Mack barks in the house… I go over, tell him “no” in my very low and convincing I-am-setting-boundaries-voice and guide him to a different place. Mack barks when I am next to him… I say his name and if he looks at me, even just for split second, I reward him with a treat.
7.) Find something your dog enjoys and reward him with that activity. I do work with treats a lot, but all of my boys LOVE to go on long off-leash hikes. You should see them running off as soon as I take the leashes off; happy, joyous, confident, and balanced. I take my dogs out every single day. The minimum they get is a 45 minute leash walk, though what they love the best are 3-5 hour snowshoes. I am lucky enough to live in an area that allows me to let my dogs off-leash, without ever running into someone. I am feeling very blessed that way.
8.) Look for signs of overwhelm in your dog. I learned how to identify signs of overwhelm in my dogs. It took me a while to develop that skill, but I think I am tuned into their nervous system pretty well by now.
9.) Know the dogs are not doing this TO you, i.e. growling, nipping, biting, their behavior is a natural response to what they perceive to be a threat. Differentiate between perceived and actual threat and teach your dog to do so over time.
10.) Don’t expect your dog to like every other dog or human being; I don’t like everybody. BUT teach your dog to disengage rather than over-react. Teaching your dog to ignore any kind of stimulus is one of the most helpful and important skills. I tell Sam: “You don’t have to like everybody, but you cannot bite people just because you don’t like them.”
11.) Be a good parent. I don’t believe in the whole alpha-dominating theory. I don’t need to dominate my dogs, I want them to freely give to me, because they respect me. I don’t expect my dogs to do everything I tell them at any given moment. Sometimes they are like kids saying “five more minutes, pleeease, I am in the middle of digging this BIG hole in the yard and I just want to finish it” I work with my dogs when they have something so very interesting right in front of them. I let them negotiate and participate in my decisions. At the same time I have certain rules that are firm, non-negotiable. In the same way you would not allow your child to run into the road, I don’t allow for bullying or food aggression in my house. I don’t allow that one dog takes away objects another dog is playing with or chewing on. I don’t allow for pushy behavior such as pushing your way in-between me and another dog I am brushing or massaging. I do not allow for any kind of disrespect toward me.
Medication and Natural Remedies
“Treatment” for your dog with symptoms of canine PTSD can involve prescription medication. I personally have not yet chosen to use medication but believe that it can be an appropriate choice to help the dog down-regulate his heightened state of nervous system excitation. Some of the medication that are more typically used to treat behavior issues seen in canine PTSD, including aggression are Amitrptyline HC1 (Elavil), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Sertraline (Zoloft), Clomipramine (Anafranil), Buspirone (BuSpar), and Propranolol (Inderal). Talk to your vet about any of these options.
I have used herbal tinctures, dried herbs, herbal teas, Rescue Remedy, and L-theanine over the years. I just recently put Sam on a canine form of medical marihuana which has had a very calming impact on his nervous system and behavior. This kind of herbal medicine is available through your vet and I encourage you to have your vet monitor any kind of behavioral change, as you would using any medication.
I feed my dogs grain-free food, mostly raw, mixed in with fresh vegetables and some grain-free kibble. Studies in the field of human psychology have shown a positive connection between a gluten free diet and symptoms of mental illness, including PTSD, depression and anxiety.
I hope you found some useful information in my little article and I would love to hear about your experience. Please, share with me your own adventures of working with fearful/aggressive dogs. I would very much like to hear from you.
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